So, are landmines in Africa really that big a deal? (Manifesto, Part 2)

In my last post I presented a very brief picture of the current landmine situation in Africa, but that did not provide any context for the severity of the problem.  534 Africans were killed or injured by landmines in 2009, but compared to the millions who died from HIV / AIDS, infectious disease or even injury, 534 is a very small number.  Landmines make up less than a tenth of one-percent of all deaths due to injury (auto accidents are the number one killer with 167,869 fatalities).  Of deaths due to war and conflict, landmines make up less than 2% of the total deaths (WHO 2008 Death and Regional Injury Estimates).  Compared to malaria (almost 112,000 deaths in Africa in 2009 out of more than 69 million cases; WHO World Malaria Report 2010) and HIV / AIDS (1.3 million deaths in 2009 out of 22 million persons infected;, landmine casualties are not even a rounding error.  So no, in the grand scheme of things, landmines would not appear to be a very big problem in Africa, especially in light of poverty, inequality, poor governance and a host of other issues facing the continent.  But for the 534 Africans killed or injured by landmines, their families and their communities, I think landmines remain an important issue and the fact that the potential exists for others to be killed or injured by landmines makes them a viable subject for action and attention.

According to the World Health Organization’s publication, “World Health Statistics 2010,” there were more cases of polio in Africa in 2009 (841) than landmine injuries, but I think polio may be a reasonable starting point for this discussion.  I, like many Americans, thought that polio had been eradicated; until I had to get vaccinated for polio before my first trip to Africa in 2004.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, possibly the biggest private development organization in the world, was started because Bill Gates was horrified by the fact that people could still be killed or crippled by polio forty years after the last reported case in the United States.  Yet the re-emergence of polio remains a very real possibility.  From those few hundred cases a year, a worldwide pandemic could ensue, causing major damage to the billions of unvaccinated people.  And one of the biggest consequences of a re-emergence of polio would be widespread fear.

In his book, “Polio, An American Story,” David Oshinsky talks about how fears of a polio outbreak affected people’s lives.  Public pools would be closed, movie theaters empty, schools unattended.  Children who suffered from polio (or were merely sick with a cold or flu during a polio outbreak) would be ostracized, forever marked by the leg braces and wheelchairs they depended upon for mobility.  Landmines have the ability to strike fear in people: when coupled with ongoing conflict or memory of conflict, that fear is compounded.  I was told of a hundred-mile highway in Angola that was cleared by a demining team.  In the course of the entire highway, only three landmines were found, but the knowledge that any mines were on the highway shut the entire road, limiting travel, trade and mobility.  Landmine victims are marked by their absent limbs and in many African countries, persons with disabilities are hidden from sight, unable to participate in community or society. 

Beginning in the 1940s with the March of Dimes and the sponsorship of President Roosevelt, great strides were made to eliminate polio.  The Salk and Sabin vaccines were made widely available, but still the disease lingers in various corners of the globe.  In the 1990s, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, its visibility raised by the actions of Princess Diana, initiated the global ban on landmines, but still landmines litter the borders of nations and mark old battlegrounds.  Earlier this year, the Libyan government became only the second government in three years to actively emplace landmines, but 50 other countries still retain the right to use landmines and between them they possess tens of millions of weapons. 

The poverty, conflict, disease burden and corruption present in Africa today makes eradication of landmines harder there than it might be in other places.  So landmines are not just an issue unto themselves, but bound up within a web of other issues that need to be addressed simultaneously.  As some have pointed out (see, there is a link between mine action and development and mine action can help states achieve their Millennium Development Goals (we can discuss later or elsewhere the validity and utility of the MDGs).  By focusing on the eradication of landmines, we can work on issues of poverty, governance and conflict, reducing the immediate impact of landmines in Africa whilst also beginning to tackle some of the larger, intertwined issues.

We have made great strides to eliminate these horrific things, but we cannot be complacent and we must continue the work.  As the Gates Foundation adopted the eradication of polio as its first signature campaign, landmine activists must continue to work to rid the world of the remaining landmines.  So no, landmines may not be the biggest deal in Africa or elsewhere in the world, but every 18 hours in Africa in 2009, a person was killed or injured by a landmine and that’s just plain wrong.  Much as we can eliminate polio, we can eliminate landmines.  Unfortunately, the trend lines may be reversing.  Annual polio cases are increasing and two African conflicts, in Libya and in the Southern Kordofan state of Sudan, saw new use of landmines in 2011 and increased casualties.  2011 may be the first year since the Mine Ban Treaty was signed in which landmine casualties will increase from the previous year, making landmines a bigger deal. 

 Michael P. Moore, July 29, 2011

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