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Peaceful minefields: Environmental protection or security risks?

On my first tour of a Cambodian minefield in 2010, the demining supervisor of the platoon of deminers brought me through a tapioca field where heavily armored men and women stood in lines. I was not allowed beyond the bright red signs with skulls and crossbones. Wearing bulletproof helmets, masks, and aprons, they slowly and tediously walked through the field, using a metal detector to sweep the ground in front of them, the sun reflecting off the long plastic visor. To avoid the heat of the Cambodian sun, they began their work early in the morning. In the golden hour of sunrise as dawn gilded the fields, the sounds of a distant Buddhist temple surrounded us with chanting. I commented on how beautiful it was.

“Minefields are always beautiful,” the supervisor said. “When you want to find a landmine, you look especially careful under trees or by rivers. That’s because an enemy will rest there. When an enemy is off their guard, they will sit and relax or try to get a drink of water. Then, the landmine will explode while they are resting.”

It’s no surprise that minefields and other military waste can prevent development and economic prosperity, but perhaps counterintuitively, their presence can also provide ecological protections and may even protect ethnic minorities and rural residents. Clearing dangerous military waste saves lives, but the clearing process sometimes damages the environment and leaves communities vulnerable to land grabbing processes. How do we strike a balance between clearing military waste and protecting local environments?

The Durability and Protective Irony of Military Waste

Military waste encompasses the toxic debris of war and the material relations the debris produces, including minefields, strike zones, craters, waste dumps, polluted rivers, and defoliated forests. A war’s duration sometimes hinges on the durability of war materials. War materials—the most common being antipersonnel landmines—contaminate fifty-nine countries worldwide, extending the violence of war long past official end dates in history books. Military waste afflicts hundreds of people, posing fatal dangers to civilians long after wars have ended.

Though military waste, like minefields, pose fatal threats to humans, they prevent massive developments on these lands—which brings challenges and unexpected advantages. In the De-Militarized Zone between North and South Korea, for example, the minefield has allowed an endangered red crane to flourish. Minefields can become “unexpected ecological sanctuaries.” They enforce borders of conservation land and prevent development.

In some cases, the lack of economic activity means that ethnic minorities who live in minefields can practice traditional subsistence strategies without the threat of corporate takeovers. Although clearing landmines is crucial to improve the lives of humans who live in minefields, the life-saving clearance process that rids the land of military waste disrupts ecosystems and can leave people living near the lands economically vulnerable.

Landmine Clearance and Environmental Damage

Once a minefield has been identified through a baseline survey, mine clearance teams first must level the area to make it searchable. The “field” can be a heavily forested area or a muddy rice paddy. Trees are razed to the earth and a tank smooths out the soil. Once a field is flattened and cleared of brush, landmine detectors can detect the undetonated explosive. Farmers and other locals are prevented from walking on the land for the time it takes to clear the minefield. If a minefield surrounds a school, it must be closed for the lifesaving process. The local community’s way of life becomes disrupted. These explosives are eventually detonated in the field. It is only after this step that villagers regain use of their lands.

Clearing the Land for Land Grabs

On another research visit, the platoon and I toured a road that was to be cleared on King Norodom Sihamoni’s order in Cambodia. The road’s clearance was prioritized due to its proximity to Thailand and a potential casino construction project at the border. Nearby, a school had been closed so that the platoon could reside there during clearance. As a yellow-striped bird flew from a tree, the platoon leader wistfully said, “I wonder what will happen to these birds.” We all looked up, knowing the trees would be destroyed and that the birds’ homes would be lost.

While driving, the villagers stared at us from the side of the road. I wondered if they feared for their homes as well. Their fear would have been justified. Unfortunately, the final land release stage of landmine clearance does not always go to the original residents. As a result, land release sometimes causes greater harm to local communities in terms of land rights or land tenure.

In many mine-contaminated regions, such as Southeast Asia, the Middle East, South America, and parts of Africa, land grabbing after mining clearance is a common problem. Land grabbing occurs when corporate or state initiatives coerce rural land holders to give up their land. These acquisitions displace the population, often causing the villagers to migrate to urban centers where they often experience poverty and marginalization.

Research conducted by the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery and commissioned by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining Mine found that land rights are highly threatened in landmine-contaminated places. Mine clearing organizations are directly implicated in these land grabs, since the land release step leads to greater competition over the cleared land. The research also found that women-led households and Indigenous communities are more vulnerable than male-led households to land grabs after landmine clearance. Because they are often less aware of their land rights and have less livelihood alternatives, these marginalized groups are more likely to have their lands stolen after mine clearance.

Balancing the Environment with Atrocity Prevention

Landmine clearance often paves the way for corporate interests to develop the land. Increased foreign investments often supersedes local or Indigenous land rights. Various U.S. policies protect sacred lands and the environments of Indigenous groups, but very few take into account how clearing military waste can damage these lands.  And while protocols are in place to protect Indigenous lands and environments during the process of landmine clearance, they are often ignored. In Southeast Asian countries that are depend on aid and development, landmine clearance is often used to take over lands and even legitimize land grabbing.

Post-conflict contexts—where military waste exists—are also more likely to devolve into further conflicts. At times, this is partially due to a lack of resources leading to continued competition. Atrocity prevention must ensure land releases are returned to local villagers, which is a written rule rarely enforced. Often, corporate interests for minefield clearance are prioritized rather than local community needs, exacerbating resource-related conflict. Military waste clearance should also have a greater consideration for environmental protections, which would often correspond to local villagers’ subsistence farming needs (and are contrary to corporate interests).

While the ‘do no harm principle’ of humanitarian demining should in theory protect these land rights and environmental protections, they are often un-enforced. The strength of Indigenous civil society has been tied to the protection of these rights. Ecosystem protection and land rights should be more explicitly part of the humanitarian effort of military waste decontamination and incentives should be made to enforce these protocols.


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