Mine Action and Confidence-Building
Harnessing Trust for Conflict Prevention in Colombia
Adriana Erthal Abdenur, in San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, Colombia
Christmas preparations are in full swing at the church offices in San Vicente del Caguán, in the department of Caquetá. Groups of children sit cross-legged on the patio, cutting stars out of shiny construction paper and hanging ornaments on the bushes. In a small meeting room, I sit down to speak with Sonia (not her real name), one of the community leaders for mine action.
Sonia is young, but—like San Vicente as a whole—exhausted by war. In the early 2000s, San Vicente became the epicenter of a failed peace process between the FARC and the government, in which the creation of a cease-fire zone allowed the guerrilla to regroup. To stop the Army operations in the area, the guerrilla planted hundreds of anti-personnel mines around the town and its surrounding fields. The area remains one of the most intensely contaminated areas of Colombia (itself among the countries with the highest number of landmines and explosive remnants of war, ERW). Coming into San Vicente, I had seen the demining operations by the side of the road, with Army specialists in full protective gear perched tensely over small squares of soil, patiently combing the soil for casings. My local guide had pointed at the dense overgrowth covering vast fields–fertile land left fallow due to the suspicion there are still landmines.
Since the final agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC was signed, in December 2016, demining efforts have intensified in this part of Colombia, with the Army and eight agencies working in priority areas. Yet accidents continue to happen. The day before my visit with Sonia, a farmer had one of his legs blown off under the knee when he stepped on a mine in a nearby field. “He was airlifted by the Army,” says Sonia, noting that his community just recently had been identified for mine action.
Sonia recounts the successes, but also mentions the need to build confidence. The government broadcasts images of villagers playing football matches on decontaminated fields, but in reality the locals won’t step on that land until they have tested it the old-fashioned way: by sending their cattle to graze on it.“ I ask Sonia whether she herself would walk across one of the demined fields. She pauses. “No.”
When asked why, she reminds me that decontaminated land is said to be free of suspicion of mines, rather than free of mines, and that there is still work to be done on build the local population’s confidence in the process. The impact of mines/ERW is predicated not only on the destructive, even lethal capacity of the explosives, but also on the more generalized fear that vital areas may be contaminated, which prevent entire communities from cultivating land, building essential infrastructure, or accessing vital resources. While it takes little effort to spread fear through mines, substantial investment is required in trust and confidence-building to minimize that fear.
Yet peace process stakeholders and peacebuilders can also leverage this link between mines and trust to create new dialogue spaces, both during peace talks and during their implementation. Demining, in other words, can present unique opportunities for confidence building among warring parties, in part because mine clearance is often needed in order to implement a local ceasefire or other localized actions even during negotiations. In the FARC process, for instance, demining became the first bilateral point in de-escalation, in order to implement a local cease-fire. Demining thus required that the Colombian military and the FARC guerrillas collaborate directly, setting a precedent for further cooperation. Demining, in fact, became one of the main topics around which the agreements were organized, and is the object of an entire agreement.
After the final agreement was signed, in December 2017, humanitarian mine action (HMA) was among the immediate priorities. A body was set up to issue a strategy and guidelines following international standards, and the Colombian demining oversight body began working with eight demining agencies (as well as the Organization for American States) to survey, map, and demine vast priority areas.
For locals in the countryside—the areas most directly affected by the conflict—one major trust issue relates to the effectiveness of demining, especially when different types of artifacts are buried at different depths. But trust also implies the credibility of institutions, from the agencies to the government bodies overseeing them. In turn, attaining this confidence requires building an ongoing relationship with local actors, at both individual and institutional levels. As in many other contexts, demining agencies working in Colombia carry out non-technical surveys that include consultations with local communities, and that incorporate locals—including women—into their teams. Demining agencies are also required to establish an enlace—a key person that links the agency and the community and that facilitates the flow of information in both directions. When properly established and maintained, these channels allow for the community to voice concerns from beginning to end of process.
Equally important are the level and capacity of community’s own proactive involvement in the process. In parts of Colombia, local and regional groups have become proactive in mine action, especially in awareness-raising efforts and in identifying demands and concerns. This participation allows communities to become familiar with the modus operandi of different agencies. Ideally, it can also create communication channels across communities on the demining process, helping to identify challenges and share solutions.
However, there is still work to be done. In this part of Colombia, community leaders complain that there are not enough enlaces. This gap undercuts the exchange of information, which is vital not only to the agencies (which rely in part on popular knowledge to identify mined areas) but also to the communities, who continue to suffer casualties and live in fear even as mine action efforts are undertaken elsewhere. In some instances, agencies can undermine trust. Near her hometown, notes Sonia, one agency has divulged who planted the explosives. “This information can reignite resentment among groups,” she notes. “We need to demine without focusing on who did what, otherwise it becomes hard to break the cycle of distrust and resentment.”
Matching agencies to local communities can also be part of this process. The agreement with the FARC establishes that ex-combatants also participate in demining. Sonia assures me that there are communities in Caquetá that in fact would prefer to have the ex-combatants decontaminating their land. “They know one another,” she says. “And you can’t demine without trust.”
Adriana Erthal Abdenur works in the Peace & Security Division of Instituto Igarapé.
Keywords: demining, mine action, humanitarian, Colombia, trust, FARC, landmines, ERW