Robin Swanson, head of the Demining Program Office and visiting the Falkland Islands this week ahead of the new phase of land-mine clearance due to start early next year, confirmed that the forthcoming planned clearances will advance the demining process from the pilot stage to a more advanced “land release” phase.
At a meeting held on Wednesday in Government House, Robin stated, “The most important difference about this second phase is that the project aim is to release land which is currently unavailable for social use but is considered to be safe. Any mined areas that we encounter will be fenced and marked off in the normal way and the Stanley Common fence will be repositioned following the operation to give unrestricted access to the released area. Operations will start on the 9th January 2012 and finish by 31st March and will be releasing significant areas of land behind the Common fence to the South West of Stanley”
Perhaps most notable in this summer’s clearance will be the renewed access to Sappers Hill Corral. The large stone-walled corral is a notable Falklands’ landmark and was once a popular picnic spot for Stanley residents but has remained unvisited for 30 years behind minefield fences.
Robin explained during questions that in the aftermath of the 1982 Falklands conflict, decisions had to be made quickly with often incomplete information and that with safety paramount large areas were declared as suspect which subsequent analysis of records show contain only limited areas of laid minefields.
Robin stated that; “documentary and historical research is undertaken first, followed by targeted physical investigations in areas where the risk of mines or unexploded ordinance is deemed to be higher. The process of decision making in relation to land release will be fully documented so that decision makers gain confidence in the validity of the adopted approach and the safety of the released land. The Demining Program Office, independent from the demining contractors, will cross-check documentation and also conduct field reviews to audit the process during implementation”.
Robin confirmed that during the clearance of Sapper Hill minefields and the demining of Surf Bay conducted in 2009/10 the number of mines encountered and destroyed matched with the number of documented mines laid from historical records.
Clearance of mines will take place within the restricted areas known to be mined within the greater currently prohibited area. BACTEC International Ltd will again be conducting the clearances and will utilize specialist mechanical equipment in addition to the hand-clearances of the previous phases. Robin explained that an Armtrac 75, a remote controlled tractor fitted with a flail, will be used for clearance and noted that this not only increases the safety of the operation but should hopefully lead to quicker regeneration of the vegetation of the cleared areas.
The announcement and planning for the new phase of land clearances counters Argentina’s recent highly dexterous interpretation of events that last week held the UK responsible for the presence of landmines in the Falklands Islands.
At the recent meeting of the Ottawa Convention in Phnom Penh last week, the Argentine delegation stated: “The only part of Argentine territory which is affected by anti-personnel mines is the Falkland Islands, but Argentina is denied access, because of their illegal occupation by the United Kingdom” omitting to add that the mines were laid by Argentine Forces. In turn, Stuart Casey Maslen, of the International Campaign for the Banning of Landmines went on to insist that if the UK is not going to clear the minefields, it should permit the Argentines to clean the 200,000 [sic] mines that experts believe to be buried in the Falklands.
Whilst no additional official response beyond the UK’s submission to the Ottawa Convention was deemed necessary to counter such claims the Governor of the Falkland Islands, Nigel Haywood, during Wednesday’s meeting re-iterated the British Government’s commitment to the removal of land mines from the Falkland Islands and the rights of the British and Falkland Islands Governments’ to set the agenda and pace of clearance to guarantee the integrity of the operations. In addition, locally elected councilor, MLA Mike Summers told MercoPress that:
“The UK Government has the legal responsibility for the removal of landmines placed by Argentine forces during the illegal invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. The safe removal of 20,000 anti-personnel mines and 5,000 anti-tank mines spread over 13 sq km in 117 locations in highly variable terrain is an onerous task. Four areas have been cleared to date testing methodology and safety of operation, and further clearance is planned commencing in January 2012. Argentina has no jurisdiction in the Falkland Islands, and the people of the Falkland Islands have no wish to see Argentines here in any mine clearance role, albeit clearing up the mess they left behind. If Argentina wishes to make a financial contribution to clearance no doubt the UK Government would be happy to receive their offer. All the minefields in the Falkland Islands are fenced and clearly marked, and present no immediate danger to people. The people of the Falkland Islands are happy to see mine clearance carried out in other Countries with more immediate dangers to their populations, but will support the UK in their task in the Islands.”
Planning and preparing for the landmine clearances in the Falkland Islands by the UK Government has met with considerable challenges, not least what was determined “The Falkland’s Initiative”, a proposal by Islanders that to avoid the environmental damage that the de-mining process was believed to cause and the enormous financial cost of clearing mines that in practical terms represent scarcely any risk to civilians, the money should rather be spent on mine clearances in parts of the world where due to mines people are at a very real risk of death, injury or loss of livelihood.
However, despite such initial problems and debate, mine clearance is now underway and this summer will see a significant release of safe land in the Falklands for public use with the expansion of the program. Robin Swanson concluded; “We had a tremendous amount of support from the Islanders during the first phase of the pilot demining project and I am sure we will receive the same welcome and support again.”
By Grant Munro – SeAledPR - Stanley