Thursday, February 1, 2001
By E.A. Barrera
At first sight, the thing looks like an old-style push lawn mower. A solid steel, 900 pound push lawn mower that unless your last name is Kent and your day-job is at the Daily Planet, you'd probably have a tough time pushing up and down the neighbor's backyard.
But the object of this machine isn't to clean or trim a lawn. It's to rip it apart. Blow it to pieces. And in the process save the lives of thousands of people, mostly children.
This mower is called the Armadillo Landmine Detonator System ("Armadillo"). It is the product of Ploughshare Technologies of San Diego. When used correctly, the "Armadillo" will roll its dozen 36-pound rollers over a one-meter wide path, creating half-inch grooves in a hard ground surface that will detonate even the lightest, most sinister of explosive devices. These are the types of bombs that a child might pick up - mistaking the explosive for some sort of plastic toy or keepsake. Children, unfortunately, are the very best landmine detectors in existence. That is something that the Armadillo is supposed to cure.
Over 25,000 people are hurt or killed by landmines every year, according to former University of San Diego political science professor Daniel Wolf. Wolf, who serves as president of Ploughshare Technologies, observed recently that as many as 100 million landmines may exist in the world, yet barely 500,000 were removed last year.
"The United Nations estimates that it will take 850 years and $30 billion to clear mines already in the ground. Add the myriad mines that get planted in new conflicts, from Chechnya to the Congo, and the task stretches out for centuries more," said Wolf.
Patrick Blagden, a Brigadier with the British army and a demining expert with the United Nations, agrees with Wolf's assessment.
"Landmines are so plentiful and cheap, as little a $3 a throw, that their numbers have become staggering. They're now so pervasive that - and this is terrible to admit - we can't even calculate how large the problem is," said Blagden.
In 1994, according to author Donovan Webster in his book Aftermath: the Remnants of War, the American State Department estimated that over 85 million mines were spread across 56 nations. That figure was low, according to the International Red Cross. The Red Cross calculated as many as 300 million landmines were indiscriminately scattered in as many as 66 nations.
"Mine clearance costs are yet another dumbfounding aspect to all of this," said Blagden. "Over the next twenty-five years, we will have to commit between $300 to $1,000 in order to clear up every $3 landmine currently in the ground.
The question of how to destroy landmines and how to keep nations from using them in the first place, was the leading cause of England's late Princess Diana. Prior to her death in August of 1997, Diana brought publicity and money to a cause she traveled across the globe to promote. The tragedy of Diana's death created a wave of support and sympathy for her life's work. Like President John F. Kennedy's assassination sparking the American Congress to pass Civil Rights laws he supported, so the world responded to Diana's death. The emotional outpouring in the aftermath of her demise was directly linked to the decision that year to award American Jody Williams with the Nobel Prize for her anti-mine efforts. Additionally, within weeks after Diana's death, The Ottawa Convention was organized. 127 nations signed a historic treaty banning the use of mines.
Yet a certain air of bitterness has since infiltrated the anti-mine movement in the wake of their success. Since the Ottawa Convention, much of the $500 million in funding promised for anti-mine efforts has never materialized, due to political squabbling by governments and competing anti-mine organizations. Altered priorities from organizations who'd once helped the anti-mine effort have also been a problem.
"The demining organizations have not received the support they were promised," said Louis McGrath, executive director of the British Mines Advisory Group. "The Diana Memorial fund announced that they would give one million pounds for victim assistance, but nothing was offered for mine clearance. People believe we are getting the support we require. But it's just not true."
Wolf echoes the frustrations of anti-mine activists. He notes that institutionalized support for clearing mines has not been generous. "The United Nations has bee unresponsive to this project," said Wolf. "The military has shown interest, but they have not been proactive. Most of the interest and support we've received has been through individuals and grants from foundations," he added.
One of the nastiest reasons for the stalled efforts to detonate landmines has been the continued use of these weapons by nations who participated in the Ottawa Convention. A March 1999 Newsweek article revealed that Angola, Cambodia, and Mozambique were just three of the countries who signed the Ottawa accords, yet continued to use landmines when civil war and strife took over their respective countries. Additionally, leading countries of the world, such as the United States, Russia, China and Israel, refused to sign the ban - citing the military necessity of landmines during war.
Landmines are considered an effective weapon precisely because they provide low risk methods for attacking an enemy. They are cheap and easy ways for countries with little resources to wage very deadly warfare. Even in powerful countries, like the United States, American military leaders consider the use of landmines an effective tool in defending such hot spots as South Korea.
Then there is the problem of keeping the issue alive in the minds of folks. This is termed the "CNN effect" by Sverre Johan Kvale, the Sarajevo representative to Norwegian People's Aid, a large, international anti-landmine organization.
"With Diana gone and world attention as fickle as always, we see what we call donor fatigue. It's kind of like the focus is moving all the time," said Kvale.
Wolf and his team conducted tests with the Armadillo on December 19, 2000, at the San Diego Sheriff's Arson & Explosives station in East County. The purpose of the test was to determine what forces the Armadillo could withstand under various amounts of explosive power. The tests used various amounts of TNT, ranging from 51 grams to 253 grams.
"I'm pleased with the results of the test," said Wolf. "Small problems, such as broken rods and nuts, need to be addressed. But the basic structure of the Armadillo stayed intact and virtually unscratched."
Unscratched, but not without some damage. After a round of 253 grams of TNT was set off, one of the 36 metal rollers was blown 20 feet in the air and 25 feet away from the point of impact. The imagery was startling as the picture of children in Sarajevo or El Salvador or Cambodia experiencing a bloody fate in similar circumstances was seared into the minds of test observers.
In fact one of the observers at the December 20 test was Harriet Tubman Village Charter School 2nd grader Jeffrey Barrera. Jeffrey, a neighbor of Wolf's, was allowed to participate in the test, pressing the button which detonated the explosives under the supervision of Sheriff's detective Bill Jache.
"I hope this will keep more landmines from hurting people and that if it works, it will be used for a very long time," said Jeffrey.
Wolf calls his work a mission he has championed for over ten years. He said the very hideous nature of landmines and their lack of distinction between soldier and 2nd grader was what motivated him to undergo the work on the Armadillo.
"Most mines are close to the surface and hard to spot," said Wolf. "A well hidden mine is not going to have a mound showing. That is why people get killed just stepping off the sidewalk."
Despite the few glitches with broken rods and blown nuts and bolts, Jache, a Naval reserve officer who has served as an explosives expert around the world, came away from the tests impressed with the performance of the Armadillo.
"The tight pattern and the lack of serious damage to the device are good signs that may have a working tool that will save some lives," said Jache.
For more information, contact Daniel Wolf at TerraSegura@compuserve.com
Causes E.A. Barrera Supports
President Obama, The National Film Registry, Organized Labor, World Literacy, The Baltimore Orioles, The Minnesota Vikings, The James Joyce Center, The John...