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Mine clearance and the environment: HI is committed to preserving biodiversity in Colombia

Explosive weapons
Colombia

In addition to the risk of explosion, mines pollute the ground and threaten biodiversity. To mitigate these effects, HI is complementing its demine operations with a commitment to the environment.

Two HI employees, a woman and a man, crouch in the forest, planting tree seedlings.

In the department of Cauca, Colombia, HI teams plant trees in areas previously cleared of mines. | © J.M. Vargas / HI

Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. Its many different regions are home to a huge variety of fauna and flora in 1,552 protected nature reserves covering more than 23% of the country. To help safeguard this richness, HI is adapting its mine-clearance operations to take greater account of environmental issues.

Explosive devices contaminate the ground and damage biodiversity

Mines are a threat to all forms of life: local people, wildlife, domestic animals and livestock alike. Whenever there is an accident, all the surrounding biodiversity is affected by the shock wave and shrapnel. Furthermore, over time, the chemical constituents of some explosive devices can leave traces of toxic contamination in the soil, water and vegetation.

This pollution can sometimes be found in the nature reserves. To protect these areas, HI works with the environmental authorities and follows Colombian environmental standards in its humanitarian mine-clearance activities. Despite these measures, however, some areas of dense vegetation must also be cleared during mine-clearance operations. This is why, once these areas are safe, HI helps people and biodiversity return.

Trees – guardians of the ecosystem

Trees are the true champions of biodiversity. Climate regulators and protectors of water resources, they also help fight erosion and accelerate the restoration of ecosystems. This is why HI has implemented various reforestation initiatives in several parts of Cauca, southwest Colombia.

“The people who live here would prefer us to plant timber so that they can cut it as soon as it’s grown. This is why we are raising their awareness about the advantages of choosing forest species that are native to the region and not intended for timber production, such as fruit trees. These help rebuild the ecosystem, and their fruit will feed the community and wildlife for many years to come. For HI, it’s not just about planting trees and then leaving. We also need to work with communities and authorities so that they support the project in the long term,” explains Miguel Pacheco, HI’s environmental specialist in Colombia.

This is particularly the case in Santander de Quilichao, where HI gave 100 trees to the local community after completing its mine-clearance operations. The trees are indigenous species – such as igua, nacedero and guadua – and play a key role in restoring the local ecosystem. Since the beginning of 2023, HI has delivered 150 trees to the communities of Cajibío and Santander de Quilichao.

Reducing its impact

HI is doing several other actions in Colombia to help protect the environment. With regard to temporary camps for mine-clearance teams, for example, HI prefers to use an existing building (house, shelter) converted into a base camp. When this is not possible, particularly in some national parks, HI sets up a camp that, in addition to tents, has showers and toilets that can be completely dismantled. In these cases, HI uses recycled plastic lumber rather than concrete, so as to leave as few traces as possible of having been there.

In these camps, HI follows strict waste-management measures: organic matter is given to the community for composting, and household and hazardous (medical) waste is taken to the nearest town for processing. HI is also exploring the possibility of using new means of producing energy, such as hydroelectric turbines or solar panels.

Working with local stakeholders

HI organises workshops with local communities and environmental associations so that we can work together on the benefits of nature and raise awareness about how ecosystems work and how important they are. Through these workshops, HI and local stakeholders identify new economic initiatives that are environmentally friendly. As an example, HI has helped build four greenhouses for the communities living in the Cañón de las Hermosas in Chaparral. One of these greenhouses will be devoted to growing local forest species with the aim of replanting them to consolidate the soil and fight erosion.

“It's very clear that climate change is affecting our work, for instance when it brings floods or heavy rain which threaten the safety of our teams in the field and force us to suspend our mine-clearing operations. The climate crisis affects us all, so it’s essential that we are aware of our environmental impact and the risks we face, whilst trying to reduce them by taking appropriate measures,” Miguel concludes.

In Colombia, HI is currently conducting mine-clearing operations in the departments of Antioquia, Chocó, Tolima, Meta and Cauca. These operations are possible thanks to the support of the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement of the US State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM/WRA).

GREEN Project: HI is committed to reducing the adverse effects that climate change has on vulnerable and marginalised populations throughout the world. The association helps communities cope with climate shocks and stresses and responds to crises worsened by environmental factors. HI takes account of disability-, gender- and age-related vulnerability or exclusion in all its actions, and advocates that practitioners and politicians adopt a similar approach in their climate work. HI is also committed to reducing its own carbon footprint by adapting and implementing environmentally friendly approaches to humanitarian action.

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