chiovelli1_Allison JoyceGetty Images_landmines Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Clearing the Ground for Post-Conflict Reconstruction

Around the world, the use of landmines continues to ensure that war-torn countries will have a long road to peace and reconstruction. Recent research indicates that the international community urgently needs to step up its efforts to clear existing minefields in a more targeted and coordinated fashion.

LONDON – This year marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention. Since the treaty entered into force, armed conflicts in Africa and elsewhere have steadily receded, and democratization, coupled with international monitoring, has led to a reduction in the use of landmines and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs) worldwide. At the same time, inspiring individuals and organizations have continued to navigate difficult environments to assist victims and clear minefields.

But that progress is now at risk. According to the Landmine Monitor 2018,the use of landmines/IEDs is rising at an alarming pace, as are fatalities and injuries from these devices. Most of the casualties are in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Myanmar, and Libya, where rebel militias, government forces, and extremist groups such as the Islamic State have laid new minefields. Because of past and ongoing contamination, the explosive remnants of war continue to affect the lives of millions of people, particularly civilians and children, in around 50 countries.

As the international community focuses primarily on limiting the use of landmines, preventing deaths, and assisting the injured, much less attention goes to how these devices threaten post-conflict recovery efforts. The estimated one million IEDs deployed in Yemen and thousands of similar devices in Syria narrow considerably the path to peace and reconstruction in these countries.

Complicating matters further, clearance operations are slow, relying on imperfect detection methods and incomplete information. Many minefields were created years or even decades ago, and may have been moved by rockslides, floods, or other natural causes.

Demining suffers from coordination problems, as the process is fragmented among various nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies. Governments’ weak post-conflict state capacity makes planning and coordination even harder. The high cost of clearing mines often leads to donor fatigue. Given these challenges, how should demining efforts proceed?

For the past few years, we have studied the impact of landmine clearance in Mozambique, the only country to have progressed from being “heavily contaminated” (in 1992) to “landmine free” (as of 2015). Between 1977 and 1992, Mozambique suffered from a civil war that left hundreds of thousands of people dead from violence, malnutrition, and hunger. More than four million of the country’s roughly 14 million people were displaced.

Subscribe now
ps subscription image no tote bag no discount

Subscribe now

Get unlimited access to OnPoint, the Big Picture, and the entire PS archive of more than 14,000 commentaries, plus our annual magazine, for less than $2 a week.


According to a 1992 Human Rights Watch report, parts of Mozambique had been “reduced to a stone age condition” and would have to be rebuilt “from scratch.” Thousands of minefields scattered throughout the country, however, made reconstruction challenging. Government troops had used mines to ring-fence villages, towns, and basic infrastructure, while RENAMO, a militant group backed by Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, had used them extensively in its strategy of terror. There were even older minefields left from the country’s 1964-1974 war of independence, when both independence fighters – FRELIMO – and the Portuguese military used them for various reasons. Militias, thugs, and even commercial companies used landmines for military purposes, protection, and terror.

While early post-war assessments suggested that there were as many as one million landmines strewn across Mozambique in 1992, our data uncovered around a quarter-million devices across 8,000 hazardous areas. Yet, whatever the precise number, it takes only a few mines to terrorize civilians and curtail economic activity.

In our study, we tracked how the evolution of local economic activity in Mozambican localities, reflected in satellite images of nighttime light density, responded to mine clearance operations between 1992 and 2015. We found that economic activity picked up modestly upon full clearance, implying that demining does indeed facilitate development. More important, we determined that demining results in larger relative gains when it specifically targets roads and railroads, as well as villages that host agricultural markets.

Demining key areas associated with transportation networks leads to large increases in aggregate economic activity because it has positive spillovers even in areas that were never contaminated. Counterfactual policy simulations suggest that Mozambique’s highly fragmented demining process probably resulted in sizable losses compared to what could have been achieved with a more coordinated effort targeting the central nodes of the country’s limited transportation network

Much like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every civil war is destructive in its own way, implying a need for caution when extrapolating research findings from any single conflict study. Nonetheless, our research points to some general lessons for the international community as it plans for the reconstruction of Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan, and continues demining efforts in Colombia, Cambodia, and many African countries.

First, those leading demining efforts should take a panoramic view to identify spatial interconnections and areas hosting transportation infrastructure and local and regional marketplaces. To be sure, prioritization is complicated by other considerations, including the need to facilitate the return of refugees, maintain peace, distribute aid, and so forth; nevertheless, considering the economic potential of clearance in key areas would help ensure long-term success.

Second, Mozambique’s experience holds a lesson for those in the international community who are hesitant to expand the Mine Ban Treaty to cover anti-tank (anti-vehicle) landmines, which are still deemed legal, owing to their supposed “strategic importance.” As our findings show, by threatening intra-regional flows of goods, people, and ideas, anti-vehicle landmines threaten economic development and a post-conflict recovery.

Sadly, International Mine Awareness Day (April 4) has never been more relevant, given the continued use of these deadly devices in conflicts around the world. In addition to helping the victims of mines, the international community urgently needs to step up its clearance efforts. The process demands a strategic, holistic, and coordinated approach to ensure that demining leads to sustainable economic development and lasting peace.

Help make our reporting on global health and development issues stronger by answering a short survey.

Take Survey;
  1. haass102_ATTAKENAREAFPGettyImages_iranianleaderimagebehindmissiles Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

    Taking on Tehran

    Richard N. Haass

    Forty years after the revolution that ousted the Shah, Iran’s unique political-religious system and government appears strong enough to withstand US pressure and to ride out the country's current economic difficulties. So how should the US minimize the risks to the region posed by the regime?

Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated cookie policy and privacy policy.