MOZONTE – Diego Antonio Gómez says he hopes the last of the landmines will be removed by the end of 2009, allowing his indigenous community to return safely to their lands and cultivate their ancestral soils once again, 20 years after abandoning the mountainous border region due to war.
“People are still afraid; we still can’t enter the fields to work because they haven’t completely finished the work of removing the mines,” said the indigenous leader from the northern colonial outpost of Mozonte, in Nueva Segovia. “We are waiting for all the mines to get cleared so we can get back to work. This land is very fertile for production.”
Two decades after the last of many battles was fought in this former theater of war along the Honduran border, campesinos and small producers are still waiting for the last of the antipersonnel mines to be cleared by military sappers so they can return to life as normal.
The work of the sappers is slow, methodical and dangerous, as they sweep the rough mountainous terrain for the remnants of war. After more than 20 years of mineremoval efforts, the military believes there are only 8,000 or so mines left of the 170,000 that were planted by the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) and the counterrevolutionary forces in the 1980s.
With the help of Canada, Spain and other foreign donor countries, Nicaragua’s de-mining mission is now trying to round up an additional $4 million needed to finish the job and declare Nicaragua mine-free by the end of 2009.
In doing so, Nicaragua would become the first heavily mined country in the world to completely rid itself of landmines, according to Carlos José Orosco, national coordinator of the Organization of American States (OAS) Mine Action Program in Nicaragua, which is overseeing the program.
The de-mining mission, however, is desperately short of funds. While foreign donors such as the Canada, which has provided $6 million to Nicaragua’s mineremoval efforts over the past decade, have kept the program afloat until now, Orosco said they only have enough funding to make it another couple of months. He said the OAS mission is already closing its regional office in Mozonte to transfer more funding to the field work, but acknowledges the program could be in jeopardy after February if the traditional donors don’t provide the funding that Nicaragua needs to make it across the finish line.
Canadian Ambassador Neil Reeder says he’s going to do everything he can to make sure Nicaragua doesn’t stumble in the homestretch of this marathon race.
Reeder this week met with community leaders in Mozonte and then trekked up into the mountains of San Fernando to witness the mine-removal efforts, where a team of 40 army sappers are working full-time to sweep the remaining affected areas. Reeder met with military officials, farmers and landmine victims and promised he would do his part to lobby for a continuance of funding to finish the project in 2009.
Reeder told The Nica Times that Canada views the mine-removal project as important not only to advancing peace and security, but also in terms of contributing to Nicaragua’s overall human and economic development by allowing people to move about freely and return to productive lives.
“This is a humanitarian project, but it’s also linked to economic development in the region by allowing people to plant and harvest these rich and fertile lands,” Reeder said.
Mario José Vílchez understands that better than most. When his family farm was finally declared mine-free, they returned to the property to find untouched, pristine land that is perfect for planting shadegrown coffee. The conditions are so good, he said, that his 2008 coffee harvest won the honor of Best Cup in the annual Cup of Excellence contest, and fetched him more than $41,000 on the international market.
“We are very thankful because now we are planting coffee instead of mines,” Vílchez told The Nica Times, as he looked out at a cloudbank rolling in across the lush, pine forested mountains. “This is the best land; it’s virgin mountain.”
Other producers have taken a more cavalier approach to reclaiming their lands. Coffee producer and former contra Armando Chavarría said he and his farm workers de-mined their own fields by carefully clearing the land with machetes and uprooting the 181 antipersonnel mines they found there. Chavarría said his self-styled approach to sapping led to one campesino being blinded when a mine went off in his face. He, too, had a close call when his pickup truck drove over another landmine in his field. Luckily, he said, the wheel clipped the mine at a weird angle and broke the pin, rather than detonating it under his vehicle.
The military and OAS discourage such “artisanal” efforts of mine removal, and have launched a massive prevention campaign aimed at getting people to notify authorities when they discover a mine.
The campaign has been so successful, that it has led to the discovery of an additional 40,000 mines that were never registered previously.
That discovery has slowed the minesapping efforts and made original goals and deadlines impossible to meet, said Orosco of the OAS. But instead of viewing it as a setback, the mine-removal team views it as evidence that their campaign is working and that efforts to remove every last mine are being taken as seriously as possible.
In the end, Orosco said, the most important aspect of the mine-removal is not to meet a political deadline, rather to rid the country of the deadly artifacts that have injured 1,135 Nicaraguans and killed countless others.