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By Claudio Torres-Nachón, Center for Environmental Law and Economic Integration of the South-DASSUR,

The international landmine crisis should be understood as an ancillary element of the current international environmental crisis. There is a strong need for a global environmental impact assessment of landmines. Be it for assessing its impact on wildlife or to evaluate atmospheric emissions by destruction of stockpile, environmental impact assessments are essential to advance in humanitarian demining in Africa and elsewhere as a pre-requisite for redevelopment after war.

The impact of landmines goes further than the killing and maiming of civilians and military well after conflicts are over. Landmines affect many components of the global biosphere. Among the many problems attached to the use of landmines are those related to its impact on the natural environment and its components. Landmines have killed and maimed large numbers of specimens of wildlife and domestic species worldwide. Landmines set in motion a series of events leading to environmental degradation in the forms of soil degradation, deforestation, pollution of water resources with heavy metals and possibly altering entire species' populations by degrading habitats and altering food chains. Additionally, landmines are usually placed near hospitals or sanitation facilities, impacting the ability to preserve human health. In certain cases there is a repetitive geographical coincidence between mine-affected zones and biodiversity hotspots. By degrading habitats, impacting population species, altering food's chain, and placing additional pressure over natural resources, landmines pose a considerable risk to pristine ecosystems throughout the world. Landmine-poaching presents the ultimate distortion of this insidious weapon. It is used as a simple and effective mechanism for killing wildlife. Environmental impacts may occur while demining is taking place or by destruction of stockpile as well.

In general terms, environmental impacts of APMs can roughly be categorized as direct or indirect. 1) Direct Impacts Of Landmines On The Environment: By direct environmental impact we refer to those effects, alterations and disruptions caused to the natural environment and/or its components at the moment and specific location of the blast of a landmine; 2) Indirect Impacts Of Landmines On The Environment: Indirect environmental impact of landmines are those effects, alterations and disruptions that may take place at differentiated spatial and temporal scheme from an original location or explosion of a landmine.

From a temporal spectrum indirect impacts may be continuous and/or delayed at a short, medium or long term. By continuos impacts we refer to those landmine related physico-chemical effects which degrade, pollute or transform in any ecologically sensitive perspective those environmental elements interacting with the device, i.e. Decomposition or corrosion of the landmine's case, may produce a prolonged leaking of toxic heavy metals typically present in a landmine, as mercury and lead. Delayed impacts are those negatively affecting the environment and it components at a later time in a single, recognizable event, i.e. Certain methods of mine clearance may produce such impacts.

Short term effects generally include the physical destruction of close range vegetation and killing/injuring of wildlife. Medium term impacts may include a deterioration on soil composition preventing cultivation lands to return to levels of agricultural production prior to a landmine explosion. Long term impacts include the persistence and bioaccumulation of certain toxic substances freed into the site of the blast as mercury and lead, both present on most landmines. It is open to discussion how to classify impacts which are specially difficult to assess and quantify. A probable influence into global warming by depletion and enhanced human pressure over natural carbon dioxide sinks as forest presents an enormous task for scientists. As entire populations may not be able to return to their villages or cultivation lands, in occasion they are forced to find new land to settle. To better comprehend the issue, let us remember some basic principles of environmentalism: first, nature knows best; second, everything must go somewhere; and third, but not last, everything is connected to everything else. Therefore, even if such impact on global warming happens to be minimal, it should be properly addressed as an innovative way to reflex on the nature and ends of armed conflict.

The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty makes two explicit references to environmental issues: Article 5(4)(c) states that "States Parties may request an extension of the deadline for completing the destruction of such landmines to a Meeting of States Parties. Such request of deadlines extensions shall containing the humanitarian, social, economic and environmental implications of the extension". By such reference to environmental implications, the strategic importance of environmental issues is underlined in the international humanitarian strategy to universally ban and destroy landmines. On the other hand, such provisions opens up a possibility for fraudulent States to use the environment to escape from their immediate obligations of destruction within the established 10 years period of planted landmines on territories under its jurisdiction or control as stated in Article 5(1) of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. In short, environmental issues may represent both a positive or a negative tool for the effective implementation of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the global eradication of landmines. Nevertheless, such environmental allegations may be valid and legitimate as to request an extension on the compliance with the general obligation above mentioned. As such, it is an indispensable, delicate and urgent task to develop and establish a Working Group on Environmental Aspects of the Landmine Crisis and the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty to compile, evaluate, classify, and analyze information related to past, present, and potential impacts of the landmine crisis on the environment for the territories of States Parties and Non-Parties to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, since ecosystems, rivers, underground waters, marine currents, species and all other elements of the environment recognize no political borders and legal situations of transboundary pollution may occur, directly or indirectly caused by the international landmine crisis.

Our first and overall policy recommendation resides on the need for a global environmental impact assessment of landmines, Africa being the first region to assess. Be it for assessing its impact on wildlife or to evaluate atmospheric emissions by destruction of stockpile, environmental impact assessments are essential to advance in humanitarian demining in Africa and elsewhere as a pre-requisite for redevelopment after war.

Second, specific attention should be paid to the advances of the Study on the Use of Socio-Economic Analysis in Planning and Evaluating Mine Action Programmes undertaken by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining. As it is to include environmental indicators, environmentalists should try to participate at every level possible in the development and follow-up of such study as it will serve as a cornerstone for humanitarian demining policy makers in the aftermath of the Second Meeting of the State Parties to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty to be held in Geneva on September 2000.

Third, multilateral, environmental and humanitarian demining organizations should work together with countries Party to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty towards the development and ultimate establishment of a Minimum Environmental Standard (MES) for the destruction of antipersonnel landmines. A first step should be the detailed sharing of specific environmental measuring and mitigation techniques used during destruction of stockpile and planted landmines between technologically advanced and developing or less developed countries.

Fourth, in countries where the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty has not been signed or ratified, it may probe effective to follow a strategy consisting on distributing this and other publications on environmental impacts of landmines to national environmental organizations in order to get them on board for advocacy goals for signature, ratification and/or effective implementation of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. By doing so, environmental organizations may become part of national campaigns and use their influence to advance in the goal of universal ban of landmines.

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