Promoting humanitarian demining and ensuring self-sufficiency for farmers in Ukraine

On 11 and 12 June 2024, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis will take part in the third Ukraine Recovery Conference (URC) in Berlin. The conference is one of the stops on the way to the Ukraine Mine Action Conference, which will take place in Lausanne in October. It offers the opportunity to discover one of the underlying facets of Switzerland's commitment to humanitarian demining.

Valerii poses in front of his farm in Kharkiv oblast.

The war also caused considerable destruction on Valerii's farm. © FAO/Anastasiia Borodaienko

The mine contamination of agricultural land in the breadbasket of Europe has serious consequences for commodity prices and food security worldwide. It destroys the livelihoods of Ukrainian farmers, which in turn can permanently affect the production capacities of this very fertile region. Innovative approaches can make a difference and speed up the demining process. One example of this is the mapping of areas using drones and the use of artificial intelligence to analyse the data from the images obtained to identify mined areas. However, the process of demining is still slow and dangerous. The ‘Fondation suisse de déminage’ (FSD) has started to clear land in the Kharkiv oblast of mines, but many farmers in the region are still unable to resume their work, at least not completely. Another aspect of the commitment of Switzerland and its partners is the direct support of the farmers in their long wait for the demining of their farmland.

The scent of the earth mixed with the sound of cattle: the solace of Liudmyla and Valerii

In the Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and Kherson oblasts, many farmers and other actors in the food value chain have lost the ability to supply themselves. These oblasts are at the centre of the war and represent a large proportion of smallholder agricultural production. Liudmyla and Valerii, two farmers from the Kharkiv region, are among these peasants who have lost an enormous amount due to the hostilities.

Liudmyla breeds cattle for meat and dairy products, feeds calves and piglets with milk and ensures that they grow up strong and healthy. She has spent most of her life rearing and caring for livestock. This is the most important source of food and income for her family. Before the war escalated, she managed 280 cattle, 100 pigs and a few sheep. The effects of the war are evident today.

The grain storage facility, three rooms of 800 square metres each, is in ruins, their herd has been decimated: 142 cattle, including calves, cows and cattle, have been killed and there are only 50 sheep left. The memory of the lost cattle weighs heavily on Liudmyla's shoulders. "At the moment, we only have 98 hectares of land left that is accessible for cultivation, which is just enough to grow fodder for the remaining livestock. The mines are a challenge, as is the damage from artillery and the lack of resources for crop rotation,’ she explains. 

A little further afield, the war also caused considerable destruction on Valerii's farm. He has dedicated his entire life to farming. He has been running his farm in the Kharkiv oblast for 20 years, where he grows wheat, corn and sunflowers. Although the quantities are not large enough for international trade, local traders ensure that his products are distributed efficiently. The farm has been a source of income for many employees and their families in the region. 

During the first attacks, a 30 cubic metre fuel tank filled with diesel and petrol was destroyed. Valuable equipment was lost. Several hectares of wheat fields were burnt. The land around his farm became a battlefield and the bombing of the region led to further destruction. "If I had money now, I'd use it to rebuild. You have to repair, but you don't have to rebuild everything", explains Valerii.

Mine clearance on their land is one thing. Restoring their farms is another. To respond to the situation of Liudmyla, Valerii and hundreds of other farmers in the Kharkiv and Mykolaiv oblasts, the World Food Programme (WFP) has teamed up with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and, in collaboration with the FSD, launched a joint programme for the period 2023-2026 to support small farmers and rural families most affected by the war. The project is financed by the Ukrainian Humanitarian Fund and supported by a Swiss contribution totalling several millions.

Liudmyla asked the National Agricultural Register for help and quickly received support from the FAO – a voucher worth 1000 US dollars, which she used to buy calves and thus ensure a solid new start for her new farm. With a further 5000 US dollars, she was able to buy the corn seed, fertiliser and pesticides she needed to set up and run her farm.

Liudmyla is sitting in her living room, with a Ukrainian flag hanging in the background.
Liudmyla asked the National Agricultural Register for help and quickly received support from the FAO. © FAO/Anastasiia Borodaienko

Valerii received two vouchers from the FAO: one for agricultural products and one for building materials. He used them to buy sunflower seeds that could not yet be sown because of the mines. He also bought corrugated iron, which he wants to use to repair the roofs of his damaged warehouses. ‘In addition to financial support, the FAO and the WFP have started demining 10 hectares of my land,’ says Valerii. ‘All our fields are contaminated with mines, mainly anti-personnel mines called ‘petal’ mines, and all the fields are still unusable for cultivation. Once the demining is complete, we will start with a small piece of land and gradually return to the way we worked before the war, or even increase production."

The vouchers issued by the FAO make it possible to purchase the equipment needed to continue activities on land that is free or has been cleared of mines, as well as building materials to prevent the destruction of their premises. The FAO has helped 2,860 rural families in the Kharkiv oblast affected by the presence of mines on their land by making sectoral cash payments to restore their livelihoods. This support reduces the need for humanitarian aid and government benefits and enables rural households, smallholders and agricultural producers to regain self-sufficiency.

Swiss-funded projects on Humanitarian Demining is also linked

The proposed activities are implemented in close coordination with the Government of Ukraine, food security and livelihood actors, mine action actors and local communities to ensure investments are complementary to existing demining efforts. The collaboration between the WFP, the FAO, and the Government of Ukraine (GoU) extends to key institutions, more specifically with the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food (MASF), the Ministry of Economy and the State Emergency Service of Ukraine (SESU). The Swiss-funded project on Humanitarian Demining is also linked and coordinated to avoid overlapping and foster positive synergies.

Switzerland's humanitarian demining commitments since the beginning of the year

In response to the scale of the contamination in Europe's breadbasket, an initial CHF 10 million project was signed on 11 January between the FDFA and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD). This amount is part of the CHF 100 million package adopted by the Federal Council in September 2023 for the period 2024-2027. Over the coming year, this project will see the expansion and intensification of demining operations in Kharkiv province and the opening of a new operational base in late spring in Kherson province. Thanks to these funds, the FSD can deploy the full range of demining activities to tackle the vital emergency posed by mined areas. In coordination with the Ukrainian authorities, the FSD is allocated areas suspected of being contaminated and begins by carrying out a survey, using drones in particular, to determine the extent of the contamination. Land that is found to be uncontaminated can be returned to the local population, while land that is found to be contaminated is then cleared by the FSD's humanitarian deminers.

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