Land Mines Holding Farmland Hostage

Removing Land Mines Across Ukrainian Farmland Even as War Continues to Rage

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Heidi Kuhn, center, is the founder and CEO of Roots for Peace and the 2023 World Food Prize laureate for her work to help remove mines and redevelop agriculture in war-torn regions of the world. She is with Dinh Thi Kiew, right, and Tran Thi Ly Van, who work to remove mines in Vietnam. Dinh and Tran demonstrated how they find and remove mines in their provinces. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

DES MOINES, Iowa (DTN) -- An area of land in Ukraine roughly 20% larger than the state of Iowa is riddled with land mines and unexploded devices that will need to be cleared before it can safely be farmed again.

That's the assessment and challenge ahead for groups looking to go into Ukraine and reclaim farmland even as war continues in the country. Since the Russian invasion in 2022, Ukraine has become the most heavily mined country in the world.

Throughout its history, the World Food Prize has been awarded to crop breeders, scientists, nutrition advocates or policymakers who focus on reducing hunger. This year's laureate, Heidi Kuhn, was honored for her work during the past 25 years to help remove mines in rural war-torn areas and redevelop agriculture in those regions with her group Roots for Peace.


"It's imperative that we remove these deadly seeds of terror from the one Earth we share," Kuhn said Wednesday.

Ambassador Ken Quinn, retired president of the World Food Prize, said he was thrilled the organization had chosen to recognize "one of the most important and noble things possible" in ridding the world of killer land mines. Quinn recalled his time in Cambodia when accidental deaths and amputations were common.

"When I was ambassador in Cambodia, land mines were the central element of post-conflict society, even though conflict was still on," Quinn said. "And there were more land mines around Cambodia than probably any other country on the face of the earth."

Roots for Peace has partnered with the Mine Advisory Group since 1999 to work on removal efforts.


"Land mines hold the land hostage," said Jamie Franklin, executive director of the organization Mines Advisory Group America.

Mines Advisory Group operates in 33 countries and has been involved in Ukraine for about a year. Franklin told DTN the group just began working with Ukraine residents to start mine removal. He reiterated the difficulty ahead when Russian and Ukrainian mines have been placed across an estimated 42 million acres of farmland, an area about 20% larger than the state of Iowa.

"One of the major challenges in Ukraine is going to be hiring the manpower that is needed to do the clearance, especially at the moment when we have lots of people who are ... of an age that could be a de-miner are on the frontline fighting in the conflict, or they're already employed doing other vital services within the country," Franklin said. "So, there is a definite manpower restriction at the moment. And that may continue post-conflict as well because there will be a lot of competing demands."

The Ukrainian government has been focusing more attention on the long-term risks of mines. The government developed a nationwide strategy earlier this year and recently held a conference on the issue, said Caitlynn Welsh, director of the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Highlighting the difficulties and costs of removing mines, Welsh pointed to a Ukrainian news article where a farmer said it would be cheaper for him to buy another piece of land than do all the mine removal on about 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres).


"The rate of de-mining in Ukraine could take decades, or even centuries to complete," Welsh said.

Roots for Peace, the Mines Advisory Group and another organization, Tetra Tech, are looking to expand their work in an area of Kherson, Ukraine, known for its wine production. Now, most of the vineyard areas are riddled with mines, Kuhn noted. Partnering with the State Department, the groups have received funds to start working on land mine removal.

Kuhn and her husband, Gary, founded Roots for Peace in 1997. The group has since helped organize de-mining efforts in Afghanistan, Angola, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Croatia, Israel, Iraq, Palestinian areas, and Vietnam.


"I'm a mother of four children, and I could not believe we live in a world where there's an estimated 60 million land mines in 60 countries," Kuhn explained about her passion. "This is the one Mother Earth that we share. Regardless of the borders, it is essential that we eradicate land mines from the face of this earth and this is a business opportunity. The seeds that we plant of life will grow as they have for thousands of years."

Roots for Peace primarily works with horticulture -- helping develop fruits, nuts and vegetable production. Gary Kuhn noted Ukraine is slightly different because the work there will be more centered around acreage predominately used for wheat and other major commodities.

"We definitely do need to seek out partnerships not only with the Iowa State (University) but also with the other corporations involved," Gary Kuhn said.

Heidi Kuhn said people are often surprised to learn that people in Vietnam are still dealing with mines and other unexploded ordnances 50 years after the war ended. That limits any agricultural production and reduces local food security in the process.

Roots for Peace has been working for more than a decade in the Quang Tri Province -- the former dividing line between North and South Vietnam -- where as much as 80% of the land still has risks for mines.

The Mines Advisory Group at the Borlaug Dialogue included three Vietnamese women who still work today in different provinces removing mines and unexploded ordnances. Hoang Thi Mai Chi explained she and others each had relatives and neighbors killed from ordnances leftover from the war. Hoang told the story of a recent 8-year-old and 4-year-old killed when they found an unexploded cluster bomb, which is about the size of a baseball.

"We were at the communities, so we went to the house just minutes after the accident," Hoang said. "The scene was so terrible that I will never forget in my whole life. I told my sons that I should do something to prevent these accidents that happen to people. So that's one of the reasons I have this job."

Hoang and her coworkers also demonstrated how they search for mines with different forms of metal detectors and then explode ordnances in place.

It's the lasting dangers to farmers, their families and other residents in areas such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Lebanon that are helping drive the efforts to quickly begin identifying how to attack the land mine and ordnance risks in Ukraine.

"We have to be able to step up and meet those challenges in order to clear up after the conflict quickly," Franklin said. "I mean, it's very sad that we are talking 50 years after conflict and continuing to work on de-mining, but that is the reality. That's something that we're also conscious of when it comes to Ukraine."

Roots for Peace…

Also see, "Experts See Drive to Increase Food Production and Feed the World Going Backward,"…

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Chris Clayton