Danger in the Earth: Teaching about Landmines
By: Elisabeth King
No, no, don’t look at the sky, they cannot do you any harm from above anymore. Lower your head because the danger is in your mother earth. If you have survived the war, try to survive the peace!
This grave warning comes from elementary school student, Melisa Dzanovic, from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Sadly, she’s right. Tens of millions of landmines, also known as anti-personnel mines (APMs), lay hidden in the earth, waiting to strike, in over 80 countries around the world. They cannot tell the difference between war and peace – they last long after wars are over – nor can they tell the difference between the footsteps of a soldier and those of a civilian – 80% of victims are innocent civilians. Moreover, landmines are most often found in the poorest countries, least capable of coping with the problem. Removing landmines in the ground, banning future use, and raising mine awareness worldwide are vital to achieving a healthy planet.
The need to address the global landmines crisis resonates particularly strongly with youth. Landmines are a problem that students understand, can see right and wrong, and can genuinely contribute to solving. The benefits to students themselves are tangible too. Youth involvement in community action campaigns, such as the ban on landmines, can increase their sense of empowerment, confidence, and practical skills.
The Canadian Red Cross advocates a participatory approach to teaching about landmines, encouraging students to ask “what?” – to learn about landmines, “so what?” – to understand their impact on the earth and its peoples, and finally, “now what?” – to involve students in the search for, and implementation of, answers to the landmines problem. This approach to landmines is not limited to social studies – art, computer, languages, geography, and history classes all work well – your imagination is the limit!
APMs are by definition a “munition designed to be placed under, on or near ground or other surface area, to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person and which will kill or injure one or more persons”. Unlike other weapons, they are victim-operated. In practice, they work when a person steps on a landmine, triggering the detonator and igniting a highly explosive charge. Metallic fragments, bones, bacteria, earth, and plastic are driven into the victim’s body at approximately 6 800 metres per second. This scenario repeats itself 15 000 to 20 000 times every year. Landmines, designed to injure, usually claim arms, legs, or their victim’s sight. Sometimes people die from their landmine injuries.
Landmines were first used on a massive scale in the Second World War. They have since been used in the Korean war, in the Vietnam war, in the Arab-Israeli wars, in the Gulf war, and in a plethora of civil wars around the world. Despite such widespread use, a 1996 Red Cross study involving military experts examining 26 wars concluded that landmines have never significantly affected the outcome of a war. What they always significantly affect are the lives of their victims.
In the mid-1980s, emergency and aid workers in developing countries around the world became increasingly less able to improve a community’s access to water, agriculture and human services. Landmines became an obstacle in the path to sustainable development with severe economic, social, medical, and environmental consequences on mine-affected communities.
In the economic realm, landmines bar access to infrastructure such as roads and railways and slow post-war reconstruction and the redevelopment of human services. Teachers and healthcare workers, for example, cannot get to work. Students are unable to safely make their way to school. The community’s access to natural resources is restricted.
At the same time, landmines make fields unsafe for farming – a problem since most of the most mine-affected countries rely heavily on agriculture. Such countries often become dependent on external aid. Worse, economic necessity often forces farmers to return to their fields despite the peril, and as such, subsistence agriculturists are the most common victims of landmines. The earth becomes not a provider, but a danger.
This threat also discourages tourism and foreign investment, again hitting the economy of a mine-affected country. The problem is not easy to solve. Landmine clearance is expensive, difficult, and dangerous, especially for a war-torn country.
In the social sphere, landmine injuries drastically affect the lives of victims and their communities. The work and play of amputees are oftentimes forever changed. Due to their lack of mobility, survivors frequently become dependent on others. They may be unable to resume their previous tasks, such as working in agrarian societies, and become financial burdens on their families. Furthermore, survivors are often stigmatized.
In many countries, for example, women amputees are considered “unmarriable”. Of course, these physical impacts can induce severe psychological distress including depression, lack of confidence, and suicidal tendencies. There is unfortunately a lack of psychological help available in most mine-affected countries. It is important to remember that all those that live in a mine-affected society share, to different extents, a life of fear.
The medical impacts of landmines are also far-reaching. Many landmine survivors are unable to make it to medical facilities, as they are too far, and die before reaching help. Those that do make it usually require amputations, many are poorly done, and patients thus require a second amputation. Much blood is needed, and the risk of infections is high.
Many materials need be imported, doctors require special training, and medical infrastructure need be improved. The amputations, prosthetics, and other healthcare required for a landmine survivor are extremely costly and needed for a lifetime.
In addition to the impact on their victims, landmines also have severe environmental consequences. Mined areas can restrict access to large areas of agricultural land, forcing populations to use small tracts of land to earn their livelihoods. The limited productive land that is available is over-cultivated, which contributes to long-term underproduction, as minerals are depleted from the soil, and valuable vegetation is lost.
Furthermore, landmines introduce poisonous substances into the environment as their casings erode. Explosives commonly used in landmines, such as trinitrotoluene (TNT), seep into the soil. The decomposition of these substances can cause many environmental problems because they are often water soluble, carcinogenic, toxic, and long-lasting.
Landmines also harm the environment when they explode, scattering debris, destroying surrounding vegetation, and disrupting soil composition. This substantially decreases the productivity of agricultural land and increases an area’s vulnerability to water and wind erosion, which in turn can add sediment into drainage systems, adversely affecting water habitats.
Unexploded ordnance (UXO) detonations have similar results. One study has shown that the detonation of UXO in the Vietnamese province of Quang Tri has drastically reduced soil productivity. According to estimates, rice production per hectare has decreased 50 percent in this area. The environmental impact of landmines is particularly pronounced when viewed in conjunction with the other consequences of landmine contamination.
North American students are often empathetic to the particular toll landmines take on children. Up to 30% of landmine victims are under the age of 15. Children’s small size and natural curiosity make them more likely to explore in mined areas or to pick up unidentified objects. Some mines, brightly coloured and shaped like butterflies, look like toys.
Children are also often charged with tasks such as collecting wood, tending to livestock, or helping with agriculture, all of which are extremely dangerous in a mined country. When children survive landmine accidents, the physical injury and emotional impact on a child are oftentimes more severe than on adults. Because they are still growing, children need costly new prosthetics every 6 months, and oftentimes, multiple amputations.
Children survivors sometimes lose opportunities to go to school, to be married, and to bear children. Frequently, they cannot contribute to the families and are forced to beg on the streets.
Most countries in the world, however, have not turned a blind eye to this humanitarian crisis. Since its inception in 1997, 122 countries have joined the Ottawa Treaty to Ban Landmines. This international law treaty obligates countries to immediately end the use, development, production, and transfer of APMs and to never assist or encourage others to do so. It requires the destruction of stockpiles and the demining of mined land. It also provides for assistance, care, and rehabilitation to mine victims and awareness campaigns until all mines are destroyed. It is an incredible achievement being the fastest negotiated treaty in history and the only one to completely ban a weapon that had been in widespread use.
There are, however, 70 countries yet to join the Ottawa Treaty to Ban Landmines, including the United States, China, Russia, India, Pakistan and most countries in the Middle East. Although the United States has not used landmines since the Gulf War, has not produced them since 1996, and is the largest contributor to mine action worldwide, it has not signed the treaty because it claims to have “unique responsibilities for international security”. Universalization of the treaty is the biggest challenge to ban supporters, and as such, the treaty is but the first step in the road to a mine-free world. Much work on demining, victim assistance, stockpile destruction, and mine awareness still needs to be done. This work can be started right here at home through teaching about landmines.
Educators that have tackled the issue of landmines in the classroom recommend being well prepared and ready to answer lots questions. Rebecca-Ho Foster, elementary school teacher and former Youth Mine Ambassador for Ottawa Ontario, smilingly tells the story of her all-time favourite discussion about landmines with a grade four class. “I was asked how much weight it takes to set off a landmine, so I said a few pounds. I was then asked if a kitten would set one off…and the suggestions started flying – a grasshopper? a snowflake? It was really great. Their minds were really working; they were thinking and wondering about the issue”.
Experienced landmine educators also recommend being ready for this issue to make an impact on students. Alison Clement, former Youth Ambassador for Winnipeg Manitoba, recalls a presentation she did in which she did not focus upon the idea that there are no landmines in Canada. As the students went out for recess, they stood on the side of the pavement and would not venture on the grass worried about possible landmines lurking in their schoolyard.
Finally, be ready for students to want to take action on this issue. Experiences of past global educators show that students’ ideas on this issue take on a life of their own from making slide shows with music, to awareness banners, from fundraisers to demine land or to help survivors, to lobbying government officials. I recently received an email from Libia Von Poser, a mother in Brazil whose child was inspired by the landmine cause and whose entire school now clicks on www.clearlandmines.com.
“They’re doing this with a lot of pleasure, because…we know about these mines that cause so many deaths around the world…Here in Brazil, thanks God, we don´t have mines, but we’re all concerned about this…God helps to solve this and maybe in the future our children will learn about mines only in old books.”
We can all be a part of making landmines history. It is up to us and to our children to make this generation the last in the world to walk with fear.
Activity 1: “I Thought We Could Play Here” (reprinted with permission from the Canadian Red Cross’ Survive the Peace)
All levels, 10 minutes
Set up several areas of the school or yard with reflective tape and “Danger: Landmines” signs. Make sure that these are places where students normally walk, gather, or play. Observe how students react to notices. Discuss the difficulties caused by “shrinking” travel routes and recreation/play areas.
A complimentary activity could be setting out everyday objects – pop can, child’s toy, pencil box, a ball…anything that students might be curious about before they arrive. They would then see these objects, perhaps be curious, and touch or move them. You could also “booby trap” desks with coloured stickers or place them on heavily-used areas of the floor.
Facilitator Debriefing Prompts:
- Ask how many people handled the objects. They could easily have been mines.
- Why would children in mine-affected countries pick up unusual plastic or metal objects? (Most toys are home-made from natural materials, many children work in fields.)
- Why would adults pick them up? (unaware of danger, selling scrap metal)
- Imagine how it must be for children in a community full of landmines, always having to be on guard.
Activity 2: “Just Try One Morning” (reprinted with permission from the Canadian Red Cross’ Survive the Peace)
Grades 1-6, 20 minutes
Students are informed that they will start the day at school by trying to identify and empathize with landmine victims. About 28% of mine victims lose one or both legs.
Students are given ropes or scarves which they use to tie their legs together at ankle level; or to immobilize one leg somehow. Other students are instructed to tie up one arm, go blindfolded or block up their ears to simulate the loss of an arm, eyesight and hearing. They then have to continue through their normal *morning activities with their sudden disability. After some significant time, discuss together the difficulties faced.
* This activity could be done for just a few minutes as well.
Facilitator Debriefing Prompts:
- Compare and contrast the activities of a North American child or adolescent with those from developing countries, where most mine victims live.
- How would farming, wood gathering, water collection, etc. be with only one leg or one arm?; without sign or hearing? Students could be asked to reflect on their morning experience.
- If you lost a leg or arm suddently, how difficult would it be for you to re-learn everyday tasks and activities? What would happen if you family was not able to afford an artificial limb?
- How might this disability affect the future of a landmine victim?
- Sarajevo, Yugoslavia was a modern European city, not unlike Canadian [and American] cities in many ways. Yet, during the war of the early 1990s, Sarajevo became infested with landmines. Try to imagine your city or town during a war. Where do you think landmines might be laid? Which parts of your community might become dangerous?
Activity 3: “Ideal City” (the inspiration of Noelle DePape, Youth Mine Ambassador from Winnipeg)
All ages, 20-30 minutes
Provide students with a large piece of paper and markers. Depending on the size, you may need to divide the group into two or more and have each group complete the task. Ask them to design their ideal city.
Depending on the level of the group, you may need to remind them not to forget the things a city needs: water, hospitals, housing, etc. Give them 10-15 minutes to complete the task.
Place “landmines” (perhaps pennies or red stickers) all over their city. For a variation, let each group strategically plant landmines on the other’s territory. For another variation, you may already have mines drawn on a piece of paper the same size as their city. Place the city over the mines paper and show the students that their city was mined (this variation brings in the idea of mines being hidden).
Facilitator Debriefing Prompts:
- How do people feel when their city is mined?
- How have their lives changed?
- Talk about places that are best to mine
- How many mines would it need to keep people away from a certain location (one, or none if people think there is one there, remember they are hidden.)
- What was the impact of having another city or country come in and mine your city?
Read essays by children of landmines, design a landmine poster or slogan, make a call to the world urging leaders to stop the use of landmines, invent new demining technology, sign the Youth Against War Treaty, click on www.clearlandmines.com to clear landmines for free, fundraise for demining or victim assistance, build a shoe pile to remind everyone that mine victims rarely need both shoes, read a new fact about landmines every day for a week.
Great websites (many of which include on line resources for teaching about landmines) on the landmines issue include:
Canadian Red Cross – from which most of the above activities are borrowed. See the site for more great activities are resource suggestions:
International Committee of the Red Cross – a wealth of information on the issue
Youth Mine Action Ambassador Program – lots of resources and guest speakers (for Canada)
The Road to Ottawa – Media Awareness Network
International Campaign to Ban Landmines – where it all started. Go here for information and for a special youth section with the Youth Against War Treaty
Adopt-A-Minefield – includes virtual tours of specific mined countries and fundraising ideas
www.landmines.org or www.canadianlandmine.com
A fantastic link to landmine sites of all sorts:
Students Against Landmines – an award-winning site designed by students that includes online treasure hunt for landmines information!
Cameron, Maxwell A., Lawson, Robert J., and Tomlin, Brian W. “To Walk Without Fear” in To Walk without Fear: The Global Movement to Ban Landmines. Eds. Cameron, Maxwell A., Lawson, Robert J., and Tomlin, Brian W. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Canadian Landmine Foundation website: www.canadianlandmine.org
Canadian Red Cross. Survive the Peace. Ottawa, Ontario, 1999.
Human Rights Watch. Landmine Monitor: Toward a Mine-Free World, 2001. USA, August 2001.
Youth Mine Action Ambassador Program website: www.dangermines.ca
War Child website: www.warchild.org/projects/mines/human.html