- Armament and disarmament
- Conflict, peace and security
- Peace and development
Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal in July 2023 and any further reduction of Ukrainian grain exports are likely to have serious implications for both Ukraine’s agricultural sector and economy and for food security far beyond Europe’s borders, driving up food prices and hindering humanitarian agencies’ ability to respond to food crises.
However, the war has not only impacted Ukraine’s ability to export food but also its food production. Extensive contamination with landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) could keep large areas of agricultural land out of use, potentially for many years, jeopardizing both domestic and international food security. As the Ukrainian government readies a new mine action strategy, it should consider how to address important concerns about the regulation and prioritization of humanitarian mine action.
Global food insecurity has surged in recent years, affecting about 258 million people in 58 countries or territories in 2022. Violent conflict is one of the leading drivers, alongside economic shocks and climate change.
Violent conflict can disrupt every step of the food supply chain, from production and storage to transportation and consumption. Landmines and ERW have a well-documented and significant role in this. They threaten the physical safety of farmers, agricultural workers and livestock, leading to casualties and lost income. Some of those affected may choose to abandon the land, while others who stay may face risks in moving through, cultivating or foraging in contaminated areas, or of being harmed by scrap metal from unexploded or abandoned ordnance. Landmines and ERW could also affect markets, food processing and storage facilities, and the roads between them.
Moreover, contamination can directly compromise the delivery of humanitarian assistance and, over time, reverse hard-earned development gains through population displacement, lost livelihoods and lost revenue.
In early 2023, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that around 11 million people in Ukraine were facing food insecurity. The conflict has had a devastating impact on food systems in Ukraine. It has damaged energy, food storage and transportation infrastructure; disrupted markets and trade; depleted livestock and food reserves; and created general insecurity around food production and distribution. It has also depleted the sector’s workforce, as farmers and other workers have joined the defence forces. More specifically, most civilian mine and ERW casualties in Ukraine have occurred during agricultural work such as farming or forestry.
Even before February 2022, Ukraine was still dealing with landmine and ERW contamination from two world wars and from the conflict in the eastern region of Donbas that started in 2014. Despite multilateral efforts to limit the use of landmines, (in particular anti-personnel mines) and of weapons that typically leave large quantities of ERW (such as cluster munitions), both Russia and Ukraine have used them in the ongoing conflict. The scale of contamination has grown enormously, most visibly in areas once occupied by Russian forces, such as in the Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts. Due to long-range artillery fire from Russian forces as well as Ukrainian defensive measures, landmine and ERW contamination is also found in areas further away from the frontlines. Furthermore, contamination presents serious obstacles in some areas that are no longer directly affected by the fighting and are starting the process of recovery.
While the full extent of contamination remains unclear, Ukrainian officials' claim that more than a third of Ukrainian territory is contaminated is certain to be an overstatement. One third of Ukraine has been directly affected by the conflict at some point, but it is likely that only a fraction of this third is actually contaminated by landmines and ERW. Ongoing efforts to survey the territory aim to provide a more accurate picture.
In addition to the physical scale of contamination, minefields in Russian defensive positions have proved to be densely packed and intricate, containing a mix of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle landmines. In addition, retreating Russian forces have often left booby traps in abandoned trenches, along tree lines and in houses and backyards. Both sides of the conflict have also deployed a wide variety of munitions from various sources, including some never used before in warfare—such as the POM-3 ‘Medallion’ anti-personnel mine—adding technical complexity, danger and time to clearance efforts.
Humanitarian demining—the careful clearance of landmines and ERW to enable the safe return of an area to civilian uses—is essential to restoring agricultural production, bolstering food security and economic recovery. The positive impact of land clearance on food security, sometimes in approaches that integrate demining with other agricultural interventions, has been demonstrated by past initiatives in Cambodia, Colombia and Syria.
The Ukrainian humanitarian mine action sector is notably complex and rapidly evolving. As of November 2023, activities are supervised by three centres under the interministerial National Mine Action Authority. These centres are run by the State Emergency Service of Ukraine (SESU), the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the State Transport Special Service.
There are also a total of 17 accredited mine action operators, including national organizations, international organizations, state enterprises and private companies. The country plans to substantially enhance its humanitarian demining capabilities, including by establishing 300 demining teams under SESU, deploying 1000 personnel. In August, the MOD was also reportedly setting up teams dedicated to humanitarian demining, deploying around 4750 personnel. Alongside these are a rapidly growing number of national and international non-governmental organizations and private companies seeking accreditation for mine action, including humanitarian demining and surveying potentially contaminated areas.
Several internationally supported humanitarian demining initiatives focus on restarting agricultural production on land affected by the Russian invasion. For example, a collaboration between the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the WFP and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) targets smallholder farms. In April, FMC Corporation announced that it would give financial support to HALO Trust, ‘to considerably increase its capacity to remove landmines from Ukrainian farms’. Meanwhile, livelihood support in Ukraine from the International Committee of the Red Cross has included explosive ordnance risk education and risk-mitigation measures aimed at protecting mine-affected communities. Nevertheless, demining efforts explicitly aimed at restoring food production have started quite recently and are still on a small scale.
As new territories are liberated, there is rising demand, including from returning families displaced by the conflict, for the decontamination of agricultural land. But humanitarian demining is generally a slow, dangerous, technically complex activity and, given the scale of the problem, it could take months or even years for officially accredited actors to start clearance at any given place. Eager to resume agricultural production quickly, some people have taken steps to get their land decontaminated outside official frameworks. Several unaccredited groups reportedly offer farmers unofficial demining services. Standards among these vary widely, and there is no legal guarantee that the land is cleared and no legal recourse if it is not. Land cleared without official authorization is still recorded as possibly contaminated by relevant authorities—and is therefore still included in official demining plans. This creates potential for duplicated work and wasted resources.
Another important issue for the coordination of humanitarian demining is which areas to prioritize. When it comes to agricultural land, Ukrainian authorities must carefully manage the potential trade-offs between the immediate humanitarian imperative of protecting life and limb and the longer-term imperatives of restoring food production (and thus alleviating food insecurity) and economic recovery. The agricultural sector in Ukraine is diverse, including both large industrial farms—by far the biggest producers of staple and export crops such as sunflower, wheat and sugar beet—and many small-scale farmers. Prioritizing the decontamination of smallholder properties would likely prevent the largest number of casualties but be of less benefit for food security and economic recovery. Another risk to consider is that large agricultural corporations might simply abandon affected land if it takes too long or proves too expensive to clear.
The severe impacts of the war in Ukraine on domestic and global food systems are evident. The clock is now ticking to minimize the longer-term effects of contamination with landmines and ERW, not only on livelihoods but also on food availability, one of the key pillars of food security, in Ukraine and beyond.
Fortunately, it seems that Ukraine has ample resources to deal with this issue: human, technological and industrial capabilities; committed, proactive and entrepreneurial rural populations; and external technical and financial support. One of the primary challenges now lies in effectively harnessing and coordinating these resources.
The number of local actors who seem willing to join the humanitarian demining effort suggests that government authorities should focus on coordination and streamlining accreditation processes. This would improve the availability of competent, officially recognized mine action services and reduce the risks to farmers from ineffective work by untrained and unofficial demining surveys.
Innovations and community-led efforts in humanitarian demining should be encouraged and integrated into the national effort, as long as there is sufficient oversight and regulation to ensure safety, quality and legal accountability. Some well-established mine action organizations like FSD are already giving technical support to innovative solutions.
Beyond that, there is a need for the Ukrainian authorities to keep on top of the profusion of new local, national and international actors engaged in humanitarian demining in liberated agricultural areas, so that that their efforts are directed in line with demining priorities. It is to be hoped that the government’s national demining strategy, currently being drafted, will significantly help to achieve these aims.