Skip to main content

James Cowan is CEO of the HALO Trust, a non-profit organization that clears war debris, particularly landmines.

Clever Dzabaya was born 42 years ago, the same year a minefield was laid on his ancestral farmland. It was one of many that Rhodesian forces set along the border with Mozambique to form a deadly cordon sanitaire against opposition fighters – minefields that still haunt the rural poor who live among them in what is now Zimbabwe. Landmines claimed Dzabaya's father's leg, and dozens of the family's cattle. Until de-mining began there in 2017, he even had to watch his children cross a minefield to get to school. Last year, his youngest daughter narrowly avoided death when a mine exploded after her classmates threw stones at it.

As the Zimbabwean people usher in a new era, hungry for genuine change and economic recovery, states wanting to assist in the country's transition to a more prosperous future after the resignation of long-time president Robert Mugabe need to prioritize how best to help.

Many of new President Emmerson Mnangagwa's challenges are widely recognized and will already be high on both his and potential investors' to-do lists. But there is a huge opportunity now to help Zimbabwe rid itself of one of its least publicized but most serious impediments: its landmine legacy.

Zimbabwe is one of the few places on Earth that could have as many as one million landmines buried in its soil. The border with Mozambique has some of the densest minefields ever laid. Unsurprising, then, that this year the HALO Trust cleared more mines in Zimbabwe than in any other country.

Life with a mine injury can be hard. There are precious few prosthetic clinics, and it is not uncommon to see amputees walking around on limbs improvised from tree branches.

But the impact of Zimbabwe's mine problem goes beyond the daily tragedies of the people who are directly affected. The consequences for the economy are enormous. The government reports more than 120,000 livestock accidents across the 556-kilometre length of the minefield barrier since 1980. With each animal worth about $250, it equates to a loss of more than $800,000 a year. At the national level, freeing up pasture for cattle will enable the Department of Veterinary Services to control cross-border livestock movement and disease, an urgent necessity if Zimbabwe is to re-establish itself as a beef exporter.

De-mining minefields such as these is labour intensive. As in all countries where we work, the HALO Trust recruits from mine-affected communities, helping to raise living standards and creating newly skilled work forces in some of the most impoverished areas. The release of this fertile land also creates opportunities for both subsistence farming and cash crops.

Despite the grim distinction of the size of Zimbabwe's mine contamination, the structured nature of the mine laying means that the issue is certainly well quantified. Just over 65 square kilometres of contamination remains. The Zimbabwean government is a signatory to the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, which calls for all signatories to be mine-free by 2025. Zimbabwe is committed to achieving this, but without sustained international funding, will not meet the deadline.

To coincide with the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Ottawa Treaty on December 3, the Canadian government announced nearly $12-million for mine action projects. It was reported that this would extend the number of countries in which it currently funds mine action to include Colombia, Cambodia, Syria, Ukraine and Laos.

Nobody would dispute that all these countries have severe needs in terms of mine and unexploded ordnance clearance, or say that this increased support is not hugely welcome. However, the announcement does not mention creating a national mine action plan, which could help streamline existing funds to countries that are not currently bilateral development priorities, including Zimbabwe and Angola. Without this prioritization, these countries will see 2025 come and go and farmers such as Clever Dzabaya will see yet another generation grow up next to a minefield.

But the announcement does show that Canada is committed to finishing the job it started 20 year ago. Now it needs to persuade the rest of the world to join it, whether through its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council or in the margins of next year’s G7 summit. With just seven years to go until 2025, Canada could help set the clock to count down to a mine-free world. It is clear that this great humanitarian nation is determined to consign the anti-personnel landmine to history – but this means extending support to those countries whose mine legacies have long left the headlines.

Interact with The Globe