In the face of soaring food prices worldwide the Senegalese government recently launched a plan to boost local production of staple foods like rice. But in the Senegal's southern Casamance region, which has some of the country's most fertile soil, thousands of people cannot get to their farms because of landmines. For VOA, Nancy Palus reports from Dakar.
As in all of West Africa, people in Casamance have been hit hard by rising food and fuel prices. Abdou Salam Barry, who heads a rural association in the southern Senegal region, says in these difficult times more and more people are risking their lives simply to grow food.
He says, nearly every day we hear of people injured in landmine accidents. It is a constant fear, he says, but given the high cost of living these days, despite the risk people are forced to go into potentially mined areas.
Barry says he approves of the government's agricultural initiative, but he says demining should be first and foremost.
A separatist rebellion in Casamance in 1982 set off West Africa's longest-running civil conflict. Tens of thousands of people were forced from their homes.
Much of the region is littered with landmines, thought to be used primarily by the separatist group, Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance, or MFDC.
A 2006 study led in part by the United Nations Development Program showed that 93 communities are contaminated, affecting some 90,000 people.
The Ottawa mine ban convention, which Senegal ratified in 1999, requires the country to clear all mines by March 2009. The government recently requested an extension till 2016, saying in a 35-page report that the ongoing volatility of the region has held back demining efforts.
The Senegalese government and the MFDC's political wing signed a ceasefire accord in 2004, but occasional attacks by the now splintered group have continued and a definitive peace has yet to be reached.
Martin Evans, geographer at the University of Leicester, has done extensive research in Casamance. He says even for people who have been able to return to their homes, landmines remain an obstacle.
"They're still very restricted in how far they can go into the surrounding lands. They may be able to farm the lands immediately around the village which have been swept for mines but further out where most of their fields and orchards are there are still mines, or even the perceived risk of mines will prevent them accessing their productive resources. So that does put very significant constraints on their livelihoods," said Evans.
Demba Keita heads a local NGO promoting peace and rural development in Casamance. His organization, APRAN/SDP, monitors the movement of displaced communities.
Citing the two main regions of Casamance - Ziguinchor and Kolda - he says, we are seeing a massive return of displaced people to their villages and their farms, despite the risks. He says the government must accelerate demining because the people are not waiting.
Papa Oumar Ndiaye heads the government body set up in 2006 to oversee demining in Casamance. He says MFDC resistance remains a significant problem.
He says, the MFDC is concerned about its security and its interests. He says while the MFDC might not be against demining in principle, they are not ready to allow widespread mine clearance.
Ndiaye says he is working with local traditional leaders and international NGOs to convince the MFDC to allow demining aimed to help communities rebuild.
It is a delicate undertaking. In 2007 MFDC soldiers attacked Senegalese troops carrying out mine clearance operations.
Geneva Call is one of the organizations working to reassure the MFDC. Nicolas Florquin is with the Geneva-based group.
"It is crucial to reassure the MFDC and to make it clear that the objective of the proposed mine action programme in the Casamance region is humanitarian and not military," said Florquin. "This is important because combatants may perceive demining as an attempt to redeploy the army in the area that the MFDC considers as vital to its security and interests."
Florquin says much is at stake.
"Without dialogue and consultation with the MFDC Senegal's demining process could be delayed even more because humanitarian clearance operations could be sabotaged and also because combatants may continue laying mines. So the cost of such a situation would be high not only for the demining process but also for the local populations whose lives and prospects have been severely constrained by the presence of anti-personnel mines in the region for the last two decades," he said.
Rural association leader Barry says Casamance residents want action.
He says, for us demining is urgent. He says, the people of Casamance regret that the process is taking so long. Landmines are blocking our development, he says. If we could just get to our farms we could ease the poverty here.