In 2016, the Government of Colombia signed a ceasefire agreement and Peace Accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, ending more than five decades of internal conflict. The long conflict displaced millions of Colombian civilians as armed groups regularly took over farms and towns, leaving violence and destruction in their wake. Despite the Peace Accord, other armed groups, including the ELN, remain active in Colombia and continue to perpetuate this pattern of violence. Armed groups regularly emplace homemade improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These highly volatile and difficult to track devices are used to guard territory boundaries, protect coca plantations, and support criminal trafficking routes throughout Colombia. IEDs that have been left behind threaten soldiers and civilians, adults and children alike. Since 1990, the Colombian Government has recorded more than 12,000 IED incidents – the highest number of recorded casualties in the Western Hemisphere.
The United States has invested more than $181 million since 2001 to support humanitarian demining programs in Colombia that complement the country’s efforts to eradicate landmine and IED contamination and bolster Colombia’s substantial demining capacity.
How do U.S.-funded demining programs impact Colombian citizens and ensure a more stable and secure Hemisphere?
Meet Mileidy Alejandra Ortiz Rodríguez and Jhon Eider González Vargas. Mileidy and Jhon are members of demining teams trained by the Campaña Colombiana Contra Minas (in English, the Colombian Campaign Against Mines, or CCCM). CCCM currently operates in the Department of Putumayo, educating communities about the risk of landmine and IED contamination and clearing hazardous areas so communities can safely utilize their lands once again. Often partially buried in dense vegetation or appearing to be discarded trash, landmines and IEDs cause humanitarian and environmental chaos, directly contributing to the massive displacement of Colombian citizens, including indigenous groups, from their ancestral and agricultural lands. For many deminers like Jhon, who was himself displaced during the conflict due to landmine contamination, choosing to join a demining organization is personal:
“To me, it’s a pleasure to be able to help the community by clearing their lands because it means fewer threats to their lives and helps them live peacefully. I’m glad to work in CCCM after being internally displaced by these explosive hazards, and I’m proud to help many more people so they don’t have to leave their lands due to explosive ordnance as my community, my family, and I had to.” (Jhon Eider Gonzalez Vargas, CCCM)
Other individuals like Mileidy choose to become deminers because they have personally suffered violence and loss due to landmine contamination.
“Working in humanitarian demining means saving lives. To see how friends have lost their lives or hear how a father had to pick up his son after an explosive device accident is incredibly difficult. My work to bring an end to this tragedy is one of the best achievements in my life.” (Mileidy Alejandra Ortiz Rodríguez, CCCM)
For citizens like Mileidy and Jhon, humanitarian demining helps communities to return to their homes free from the threat of explosive devices. In the many areas outside of Colombia’s major cities, communities rely heavily on agricultural farmlands as their primary livelihood. Indigenous communities depend on their protected lands for food and spiritual practices. Unfortunately, Colombia’s most vulnerable populations are also those often most affected by the landmines and IEDs left in the wake of the conflict.
In the Department of Valle del Cauca, members of the Kwet Wala Indigenous Reserve very recently regained complete access to their lands thanks to U.S.-funded demining programs implemented by an international non-governmental organization, The HALO Trust. Mr. Luis Angel Perdomo, Mayor and Elder of the Kwet Wala, has seen firsthand the consequences of landmines and the impact they have had within the community:
“The presence of mines and IEDs and the conflict has not only endangered our lives, but also our cultural heritage. Living with the fear of walking on our own land disconnected us from our ancestors and traditions. After the support that HALO gave us, our land regained its harmony. Once the land was cleared from mines, the Kwet Wala indigenous community recovered both its heritage and our ability to support ourselves through farming. Members from our community now feel safe to interact, cultivate, and seek balance with mother earth.” (Mayor Luis Angel Perdomo)
Mayor Luis’s daughter Nus, which means “rain” in the Nasa language, has since become a deminer working for HALO in Valle del Cauca, where clearance operations continue. Nus, who is one of the female deminers that make up nearly 40% of HALO’s demining teams in Colombia, shared how, for her and others in Colombia, demining has made an impact far beyond even the environmental or agricultural:
“In my community, women have always been on an equal footing with men, and that is what encouraged me to join HALO. In HALO, as women we can make our presence felt, challenge ourselves and show that we are capable of achieving whatever we set our minds to…I would like to say to the donors that, more than providing money, these resources are generating opportunities for people like me, people who have been victims of armed conflict, young people who want to get ahead.” (Mayor Luis’s daughter Nus, pictured above, photo courtesy of The HALO Trust.)
The United States is committed and proud to support Colombia, through implementers like HALO and CCCM, in their efforts to remove landmines and ensure Colombian citizens can return home safely and reinvest in cultural heritage, agriculture, economic development, and expanded opportunity for new generations.
The United States remains the world’s largest international donor to conventional weapons destruction (CWD), providing more than $4.7 billion to support humanitarian mine action, physical security and stockpile management, and associated activities in over 100 countries since 1993. For more information on how the State Department is strengthening human security, facilitating economic development, and fostering stability through demining, risk education, and other CWD activities, check out our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM.
About the author: Amy Haupt is an assistant program manager for the Western Hemisphere in the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.