Why land matters for mine action

by Sharmala Naidoo and Szilard Fricska

Sharmala Naidoo is an Advisor for the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining’s (GICHD) Mine Action, Security and Development Programme. Szilard Fricska is Senior Humanitarian Coordinator with UN-HABITAT in Geneva.

Back in 2010, the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) commissioned research on the links between mine action (demining, etc) and land rights, which Jon Unruh discussed on this blog. The research findings indicated that mine action organisations encounter land-related issues during the course of their operations, but that many refrain from addressing them based on the view that land issues are not part of their mandate, are too complex or because they simply weren’t sure how to. Some organisations explained that they were concerned that discussing land issues might compromise their “neutrality”.

However, clearing land that is contaminated by mines and other Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) and making it available is not neutral. Ignoring land issues can result in several land-related risks for mine action organisations, which include creating new or exacerbating existing conflicts; land grabbing; putting mine action staff or communities at risk; delays to clearance operations while land “ownership” is clarified; and intentional damage to expensive demining equipment.

In response, GICHD partnered with UN-HABITAT to provide mine action organisations with practical guidance on how to ensure their operations take land issues into account, and at a minimum, ensure a “do no harm” approach. We recently published a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document on land rights and mine action aimed at mine action organisations, which outlines some practical recommendations on how mine action organisations can mainstream land issues. Some of the main recommendations covered: 

  • What land-related issues to include when conducting mine action surveys with mine affected communities
  • Who to share the land-related information with
  • What to do in the event of a dispute over contaminated or cleared land
  • What land-related issues to include in impact assessment surveys

We carried out a joint assessment mission to Afghanistan in February this year to meet with mine action organisations and find out what kinds of land-related issues they encounter. We also travelled to Somaliland in April to meet with Danish Demining Group (DDG) and its sister organisation, Danish Refugee Council (DRC). While DDG is no longer involved in demining in Somaliland, since 2008 they have been implementing a Community Safety Programme which is trying to increase safety and security of local communities in order to facilitate peace and development. We provided guidance to DDG and DRC on how their programming can better respond to and potentially prevent land-related conflict.

Both missions resulted in reports that outlined practical recommendations on land mainstreaming options. We are also developing Afghan and Somali-specific FAQs on mainstreaming land issues to provide more accessible guidance. Some changes have already been made to mine action practices in Afghanistan. Similar missions are planned for South Sudan, Colombia and Western Sahara in 2013. We also plan to do conduct a study on the implications of clearing land contaminated with mines/ERW for the exploitation of high value natural resources and large-scale infrastructure investments, in order to produce conflict-sensitive guidance for the extractive and infrastructure sectors, as well as commercial mine action organisations.

GICHD and UN-HABITAT have also provided land-related input to the Mine Action Area of Responsibility (AoR), which is developing practical guidance on coordination for mine action organisations involved in humanitarian crises. Examples include the need to:

  • Establish links with humanitarian and development organisations that deal with mine/ERW affected communities and national and international organisations dealing with land issues. Such organisations (government or NGO) can advise mine action organisations, or take on the land-related issues that have arisen.
  • Use community liaison and surveys to identify community priorities for survey and clearance, and ensure questions are asked about land issues, such as:
    • Who has what rights to the land?
    • Are there any land conflicts or historical grievances between communities
    • What was the past land use and what is the expected future land use once the land is released?
    • Will the value of the released land increase the risk of land grabbing
  • Consider land rights when setting mine action priorities. Do not clear land that is disputed if there is equally high priority undisputed land that needs to be cleared. At the same time, communicate with local communities, NGOs and authorities that the reason an area is not being cleared is because it is in dispute. Stop clearance if a land dispute is discovered which puts civilians or mine action staff at risk. Report these matters to the local government and the national authority. Refer disputes to local NGOs or the UN.

Looking back, what started out as a fairly modest research study has since grown into a wider programme, and a fruitful partnership between GICHD and UN-HABITAT. Some national mine action authorities and mine action organisations have been easier to engage with than others. Unfortunately the perception remains within parts of the mine action community that addressing land issues is outside of their remit. Although mainstreaming land rights will take time, the mine action community is starting to wake up to the reality that releasing previously contaminated land is not “neutral”, and that a conflict-sensitive approach is necessary.

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One response to “Why land matters for mine action

  1. This seems like a very cautious approach – but definitely the right one for landmine removal organizations to take as they set about clearing and restoring previously dangerous areas.

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