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October 09, 2009

De-mining efforts allow Guinea Bissau farmers to return to work

For 35 years, hundreds of villagers living in Suar in the Cacheu region of northern Guinea-Bissau have been too scared to cultivate the land around their villages for fear of landmines.

The town, 40km from Ingoré near the northern border with Senegal, has been contaminated by landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) laid by the Portuguese in the 1974 liberation war.

“The area was not safe,” said Daniel Camara, 28, he cycled along a path once surrounded by mines. “But now we can move around. We are no longer living in fear - they’ve taken our bad luck away.”

Since July, HUMAID, an international NGO, has cleared three-quarters of the 98,000 sqm of contaminated land in the two demining sites. Sappers found 21 landmines, plus several unexploded ordnances.

“This was nothing like the concentrations of mines we found left over from conflict in the capital Bissau and Buruntuma [in the east],” said John Blacken, founder of HUMAID and ex-US ambassador to Guinea-Bissau, “but nonetheless the area is not safe until every mine is gone.”

Most of the inhabitants of Suar and Bintam villages fled during the war, returning afterwards to cultivate their crops. After one death, two injuries and the deaths of 150 cattle, they formed teams to search for mines, removing 250, according to Bintam village chief Dan Sucar.

Despite this, many were still too afraid to access their land. “We were not able to grow crops – we brought less food home – it has really affected our lives,” Sucar said.

As soon as sappers started to declare sections of Suar and Bintam landmine- and UXO-free, farmers moved back, planting cashew trees, millet, corn and beans within the “mine-free” markers. These farmers, like 90 percent of Guinea-Bissauans, rely on subsistence agriculture to survive.

Landmines have had a significant effect on agricultural output: the most recent mines laid - in the north by Casamance rebels in 2006 and 2007 - left most of the cashew crop unharvested, according to the government.

Land has remained contaminated for decades because after the liberation war the military did not have the resources to clear mines, Blacken said. It took the dramatic impact of weekly accidents in the capital, Bissau following the end of the civil war in 1999 to focus attention on the mine problem, he said.

Since 1999, HUMAID has cleared 16 sites contaminated by mines and UXO. Mines were laid during the 1970s liberation war, the 1998 civil war and the 2006 Casamance conflict. HUMAID collaborates with the National Coordination Centre for Mine Action (CAMI), the government body in charge of coordinating all demining activities.

The overall number of victims is unknown because there is no national database, says Tomas Pires Lourenco, an adviser at CAMI, but records kept from 1999-2008 cite 1,139 landmine and UXO victims, 218 in the capital. In 2009, UXO killed a further four people and injured 10, mainly in Guinea-Bissau’s central Bafata region.
Victims have had no recourse to official government assistance but Lourenco is trying to raise funds for such a programme and is looking for an official in one of the stronger ministries to advocate on victims’ behalf.

CAMI, HUMAID and other partners, including LUTCOM, an NGO, are making steady progress in clearing sites, but their activities have been stopped several times when funding has run dry.

Guinea-Bissau has signed the Ottawa Mine Ban treaty and has pledged it will be mine-free by 2011. But this will only be possible if an additional US$5.5 million becomes available, said Lourenco. CAMI has only enough funds to last until the end of 2009.

While a landmine can cost less than $10, removal can be as much as $1,000 per mine, when training, compliance to international standards, human resources and equipment are taken into account, estimates Blacken.

A 2008 land impact survey estimated 80 sites with the possible presence of UXO and/or landmines.

However, Blacken is optimistic Guinea-Bissau is on track to meet the 2011 target. “There is no reason to think we cannot reach the 2011 goal – at least we are all now working with that in mind,” he said.


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