Five years after the end of the Colombian armed conflict, tens of thousands of landmines are still threatening people's lives. More and more women are taking on the task of removing them.
Colombia is one of the countries most contaminated by mines in the world, with 28 out of 32 departments littered with these explosive remnants of war. Over the last 25 years, nearly 12,000 people have been injured or killed by landmines there.
Jennifer Diaz Gonzalez, 25, has been working as a deminer at Humanity & Inclusion since 2017. She is working to clear weapons in the region of Vista Hermosa, Meta, the department where she grew up and still lives with her young daughter.
“The whole region was under control by a guerrilla organization,” Jennifer says.
Her father was murdered by an armed group when she was only 1 year old, and her two older brothers were forcibly recruited to fight as teenagers.
"They have disappeared since then. And there is no hope of seeing them alive again,” she explains.
The path to a safe life
Over the last six months, Jennifer and her team have scanned nearly three acres of land. She knows her job puts her in constant danger and requires her full concentration.
Finding landmines in the heavily wooded areas in Vista Hermosa can be difficult. Once she locates an explosive device, she must carefully uncover it. She then marks the location to make it visible to others. Finally, the explosive device is either defused or detonated.
"Most of the mines we find are self-made explosive devices,” she says.
Jennifer knows that demining is the key to a safe life in Vista Hermosa. Only after Humanity & Inclusion’s specialists declare a region safe, can farmers tend the fields or children play and walk safely in their community. Jennifer takes pride in what she does.
"The local people have great respect for our work,” Jennifer explains. “We will make sure that the mines disappear so that farmers can grow coffee and keep livestock without danger. That is something very beautiful.”
In Vista Hermosa, Humanity & inclusion has been running a humanitarian civilian demining project since November 2016. This village has the highest number of landmine victims in Colombia. Lockdown periods, imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, had forced Humanity & Inclusion to put demining operations on pause. Activities have since resumed and, in 2021, teams have cleared more than 30 acres of land and destroyed more than 30 explosive artifacts, most of them improvised explosive devices.
Colombia’s first mine-free municipality
On October 20, Humanity & Inclusion returned the Puracé municipality to its residents, free from landmine contamination. It was the first municipality in which Humanity & Inclusion has completed humanitarian demining operations. With funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, Humanity & Inclusion is working to clear 10 other municipalities in Colombia.
“We celebrate that communities feel safer today,” says Nicola Momentè, Regional Director for Latin America at Humanity & Inclusion. “Thanks to demining activities, lives have been saved and communities have recovered their rights. From now on, they can use their land, thanks to the hard work that was developed over the last three years between the communities, our local partner and Humanity & Inclusion.”
Mine action in Puracé included the implementation of inclusive socio-economic projects. Since the end of 2020, Humanity & Inclusion has provided start-up capital to 14 businesses started by people with disabilities—including a restaurant, coffee production and cattle breeding operation.
Humanity & Inclusion also supported an eco-touristic project in the municipality by helping with a market analysis. Puracé is located near Coconuco Natural Park, a mountainous area suitable for hiking and birdwatching. The community of Puracé leads an ancestral and cultural eco-touristic project, which they hope to develop now that hiking in the mountains is safe again.
Finally, Humanity & Inclusion conducted mine-risk education to hundreds of people who call Puracé home. The organization and its local partners held sessions on how to spot, avoid and report explosive weapons and shared safety measures likes always walking on the marked path in a dangerous zone.