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Colombia's coca clearers face landmine danger

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 30 Nov 2011 11:03 GMT
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p>BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Growing numbers of civilians employed by the Colombian government to clear coca crops are being killed and injured by landmines, according to the Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines (CCCM).

Colombia’s drug-running rebel groups plant mines in and around coca fields - the raw ingredient of cocaine – to protect their valuable crop.

Colombia's main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is one of the largest planters of mines in the world. It has funded its nearly five decade war against the Colombian government mainly by drug trafficking.

“The guerrilla groups have declared a war against this government strategy of using manual eradicators. They plant mines in the areas where eradicators work,” Camilo Serna, operations coordinator at the Bogota-based non-governmental organisation CCCM, told AlertNet.

As well as aerial spraying coca crops, the Colombian government employs thousands of people to clear the coca plants by hand in jungle areas across the country. The majority are poor and live in rural areas.

“We believe civilians should not be put in such danger. The government should only be using specialised military demining teams - which Colombia has - in mined areas,” Serna said.

It is a practice that violates the 1997 Mine Bans Treaty, to which Colombia is a signatory, as it places civilians in mined areas, CCCM says.

RISKY JOB

Police with sniffer dogs and metal detectors search for buried mines before teams of up to 30 coca clearers move into a field.

But this is often a quick inspection, and coca clearers do not receive any training before entering mined areas, Serna said.

“Manual eradicators face considerable risk of being killed and or maimed by landmines. The government insists on this strategy and sends civilians without any preparation and protection against landmines into what are essentially minefields,” Serna said.

Rebel groups booby-trap their coca crops, making the job of clearing coca by hand a risky task. They also make mines from plastic, using paint thinner and fertiliser as a masking agent, making it difficult for metal detectors and dogs to pick up, CCCM says.

COCA CLEARERS IN FRONTLINE

Colombia has the second highest casualty rate of landmine victims in the world, trailing only behind Afghanistan, according to a recent report by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).

While the report shows the number of new landmine casualties in Colombia has decreased by nearly a quarter - from 741 reported casualties in 2009 to 512 in 2010 -  the number of coca clearers maimed and or killed by landmines has increased in recent years. 

Last year, 58 coca clearers were affected by landmines, accounting for around 40 percent of all civilian landmine casualties, up from 23 percent in 2009, according to the landmine group.

Since the government started hiring coca clearers in 2006, 35 have died on the job and 228 have been injured, the ICBL report says. 

While emergency care for landmine survivors has improved in recent years, more money needs to be spent by the government and international agencies to improve the rehabilitation care and psychological support on offer.  

“Despite the magnitude of the problem in this country, Colombia is not in the top five countries that receive the most international aid in caring for landmine victims and landmine risk prevention education,” Serna said.

Since 1982, around 9,000 Colombians, including civilians and police officers and soldiers, have been either maimed or killed by landmines.

(Editing by Alex Whiting)

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