Colombia has a landmine problem. Although it is almost impossible to gather exact data on the number of landmines still active, the best estimates are that at least 30 of the 32 departments throughout the country have a mine threat. As of December 2016, there have been a total of 11,460 landmine casualties, of which 2,266 were fatal and 9,194 caused injury. These numbers place Colombia second only to Afghanistan in term of landmine casualties worldwide.
Now that the peace process is well underway, it is time to start rehabilitating and rebuilding. However, active landmines pose a serious structural barrier to these efforts. The Colombian government recognizes this and has committed to a Mine Ban Treaty obligation to clear all known minefields by 2021. Given the size of Colombia and the scale of the problem, five years seems like an extremely ambitious and almost unrealistic timeframe to clear the mines.
Slowing down the process considerably is the fact that most landmines in Colombia are not made of metal. These homemade mines are composed of plastic or glass filled with explosives. Metal detectors are useless on plastic and glass. Landmines must be detected through a painstakingly slow and dangerous process of full excavation with a trowel, one square meter at a time. A human using full excavation methodology can only clear at most 8 square meters a day, making the 2021 target seem unrealistic at best, not to mention the incredible risk to human life.
One non-profit, Apopo, has a unique solution: rats. Apopo trains what they call, HeroRATs, to detect landmines and has used them successfully in Cambodia, Mozambique and Angola, and soon in Zimbabwe. If they can obtain funding from the government, Apopo will gear up to bring their gang of highly-trained HeroRATs to Colombia.
So far, rats have proven to be a very efficient form of mine removal. In comparison to the full excavation technique, a rat can check an area the size of a tennis court in just 30 minutes, and greatly increases the safety of their human handlers who stand at the side of the zone being checked.
While both dogs and rats have a keen sense of smell, rats far outpace dogs in efficiency. It takes about nine months to train and certify a rat to detect landmines. It takes two years to train a mine detecting dog and costs ten times as much. Of course, rats are also much smaller than mine detecting dogs and lucky for them, they are too light to detonate a mine if they get close.
Apopo and their flour-legged team aim to positively contribute to the peace process in Colombia by ensuring that the risk from landmines is quickly reduced to a level where communities can live safely, and sustainable development can thrive. The NGO is currently working alongsid the Colombian Mine Action Authority (DAICMA) to establish a program to increase productivity of the demining efforts. Local Colombians will be trained as rat handlers and search methods will be refined and adapted for Colombia’s conditions. Once the local teams have been trained and have achieved sufficient proficiency, they will be tested and accredited in accordance with the Colombian National Mine Action Standards. These teams will work in coordination with manual demining teams to detect and clear mines.
Rats have a surprising potential to save human life, and it isn’t only by detecting landmines. Apopo also trains rats to diagnose tuberculosis far more efficiently than traditional methods. This is possible because rats have more genetic material allocated to their sense of smell than any other mammal species and are extremely fast detectors. One rat can check 100 lab samples in 20 minutes, something that would take a lab technician using standard microscopy up to four days.
The potential is immense. In the near future, rats might be used for an array of detection purposes, from uncovering environmental pollutants or halting illegal wildlife trade to search and rescue missions following natural disasters. After all, rats can crawl into some seriously tight spaces. HeroRATs work for bananas, literally.
The peace process is a remarkable opportunity to build a more unified and prosperous country for all Colombians. An important step is to get rid of the landmines and ensure there are no more victims. If you would like to support the lifesaving work of Apopo by donating or even adopting a HeroRAT, visit their website at www.apopo.org