– BY JESSICA SILBER
The village of Nizalies deep in thePfukwe Corridor, ararely-visited region in the Gaza Province of Mozambique. It sits amid scrubby brush in the rural landscape, alongside a railroad track that runs from Maputo to Zimbabwe.
On the other side of the track lay the mines.
At 25 kilometers in length, the Pfukwe Corridor minefield is one of Mozambique’s longest. The mines here were laid during Mozambique’s 10-year civil war to protect the railway – a crucial supply artery – from attack.
As is so often the case with landmines, the weapons remained in the ground long after the war’s end in 1992. Out of fear, Niza’s inhabitants avoided the opposite side of the railroad track. But months became years, years became decades, and avoidance grew increasingly difficult.
Firewood dwindled on the side where the village lay, while lush forests beckoned from across the railroad. Livestock, having exhausted the available grass on the one side of the track, ventured across the railway and encountered landmines; dying, according to the accounts of some villagers, at a rate of one animal a day.
And Niza, like so many other mine-affected villages, stood stagnant.
DulceMazuze, one of Niza’s two resident schoolteachers, sighs when asked about the devastating effect the landmines have had on the village’s development. Gesturing to the one-room schoolhouse where she and fellow teacher, EliardaJoão, work, she says, “They affect even the school because they affect the development of the community. For example, people can’t collect wood for fires because they are afraid of mines. And we need firewood for the school. There’s no investment in the community; so there’s no investment in the school.”
“We work in these conditions,” addsEliarda. “We must make our own effort.”
Life in Niza continued this way for nearly two decades – until an unlikely liberator arrived in the Pfukwe Corridor.
“In 2009,” Dulce recalls, “I heard there were rats that were being kept and trained to find landmines. I thought, oh, my!” she says with a laugh, demonstrating her amazement. “I admired that they could do this.”
The news of these incredible rats spread throughout the region. People living in the area surrounding Niza confirmed that a demining organisation had set up camp in the neighboring village of Pelane, where these uncommonly enormous rodents were being trained to detect landmines.
Of course, the creatures had not materialised in thePfukwe Corridorto begin clearing fieldson their own. They’dcomewith APOPO, a Belgian NGO whose humanitarian Mine Action programhad arrived in the Gaza Province three years prior. But APOPO’s journey through Mozambique to the Pfukwe Corridor had begun even earlier, in Belgium: a country as far removed from the deadly threat of landmines as can be imagined.
AN UNUSUAL APPROACH
It was when he was conducting an analysis of the global landmine problem at the University of Antwerp that Bart Weetjens, a product engineer, had his a-ha moment.
A rodent enthusiast as a child, Weetjens was no stranger to the animals’ intelligence, trainability, and olfactory capabilities. When this knowledge was coupled with a passion for the African continent that had been instilled in him through travel, he arrived at an idea for a new approachto demining; an approach that was sustainable, cost-effective, rapid, and placed local people and local resources at the wheel.
Following initial research and financial support from the Belgian Directorate for International Co-operation, APOPO – an acronym for the Dutch Anti-PersoonsmijnenOntmijnendeProductOntwikkeling, or Anti-Personnel Landmine Detection Product Development – registered under Belgian law as a non-commercial agency in 1998.
Two years later, Weetjens and the nascent APOPO moved camp from Belgium to Morogoro, Tanzania, where a partnership was established with the Sokoine University of Agriculture – and where African giant pouched rats, the detection species of choice, were abundant.
With a lifespan of up to eight years, an African giant pouched rat can expect a long and successful career in Mine Action. And weighing in at about 1 KG, the rats are much too light to detonate a landmine. To earn the official title of Mine Detection Rat (MDR), they train for about nine months, at a cost of approximately 6,000 Euros – much less than the average accepted cost of training a Mine Detection Dog.
In peaceful Tanzania, a country unburdened by mines, rats are trained according to the principles of operant and Pavlovian conditioning to work in some of the world’s most dangerous areas. Rats trained for landmine detection will learn to recognize the scent of TNT, the explosive agent found in most landmines. Their incentive for distinguishing a sample of TNT from other, neutral samples is a reinforcing click noise made by their trainer, followed by an immediate offering of a food reward: typically banana or peanut.
Once a rat has proven that he or she can reliably locate a sample of TNT, his or her trainer must guide them through a series of training stages in near-to-real conditions at APOPO’s landmine detection training field.
Beneath the field’s 24 hectares are buried over 1,500 deactivated landmines. Each morning, a pair of trainers will attach the trainees to a harness and place them in a designated training box, containing anywhere between zero to four mines. When a rat smells the target scent of TNT, he or she must alert their trainer to the presence of a mine by scratching at the ground for a sustained length of time. A correct signal is again reinforced by the sound of the click and the subsequent offering of a food reward.
If a Mine Detection Rat-in-training passes three tests at the most advanced stage, he or she is declared fully internally accredited, and has earned his or her flight ticket to Mozambique. Here, one more test awaits:an exam is administered externally by Mozambique’s National Institute of Demining.Passing the test means a trainee will officially be declared a Mine Detection Rat.
The first group of 11 MDRs were licensed according to International Mine Action Standards in 2004, and APOPO’s Mozambique Mine Action Program took flight. In 2008 – one year before the rats arrived in the Pfukwe Corridor – APOPO was tasked by the National Institute of Demining as the sole demining operator for the entire Province of Gaza.
RATS AND RESULTS
In the Pfukwe Corridor, the day begins at 5:00 AM for APOPO’s Mine Action Team. At this early hour, mechanical team members, manual deminers, and MDR handlers don their protective gear and return to the opposite side of the railway for another day of mine clearance.
While schoolteacher DulceMazuze’samazed reaction to learning about APOPO’s detection ratsis characteristic of the rats’ unique magnetism, the Mine Detection Rats are far from APOPO’s only asset in the field.
As a humanitarian demining organization, APOPO’s achievementsare a result of a combined approach to their Mine Action work. Before a trained Mine Detection Rat can set even one paw in the deadly minefields of the Gaza Province, the ground must be mechanically prepared by APOPO’s mechanical team, men who control the impressive machine power of APOPO’s demining operations.
Once ground has been prepared for clearance, APOPO’s manual demining team moves onto the land, creating safe lanes for deminers to walk within and demarcating the 10 x 20 square meter boxes where APOPO’s Mine Detection Rats will perform their duties.
Metre by metre, the team progresses through the Pfukwe Corridor. It’s in this painstaking manner that APOPO has cleared more than 2 million square metres of land in the Gaza Province, with an additional 2.2 million square metres of land cancelled from clearance and returned to the population thanks to technical and non-technical survey techniques. Since the beginning of operations in the Province, APOPO’s mechanical, manual, and MDR teams have located and destroyed 1,866 landmines, 783 explosive remnants of war, and more than 12,000 small arms and ammunition.
The incredible progress in Mozambique set the precedent for the establishment of APOPO Mine Action programs in other parts of the world. In 2010, the organisation initiated a Mine Action operation in Thailand, where survey teams (made up of humans, not rats) are currently at work detailing land along the mine-infested border with Cambodia.
Plans are also underway for APOPO to replicate its Mine Action successes in a new program based in Angola, one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. Governments, foundations, and stakeholders are watching as APOPO’s Mine Action programs ensure that mines are no longer an obstacle to development and growth.
But the most important stakeholdersare not foreign governments or agencies. They are alongside APOPO in the field, and they are watching, too. And waiting. Schoolteacher DulceMazuze and the villagers of Niza wait patiently for the day when APOPO declares the Pfukwe Corridor mine-free at last, and inhabitants know they can once again cross the railroad, collect firewood, and let their cattle graze without fear.
Already, there are plans for growth in Niza.
“When APOPO finishes, we will be using this land right away,” Dulce declares with a smile. “We are very excited. There are plans to build a new school here in Niza. A local church will use the resourcesto build the school.”
“Now, we are feeling so happy,” Eliarda agrees. “We know that mines are being removed, making life easier for us. I think it is brilliant work.”