DIY landmine-clearing is putting Ukrainian farmers in danger | World News - Hindustan Times
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DIY landmine-clearing is putting Ukrainian farmers in danger

The Economist
Apr 13, 2024 08:00 AM IST

Licensed deminers are swamped and farmers want to sow

RUSSIA’S INVASION has turned Ukraine into the world’s most heavily mined country. In Kherson and Kharkhiv Russian soldiers left minefields when they retreated. As well as laying mines to defend their positions, they used them to disrupt Ukrainian farming. One Russian rocket system—known as zemledeliye or “agriculture”—hurls mines up to 15km away from the launcher. Farming is a pillar of Ukraine’s economy: agricultural exports were worth $27.7bn in 2021, more than 40% of total exports. But 7.5% of Ukraine’s farmland is not in use, according to NASA, following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. There has been a human cost, too: 170 farmers have been killed, accounting for almost 20% of civilian deaths by landmines or unexploded ordnance, says Colonel Yevhenii Zubarevskyi, head of statistics at the defence ministry’s Mine Action Directorate. With spring sowing underway, what is being done?

FILE PHOTO: Members of the de-mining department of the Ukrainian Emergency Services survey an area of farmland and electric power lines for land mines and other unexploded ordnance for electricians to access power towers damaged by Russian strikes in order to repair them, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Korovii Yar, in the Eastern Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 20, 2023. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura/File Photo(REUTERS) PREMIUM
FILE PHOTO: Members of the de-mining department of the Ukrainian Emergency Services survey an area of farmland and electric power lines for land mines and other unexploded ordnance for electricians to access power towers damaged by Russian strikes in order to repair them, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Korovii Yar, in the Eastern Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 20, 2023. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura/File Photo(REUTERS)

When Russia’s invasion began, only four outfits were authorised to run demining operations in Ukraine, besides the army and government bodies. Today that figure is 29, with a further 19 in the process of acquiring the requisite licences. But deminers are still overwhelmed. Proper clearance is difficult and expensive: teams start by interviewing locals and hunting for clues, like craters, that could suggest the presence of mines or unexploded shells, before going in with detection equipment and protective gear. Nibulon, a big Ukrainian grain exporter that has its own demining unit, charges farmers only for its expenses. Even then demining can cost more than $5,000 per hectare. Despite government subsidies, that is too costly for many farmers. Some have bought or rented land farther away from the front lines, says Mykhailo Rizak, Nibulon’s head of government relations. Others, he laments, have taken matters into their own hands.

Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine war

DIY demining is most common on small farms. Viktor Sheremeta, a former deputy minister of agriculture, now with the Association of Farmers and Private Landowners of Ukraine, reckons that roughly a tenth of his 10,000 members have done it. After finding mines with metal detectors or long prods, most alert the authorities. But some detonate the mines themselves—by throwing objects or using rollers on the front of tractors reinforced with scrap-steel armour. This, of course, is very dangerous.

A black market for demining has also sprung up. These “dark deminers” offer cheap rates by employing workers on low wages and failing to insure them. Although many such deminers are former combat engineers, they often lack experience in dealing with the latest mines. Oleh Ushkalo, a farmer in the Kherson region, was approached by unlicensed deminers who offered to clear his land at a bargain rate of about $100 per hectare. He declined. Russian soldiers had stolen his combine harvesters, and he had missed harvests, leaving him short of cash. Nor did he trust the contractors. Some of the mines he had spotted were encased in plastic, making them hard to detect. Anti-tank mines on neighbouring farms, Mr Ushkalo says, killed seven tractor drivers.

Typically, dark deminers are hired in places where Russian forces have passed through quickly without leaving dense minefields. They are also more common within 20km of the front, where non-governmental deminers are not allowed. Most are hired by farms that are not reporting harvests to the taxman and want to stay off the government’s radar, says Mr Rizak. Tax evasion in agriculture, he adds, has become rife.

The work of dark deminers is dangerously shoddy, putting them and their customers at risk. Poor procedures can actually push landmines into positions that make detection and removal harder. Roughly half of all farmers killed by mines were in fields where improvised demining had taken place, says a Ukrainian security official.

With most fields now thawed after last winter, improvised clearing is doubtless picking up. But Tony Salvo of Bomb Techs Without Borders, a charity based in Kyiv, sees one encouraging sign. Because of the mounting casualties, Ukrainian police have recognised the dangers of dark demining. In the past, officers usually responded only after an accident—now they are investigating dark deminers proactively. A crackdown has begun.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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