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Defying odds in making Zimbabwe land-mine free by 2025

Demining

By Hillary Munedzi

Despite Zimbabwe’s ambitious revised plan to clear all landmines by 2025 being handed a heavy blow by the removal of funding for undetonated landmines by the United Kingdom government, three nonprofit organizations are going against the odds by clearing dense zones of landmines laid by the Rhodesian regime.

The overwhelming majority of antipersonnel mines, originate from the laying of minefields in the late 1970s during the liberation war and by the time of independence in 1980, Zimbabwe was left with seven major mined areas along its borders with Mozambique and Zambia, and one inland minefield laid by the Rhodesian Army which is known as the “cordon sanitaire” or the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor.

The Sengwe Wildlife Corridor including a 37-kilometer-long minefield covers parts of Gonarezhou National Park with some of the most spectacular scenery in the world incorporating the iconic Chilojo Cliffs, wide meandering rivers and extensive woodlands and the undetonated landmines that were posing a risk to human life, wildlife, livestock, and ecotourism will soon be a thing of the past.

The mine action programme which is effectively being coordinated by the Zimbabwe Mine Action Center (ZIMAC) is facing a myriad of challenges in meeting its Article 5 deadline of clearing all landmines by 2025 by securing the requisite funding from donors in a country that is being impacted by social and economic challenges.

But APOPO, The HALO Trust, and the Norwegian Peoples Aid have managed to clear a significantly large territory that was peppered with landmines.

“Situated on the edges of Southern Zimbabwe is a dense minefield spanning from the Sango Border Post to Mwenezi River. For decades, residents have lived in fear of landmines, frightened for the safety of their children, and unable to use the land to graze livestock or collect natural resources. APOPO is clearing these landmines laid over four decades ago during the liberation struggle.

Last year, APOPO released over 1.47 million m2 and found and destroyed over 6,250 landmines and other explosives,” said Lily Shallom, Communication Manager for APOPO.

The corridor is a specifically designated area aimed at allowing free movement of wildlife between Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park and South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

The landmines scare away safari and conservation-focused eco-tourism operators with Kruger National Park receiving a massive influx of tourists of nearly two million a year which could potentially travel up the Sengwe Corridor and into Gonarezhou National Park without requiring a visa or without leaving the conservation area.

Gonarezhou receives few international tourists because of the fear of landmines and the demining project came at the right time as the tourism sector is recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic and it will contribute immensely to the tourism sector in Zimbabwe.

“By clearing the landmines, APOPO is opening up the area for development. For agriculture  and eco-tourism to thrive, demining brings many benefits to the nearby communities. It will enable conservation authorities to reconnect ecological systems, as well as develop wildlife conservation as a land use option that not only improves people’s livelihoods but also the wellbeing of wildlife in the area. The project supports Zimbabwe’s efforts of becoming landmine free by 2025,” said Lilly Shallom.

ZIMAC estimates that only about 11km2 of land is actually contaminated with anti-personnel mines and that the rest of the area in the national mine action database (more than 20km2) can be released by survey and while the demining process takes place, APOPO engages in Mine Risk Education that educates the affected communities on spotting landmines.

“Mine Risk Education is vital to ensuring that everyone, especially children, can spot explosive dangers and know how to respond safely. Clearing the explosives is painstaking work and takes time. While communities along the minefields wait, APOPO teaches people to recognise, avoid and report these explosives. Children are particularly at high-risk, so the risk education focuses on schools to maximize its reach, “said Shallom.

Debating in the UK Parliament early this year concerning the decision of cutting landmine clearance by 75%, parliamentarians raised the sentiments viewing the decision as unfair since Zimbabwean deminers helped the clearing of landmines in the Falklands Islands a British overseas territory that was peppered with about 13000 mines by Argentinian forces during the 1982 war.

The Falklands were declared mine-free in 2020 with Zimbabwean deminers working in tough conditions to rid the Islands of the land mines.

“My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chair of the Zimbabwe APPG. I may be able to help the Minister with the answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. Last year, landmine clearance in the Falkland Islands was completed, with Minister Wendy Morton paying particular tribute to the brilliant contribution of the team of Zimbabwean deminers.

“In the context of this assistance, does the Minister recognize that it is absolutely unacceptable for the Government to cut entirely our mine-action”, said Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park in the UK early this year.

If the planned cuts are implemented, UK funding for clearing mines and unexploded bombs around the world is expected to drop by about 75%, from £100m to £25m.

“I think it is worth repeating this really important point so that the Minister hears: there has been a 75% cut in our landmine clearance work. That will result in deaths. While the Minister is waiting for another nine months, many children and women will be killed as a consequence of this action. It is no good talking about the past; it is the future we are concerned about. Will he, therefore, go back to his department and say, “Restore these cuts now”?,” said Lord Goldsmith.

The HALO Trust has been working in Zimbabwe since 2013 and their budgets will be drastically reduced. Besides the negative news, the Trust is committed to continuing its noble cause of clearing landmines in Zimbabwe.

“HALO Trust is not cutting funding. The UK Government has announced plans to cut the funding it gives to HALO and other operators in Zimbabwe. The HALO Trust has been clearing landmines in Zimbabwe since 2013 and has destroyed over 130 000 landmines in the country. The landmines date back to the Liberation War in the 1970s. The UK Government has been funding our work but has recently released plans to cut all of its support for landmine clearance in Zimbabwe.

“We are campaigning to try to get the UK to reverse this decision. We are also working hard to secure other sources of funding to allow us to replace any reduction by the UK. It will be difficult to reach the landmine free 2025 target if the UK does cut its support for mine clearance in Zimbabwe. Whatever happens, HALO will continue its work in Zimbabwe thanks to the support from other donors such as the United States of America, Japan, and Ireland, ” said Paul McCann, Head of Communication for HALO Trust.

ZIMAC should increase efforts to secure additional national and international funding to meet its 2025 clearance completion deadline. Greater links between mine action and development, along with enhanced cooperation among government ministries, would assist this endeavor.

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Byron Adonis Mutingwende