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Author: Stuart Rock
Written on: 05 July 2018
Last updated: 05 July 2018


Manchester, humanitarian, Scotland, foreign aid

Britain's (large) role in landmine clearance

Photo credit: Mines Advisory Group / Flickr

Talk about a hidden contribution. Few other countries do as much as Britain in the work of landmine clearance.

This is a grisly business: it’s estimated that there are 110m unexploded mines around the world, in 64 states and territories. On average, 24 people are killed or injured daily by landmines; more than four out of ten are children. Yet, the British public “can be proud of their contribution to eradicating this hidden, indiscriminate killer,” according to Penny Mordaunt, the Secretary of State at the Department for International Development (DIFID).

A tale of two charities

In the global humanitarian effort to tackle the scourge of landmines, two UK charities are at the forefront. Every year, Halo Trust and MAG help to clear thousands of hectares of mine-infested land. It has been said that between them they are responsible for half the world’s humanitarian demining - although this can’t be verified (as some commercial operators also do humanitarian work, not just NGOs).

Mines Advisory Group (MAG) was established in 1989 by brothers Lou and Rae McGrath. Based in Manchester, MAG has more than 3,500 people operating in 17 countries.

Halo Trust was founded in 1988 by Colin Mitchell, Guy Willoughby and Susan Mitchell. Based in Dumfries and led by James Cowan, Halo Trust has more than is the world’s biggest humanitarian mine clearance charity, operating in 23 countries and employing more than 8,000 local people. It was recently described by Scottish Conservative party leader Ruth Davidson as a “great Scottish success story.”

While the charities rightly attract a high profile, the UK is also home to several major private sector firms who also clear huge quantities of unexploded ordnance. British multinational G4S has an Ordnance Management division and also owns the US enterprise Ronco Consulting. The Swedish corporation Dynasafe is the parent company of Kent-based Bactec and the Ross-on-Wye operation Minetech. Another private sector player is 6 Alpha Associates.

A wide base of support

The UK is a prominent funder of mine action. In April 2017, the Department for International and Foreign Development (DIFID) made a commitment to de-mining 150 sq km of land, with the total UK spend on mine action amounting to £100m over three years. That’s considerably better than most governments.

The British people support this work. According to Halo Trust, four out of five Britons support the aims of Landmine Free 2025. MAG's Walk Without Fear appeal on BBC Radio 4 in 2017 is the station's most successful, raising more than £200,000. That sum was then doubled by UKaid to more than £400,000.

A Better Way, a charity founded by football legend Sir Bobby Charlton, funds research into better detection systems for landmine clearance, as well as into the development of prosthetics, regenerative medicine and amputation techniques.

Gardening meets archaeology meets mineral extraction

Landmine clearance is laborious, dangerous and frequently manual work. Or a risky mix of gardening and archaeology. Several British universities are working on innovations to make it safer and more efficient. Researchers at Imperial College have been developing a device which slowly heats and ignites peat, revealing the position of landmines below. University of Bristol scientists have been investigating how high-resolution images from low-flying drones can be used to make landmine clearance faster and easier. At Sheffield, researchers are working on an extremely sensitive explosive detector that looks for trace amounts of explosive material in the air above buried landmines.

Landmines are cleared with all types of equipment - from flails to diggers to rollers - some of which are adapted from the other mining sector i.e. mineral extraction. It’s estimated that the mechanical mine systems market will be worth $52m by 2024. Several British companies are at the forefront: Newcastle-based Pearson Engineering owns Minewolf Systems while Aardvark Clearmine, which claims to have "the most effective land mine clearance in the world," is based near Aberdeen (it was purchased by the Middle Eastern company Menasat in 2017). Near Cambridge is another specialist manufacturer Armtrac.

Getting on with it (without stepping on it)

It was clearing up after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1980s that led to the founding of Halo Trust and MAG. The problems in Afghanistan remain profoundly difficult, despite the progress made by the DIFID-funded clearance of Herat Province, benefitting over 370,000 families. (An entire suburb of Herat city, with a population of over 35,000, has been built on cleared land.)

And that’s the problem. Once laid, mines provide a terrible long-lasting legacy. In countries such as Egypt, many mines date back to the Second World War. Today, conflicts such as Yemen and Syria, landmines are used as weapons of war. Groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram are making the situation worse with indiscriminate use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which are lethal to civilians long after the conflict has ceased. Daesh has used mines to directly target civilians, especially those who want to return home. So landmine casualties are back on the increase. But progress can be made. Mozambique was declared mine-free in 2015.

First Diana, now Harry


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Shortly before her death in 1997, a visored and jacketed Diana Princess of Wales picked her way through the mined fields of Angola and met maimed and injured victims. The worldwide publicity helped to precipitate the signing of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning 1997 Ottawa Convention, which bans the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines. The UK and Ireland signed up from the start. To date, 163 states have ratified or acceded to the Convention but China, Russia, India, Pakistan and the USA have yet to do. And more than 15 years since the end of its civil war, Angola remains one of the most heavily mine-contaminated countries in the world.

The Ottawa treaty signatories agreed to complete clearance of all anti-personnel landmines by 2025. Backed by Prince Harry, the Landmine Free 2025 campaign aims to keep the pressure on all the signatory states.


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