Scorched Earth – International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict

Over the past week, bombs were found in England and Germany which dated back to the Second World War. The bomb found in Dortmund, Germany, weighed 4000 lbs (1800 kg) and prompted the evacuation of 20,000 people in a one mile radius. There are estimates of up to 100,000 unexploded, hidden bombs in Germany alone, many of them with chemical triggers that could go off at any time. As these 70-year-old bombs rust and deteriorate, the cost and effort to remove only increases.

Bomb on a British beach Photo:

Bomb on a British beach

These bombs are just the remainder of the many more that targeted human beings. War is waged by humans, against other humans, but the land continues to hold the marks and history of a war even when it is long gone.

Often enough, though, the land itself is the direct or indirect target of aggression.

Wars have a legacy of destroyed farmlands, poisoned water supplies and burned forests. We count the casualties of war in human terms, but when landmines, chemical and radioactive weapons are used, they can leave entire territories unsafe for man or beast. Environmental contamination from landmines left behind, from chemicals that pollute the soil, mean a conflict is kept alive long after the actual war is over.

Photo: Metrolic

Photo: Metrolic

Today, November 6, is the United Nations International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

This day is meant to draw attention to the illegality of scorched earth tactics, but also to highlight that “over the last 60 years, at least 40 percent of all internal conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources, whether high-value resources such as timber, diamonds, gold and oil, or scarce resources such as fertile land and water.” I would add to this the poaching and sale of endangered animals and their parts.

Photo: Metrolic

Photo: Metrolic

“It is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment,” and that

Care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread, long-term and severe damage. This protection includes a prohibition of the use of methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause such damage to the natural environment and thereby to prejudice the health or survival of the population.”

At a meeting of the United Nations First Committee 2013 last month, several countries suggested these articles “do not effectively protect the environment during armed conflict due to the stringent and imprecise threshold required to demonstrate damage.”

Once thick with 90 percent native tropical forests, following conflict Sierra Leone now has less than 4 percent forest cover. Caption/Credit: UNEP

Once thick with 90 percent native tropical forests, following conflict Sierra Leone now has less than 4 percent forest cover.
Caption/Credit: UNEP

Wealthy and developed nations such as Germany and England still contend with the toxic legacies of a war that lasted six years, and it’s impossible to say how long the conflicts of today will remain in the soil and waters of the lands where they are being fought.

As stated on the UN web page dedicated to this day:

There can be no durable peace if the natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystems are destroyed.

Thanks to Landmines in Africa and Toxic Remnants of War for offering helpful comments on this post – I highly recommend a visit to these informative and inspiring initiatives.

Demining for all

Photo: Ewan Arnolda

Photo: Ewan Arnolda

There’s clock ticking here right now, an apt bomb reference because the clock is counting down the days left until registration closes for the Minesweepers first international competition for humanitarian demining. The competition will take place in Egypt over the course of summer, ending in September. Competitors can construct a remote-controlled or autnomous demining robot. From the site:

Detection and removal of antipersonnel landmines is, at the present time, a serious problem of political, economical, environmental and humanitarian dimension in many countries over the world. If demining efforts remain about the same as they are now, and no new mines are laid, it will still take 1100 years to get rid of all the world’s active land mines.  The conventional methods which are currently used make the procedure of removing this great numbers of landmines very slow, inefficient, dangerous and costly.  Robotics systems can provide efficient, reliable, adaptive and cost effective solution for the problem of the landmines and UXOs contamination.

Anyone who knows a bot-building talent might want to pass the information along.

Actual baselines of existing landmine numbers are not easy to come by, since the numbers of mines laid aren’t always carefully tallied, and landmines going all the way back to WWII are still buried in various countries. These metal mines are easier to detect than the plastics and alloys of modern mines. Some humanitarian de-miners speak of the landmine issue in terms of land area to be cleared for productive use rather than mine numbers, which might be a more accurate representation of the scope of the issue.

Under the Ottawa Treaty (1997) – the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention – 161 countries have agreed to ban the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of mines.  Thirty-four countries have not signed the treaty and one more has signed but did not ratify. The states that have not signed the treaty includes a majority of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: China, the United States and Russia. The United States is the sole non-signatory NATO member.

Many states have managed to clear mines and declare themselves ‘mine-free’. In the countries where demining is still in process, fields can go unplanted and even walking to school can be unsafe in mined areas. Or more dangerously, fields are planted anyway. Talking in terms of land-area would also convey the overall impact of landmines in a region, not just on humans, but on all creatures. How to graze animals in a region that has been mined? How do migratory birds and animals fare when they cross mined territory, or animals that cover a large territorial range on a regular basis?

De-mining is as much a conservation and environmental issue as it is a humanitarian issue.

Mine contamination as of October 2012Source: ICBL

Mine contamination as of October 2012
Source: ICBL

Minesweepers: Towards a Landmine-Free World – First international Competition for Humanitarian Demining

International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) website

United Nations Factsheet