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When I first got involved in demining four years ago, it was rare to find more than a couple of people in an audience who were aware of the problem at all. Today, with all the press and television coverage, I don't think I need to do more than just sketch the magnitude of the task.

Numbers related to the landmine problem are notoriously soft: ragtag bands of freedom fighters do not keep accurate records of their engagements, and manufacturers of mines and international arms traffickers are not subject to third-party audits. The numbers I'm presenting here are consensus figures from United Nations and International Red Cross studies, who acknowledge they may be in error by a factor of two, more likely understating the severity of the problem. In reality, a factor of two in either direction does not materially affect the qualitative situation.

Mines are unique, among weapons of war, in that they continue to kill long after the conflict in which they were laid has ended. The overwhelming majority of mines have no deactivation or self-destruct mechanism and remain live for at least 15 years, and in many cases, 50 to 75 years in the ground.

More than 100 million mines are in the ground today in more than 64 countries on five continents. 28 countries have severe mine problems which pose a barrier to recovery after protracted conflicts. In Cambodia, for example, between 25 and 40% of the rice-producing land is mined and unusable.

The world budget for mine clearance is a minuscule fraction of defence spending and results in the removal of about 100,000 mines per year. Each year, on the order of two and a half million new mines are laid.

I'm not going to discuss the efforts underway to ban the production, use, and exportation of land mines, or to regulate the technologies used in them. Even if such a ban were enacted (which is probable) and proved effective (which is not), we'd still be faced with the need to clean up the 100 million mines already in the ground.