Land mines in the Falkland Islands
Approximately 30,000 land mines were laid in the Falkland Islands by Argentinian forces following their 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands. Some of the mines were cleared following the successful British operation to retake the islands but following a series of accidents demining operations ceased. In the intervening years the mine fields were fenced off and, with human access limited, became havens for Falklands flora and the native penguin population. The British government ratified the Ottawa Treaty in 1998 that required the removal of all mines within its territory. Demining operations restarted in 2009, though owing to the climate and local conditions much of the work must be done by hand and completion is not expected until 2020.
Argentinian forces invaded the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory located in the South Atlantic, in April 1982. British forces retook the islands by 14 June in the Falklands War. One of the first actions taken by the Argentinians was to lay mine fields to assist in the defence of the islands. Despite rumours that land mines were scattered randomly by helicopter the majority of the mine field seem to have been laid in a professional manner and the locations of mines recorded. Approximately 30,000 land mines – of which there were at least 20,000 anti-personnel mines and 5,000 anti-tank devices – were laid in 146 separate mine fields. These are largely around the settlements of Stanley, Port Howard, Fox Bay and Goose Green.
The Italian-made SB-33 mine was widely used but mines of Argentinian (FMK1 and FMK-3 mines), Spanish (PB4 mines) and Israeli (No. 4 mines) manufacture were also laid, including hard-to-detect plastic models. As many as nine different types of land mine were laid.
One of the most heavily mined areas was Surf Beach, located just to the north of the capital Stanley, where 1,000 mines were laid just to the rear of the beach. Much of Stanley Common, a public access area, was also mined and subsequently remained out of use for many years. In addition one abandoned building, located near the Murrell Peninsula minefield, is suspected of being booby-trapped and is fenced off.
Initial demining efforts were made in the weeks following the British victory by British and Argentinian engineers. The mine fields around Goose Green, site of a major engagement in the war, were cleared by the end of 1982. Accidents resulted in six deaths or serious injuries amongst the demining teams and, with many of the mine fields located in non-essential areas, the demining operation was halted as the small benefit gained was not considered to be worth the risk.
Many of the mines laid are well preserved and remain active and dangerous. Around 80% of mines are in sandy or peat areas and so are easily hidden or moved making removal difficult. The mine fields are signed and fenced to warn visitors and no civilian has ever been wounded by a land mine. As human access has been prevented to these areas they have become de facto nature reserves, popular with Magellanic and gentoo penguins who are not heavy enough to trigger the mines. Native flora is also doing well in the mine fields. The Falklands has a small number of mines compared to other affected areas such as Kuwait, which is of similar size but has 5 million mines. The UK has stated that the socio-economic impact of the land mines on the Falklands is negligible.
The United Kingdom ratified the Ottawa Treaty that prohibits manufacture and use of land mines on 31 July 1998. The treaty required that the UK clear all land mines from its territories by 1 March 2009. The deadline was subsequently amended by agreement to 1 March 2019 and then to 1 June 2021; this was at the request of the British government owing to the high cost and slow outputs of clearance work. Many of the Falkland Islanders opposed the demining operation. They stated that as the mine fields were clearly marked and there was little demand for the land it would be more cost effective and better for the environment for the mines to remain. There are fears that opening up mine fields to tourists and farmers will lead to habitat destruction. However the British government, bound by the terms of the treaty, commenced demining operations in 2009. The demining operation is funded by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
At the start of the 2009 demining operation there were approximately 20,000 land mines remaining on the islands. Owing to the climate, ground conditions and detectability most of the clearance is carried out by specialist civilian deminers manually prodding the ground. The SB-33 mine in particular is described as "almost impossible to detect by any means". In some instances remote controlled mine flails are used to verify that areas are clear of mines, as at Goose Green where manual verification proved difficult. Windy weather prevents the use of mine-detecting rats as has been trialled successfully in Mozambique and Tanzania.
The manual clearing processes commenced in 2009 with two companies, Dynasafe-Bactec and CKS (later known as Fenix Insight), carrying out the work. Later only Dynasafe-Bactec have been carrying out clearing works. More than 100 demining team members, largely Zimbabwean, have been involved in the operation, each working for six-hour days in which they can clear around 5 linear metres of a mine field. They work from Argentinian mine-laying records and maps created by the British Army's Royal Engineers after the war. The Argentinian records are generally good but in some instances are not entirely reliable, being made at a time of great activity on the Falklands and having been translated from Spanish. Records for mine fields on West Falkland are patchier and many require additional intensive surveys to determine the extent and density of mines. Once a mine field has been cleared and proven the warning signs are removed and in most cases the fences are pulled down.
One area that has proved difficult to clear is Yorke Bay where sand dunes have progressed across the mine field, shifting mines or burying them deeply. This area may require large scale excavation and sifting with armoured machinery. As there will be extensive habitat disruption it is planned to carry out this work during winter when the penguins are at sea.
Inspired by the work in the Falklands, Imperial College London has developed a machine to assist demining operations in peat soil environments. The O-Revealer uses a set of electrical heating coils to burn off the top layer of peat by smouldering. The machine works on plastic and metal mines, though in dry and windy conditions it could potentially detonate SB-33 mines. The machine has not yet been trialled on the Falklands, but could see use in similar environments in Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Uganda, Zimbabwe and the former Yugoslavia.
Early operations were largely focused on the mine fields closest to Stanley, many of which were on public-access recreation land. By 2016 the teams had cleared 30 mine fields, removing 4,000 anti-personnel and 1,000 anti-tank mines and releasing 7 million square metres of previously inaccessible land. During this year all mine fields adjacent to main roads, at risk from errant vehicles, had been cleared.
During the 2016/17 season, seven teams cleared 3,000 anti-personnel and 150 anti-tank mines from 47 mine fields. By this time 70% of all known land mines had been removed. In the same year the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence committed a further £20 million of funding for future clearance works, the works had cost £16 million up to that point. One of the demining operatives was injured by an explosion on 27 February 2017 after hitting the side of a mine with a tool. He avoided serious injury, only requiring stitches to his hand and a finger.
In February 2018 Goose Green became the first settlement on the islands to be fully cleared of mines. As of 2018 some 35 areas remain to be cleared. These comprised 27 known mine fields (997,930 square metres total) and 8 areas suspected to be mined but where an additional technical survey was required (163,460 square metres). The expected completion date for demining operations was March 2020.
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