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Clearing the way for communities to reunite

February 26, 2013
Jean-Guy Lavoie

When Jean-Guy Lavoie gets a salute from a Colombian villager who has been able to return to his land thanks to landmine removal, he knows his work is making a difference.

“Landmine clearance is enabling people to take back the land – lot by lot – to resume agricultural activities,” says Lavoie, an operations and quality assurance officer with the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS). “People along roads and trails are always appreciative and often stop their work to salute deminers passing by. Such impact is undeniable and sustainable … and very heartwarming. That’s why I love my work.”

Lavoie has been working as an operations and quality assurance officer for the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) since he landed an internship with the organization while completing his MA in Human Security and Peacebuilding from Royal Roads last year. His job involves working with the Colombian government to set up infrastructure to manage civilian humanitarian demining, which has not yet started in Colombia. Right now, only the military does demining and the country is about to open the doors to civilian organizations (NGOs), who are the experts in humanitarian demining.

“Military will demine areas for their specific strategic purposes whereas humanitarian demining won’t leave any mines behind,” Lavoie explains. “It’s 100-per-cent demining and civilian organizations can then give the land back to the community.”

It’s not common to have military organizations doing humanitarian demining while there’s a conflict, Lavoie adds. Colombia’s civil conflict, which has been ongoing for 48 years, has made it one of the most mined countries in the world. Last year, 75 people were killed and 404 were injured by mines, putting Colombia just behind Afghanistan and Pakistan in terms of victims, according to a recent report in the Miami Herald. In the past 22 years, landmines have claimed 10,160 victims in Colombia. They are mostly planted by guerilla groups – mainly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – which are still engaged in active conflict with government forces.

“Mine action – and specifically mine clearance – is truly a sustainable solution,” Lavoie says. “Once a landmine is removed, it can never hurt innocent civilians again. Once a piece of land is cleared, it can be returned to the community with a clear socio-economic impact.”

To accomplish this, Lavoie is working on policy documents and reviewing operational procedures with various demining organizations. He is also doing a lot of work in the field – visiting military demining sites and training sites for civilian organizations.

Civilian demining is common in other parts of the world, but it’s a new concept in Colombia. Last year, the attorney general’s office warned that humanitarian demining during a conflict could expose people to exceptional risks. However, done properly, Lavoie says demining is quite safe. “It’s probably more dangerous being a farmer in Canada statistically speaking.”

For Lavoie, the challenges of his job are not technical. “It’s fairly simple to find mines and remove them from the ground,” he says, adding that there are international and national standards related to surveying areas and removing landmines. “The difficult part in Colombia is establishing the political and legal framework to accept mine action by civilians. This is where the Human Security and Peacebuilding program really helps me to navigate through the difficult relationships between the practical technical considerations and the economic, political, cultural and legal realities of trying to do humanitarian work in a country like Colombia post-conflict.”

“Jean-Guy is at the cutting edge of human security and peacebuilding through his work on demining in Colombia and elsewhere,” says Prof. Ken Christie, head of the Human Security and Peacebuilding program. “He is helping people to reclaim their lives and livelihood which is such an incredibly important process. This is no mean task in conflict riven and post conflict societies.”

Before joining UNMAS, Lavoie worked as a police explosives instructor at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa after 25 years of leadership experience as a military officer, police supervisor and bomb technician primarily in Edmonton. Feeling like he had reached the end of his policing career, he was eager to have a greater impact on the international level.

“I realized that I have some technical abilities that could be of use for a future career and I started to think about using those skills in humanitarian work,” he says. “Mine action is an obvious one for me because it combines theoretical skills with technical skills, and the result is very clear when you see people going back to villages that have been demined or land that has been cleared of land mines and they can resume activities that will benefit their whole community.”