In the west of Herat province in western Afghanistan, just a few miles from the border with Iran, what looks like a desert is being transformed into fertile, arable fields. A brand new tractor appears to be busily at work, ploughing a vast tract of land.
But as you get closer, you realise that this is no ordinary tractor; it’s armoured, and it’s not ploughing. It’s actually digging up landmines.
Herat is a historically fertile area, once described as the ‘bread basket of central Asia’. But for much of the last 30 years, it’s fertile soil has been a no-go area for local farmers. During the late 1980s, during the conflict between the Afghan Mujahadeen and Russia, a large number of landmines were laid throughout the country which have injured and killed thousands of people.
These mines have meant that vast areas of land, which were previously used to farm melon and wheat, and where children used to play, were abandoned for years. This meant that rural communities were confined to small areas to live, and made it difficult to resume normal life after three decades of conflict.
But now things are changing. The Department for International Development is supporting the HALO Trust, an international demining organisation, to safely remove these dangerous objects so that communities across Afghanistan can reclaim their land.
One of HALO’s projects has transformed the village of A Islam Qala, in the Koshan district, located less than 5 km from the Iranian border. The village, where children and farmers were too scared to walk in the fields, is now a transformed place with hundreds of farmers cultivating crops, and a brick factory has been built which employs a number of villagers.
“When my land was cleared I found I had 60% more land than I thought, and it is good for growing crops”, says Mullah Neoka, a local farmer and mullah of one of the Shuras in the district.
“My son used to have to go to Iran to work, which was dangerous. But now he drives a tractor on my cleared land.
“Before the area was demined no one came here and children didn’t play because it was unsafe. Now we can.”
The chief of the village, Qalata Mirmakim, agrees: “We couldn’t farm before the land was cleared. We used to have lots of car and tractor accidents from landmines, but now animals can roam the land again. We are now safe.”
So far 22,230 people have benefited from the programme. This means that hundreds of families living in each of the two shuras in Koshan district now have hope that they can resume a normal life and can plan a brighter and more prosperous future.
More than mines: supporting mine action
Landmines, unexploded ordnance (UXO) and explosive remnants of war (ERW) continue to kill and maim approximately 4,000 people a year in nearly 80 countries or territories, primarily in Africa, Asia, Central America, the Middle East and the Balkans.
They affect development by making land and other renewable resources unusable for growing food or generating income, and blocking market routes and infrastructure development projects. Landmines and ERW jeopardise efforts to improve health, education and poverty and therefore prevent countries achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
But mine action entails more than removing landmines from the ground. It includes actions ranging from teaching people how to protect themselves from danger in a mine-affected environment to advocating for a mine-free world.
Between 2002 and 2006, Herat Province suffered from the largest number of mine and UXO casualties of any province in Afghanistan.
In 2006 Herat Province alone accounted for 14% of the total number of recorded mine and UXO accidents in Afghanistan. Casualties now stand at an average of 9 per month.
The programme has so far cleared over 1,646 hectares or 1.6 million square metres of minefield. This is the equivalent to over 16 square kilometres, or 2,007 large football pitches!
Over 127,000 families have benefitted either directly or indirectly from the clearance
In 2011 UNHCR reported that Herat Province had the fourth highest number of individuals repatriated of all of Afghanistan’s Provinces. The impact of DFID funding has been immense in returning huge areas of land back to local communities for their onward productive use.
Clearance has allowed the local population, including many returning IDPs and refugees, to safely engage with the land through grazing livestock, agricultural production, resettlement and infrastructure development, whilst also providing safe access to roads and water sources.
For Kohsan district alone, over 1,096 hectares of minefields has been cleared - benefitting over 9,928 families directly and 12,362 indirectly.