Field rats help sniff out mines in Mozambique

Large field rats from Western Africa are being used in Mozambique to detect landmines that still threaten hundreds of thousands of people and hamper economic activity 13 years after the end of a brutal war that claimed up to one million lives.

The rats have quaint names like Nelson, inspired by South Africa’s first black president Nelson Mandela and not Britain’s most famous naval hero, and Guantanamo after the United States military prison where around 520 suspects from about 40 countries are being detained.

Nelson, his whiskers bristling with anticipation, leads his trainer across a field. Held by a lead he sniffs for explosives and then starts burrowing—a sign that a landmine lies underneath.

After this human beings take over and defuse and remove the mine.

Nelson’s trainer Joey Mhondive is proud of his charge.

“He is well behaved and very intelligent. He never slips up,” says Mhondive, who rewards Nelson with a little morsel of banana every time he strikes it right.

“A conventional mine detector reacts to any kind of metal but our rats are trained to react only to the smell of explosives, even years after the landmines were buried,” says Frank Weetjens, the local representative of the Belgium-based organisation Apopo, which is training giant field rats from the Gambia to detect mines.

“This method saves not only time but money,” he said.

The rats, which weigh less than 1,5kg are easier to transport and relatively quick to train, taking between six months and a year to learn the job.

Apopo, an acronym in the Flemish language for technology to detect mines—set up base in Mozambique in 2003 near the town of Chimoio, about 1 200km from the capital Maputo to work with a non-governmental organisation engaged in de-mining.

The region, bordering Zimbabwe, was infested with landmines dating back to Mozambique’s bitter 16-year civil war which ended in 1992.

Weetjens however says it is an uphill battle, and that they have had to change their partners three times “as the NGOs thought that the Accelerated Programme for Demining run by the Mozambican government was enough”.

That programme is hamstrung by a funds crunch.
In April, about 350 deminers went on strike to press for the payment of two months of salary arrears. And Apopo is still looking for a new partner.

“The money at our disposal is limited,” said Aurelio Faduco, director of planning at the National Demining Institute.

“The basic funds come from overseas. But now deeming the post-war situation less critical, the donors are shying away,” he said, adding that the budget had shrunk from $18-million in 2003 to $10-million this year.

Gilles Delecourt, the local chief of Handicap International, said: “It’s a shame. If the operations had carried on at the same momentum, Mozambique could have been the first country to attain the objective of the Ottawa Convention to be mine-free by 2009.”

Since 1993, about 115 000 landmines and 150 000 other explosive

devices have been destroyed. Initially mines were spread over 528-million square kilometres, putting 1,7-million people at risk, but today the number has come down to 171-million square kilometres and about 800 000 people.

“Demining is also crucial for the resumption of economic activities,” Faduco said, speaking of a country whose infrastructure was ruined by the war and where 54% of the population live in dire poverty. - Sapa-AFP

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