Leftover landmines and explosives threaten more than a third of the world’s countries. They remain active long after hostilities end, causing terror, killing indiscriminately and hampering the development of vulnerable communities.Bart Weetjens has trained Giant Pouched Rats to effectively detect explosives in minute amounts.
The New Idea
Bart’s cheaper, quicker, more scalable, yet efficient technology relies on the high olfactory sense of the African Giant Pouched rat that is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. Bart forms teams of three trained human deminers and one trained rat to detect mines. Relying on local populations to form the human resource base, the technology not only provides jobs for an economically disadvantaged group, it also reduces the risk of death and to a certain extent the costs of demining. Current demining techniques have failed to keep up with the demand for more cost-effective and scalable demining services in Africa, largely because they are expert- based and expensive. By relying on locally available resources Bart’s model permits locally-driven solutions in landmine-affected areas making it efficient, scalable, and in the long run promoting competitiveness in humanitarian demining. His work therefore represents a significant shift in the field from landmine-affected countries depending on foreign expertise to having the power to control the demining process. With a growing global movement to ban the use of landmines, the International Mines Action Standards (IMAS) for the use of Rats that he has helped set up almost formalized and which eleven African Great Lakes Region countries have adopted, Bart's model is replicable in Africa and other continents affected by landmines.
The last half century has seen numerous wars break out in Africa, Asia, Europe, Central and South America, and the Middle East. These wars resulted in planting millions of landmines and long after their end, this deadly legacy continues to claim thousands of lives. According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines approximately 55 million landmines and unexploded ordinance in over 84 countries and eight areas not internationally recognized as independent states cause between 10,000 and 20,000 casualties each year. Every day about 40 to 50 people are killed or maimed by a landmine and every year 40,000 new landmines are being planted in conflict areas. In Africa, landmines kill, injure and disable over 12,000 people per year. Twenty-one African countries are affected by landmines.Apart from the astronomical number of deaths, landmines have affected human life in various ways. Currently about 1.3 million acres of land around the world are mine infested. Very often civil wars have been fought in remote areas where indigenous populations depend on subsistence farming. Agricultural activities in these areas have been brought to a total halt, and the millions of people who previously occupied the areas are currently living in internally displaced persons’ camps or are refugees. Landmines have also hampered delivery of health services, humanitarian aid and road construction, the direct result being food shortages, malnutrition, poor health, and psychological trauma in survivors of landmines.The demining field relies on very few technologies. Current methods of demining are too expensive, especially for African countries where this problem has the greatest impact, and have not been equal to the task. The most used demining method is manual clearance. Expert deminers use metal detectors to detect and remove landmines. However, the method is too slow because in African soils, which contain high levels of iron, false indications are too common. In optimum circumstances, a human deminer will scan about 50 meters a day. In Africa, the field is facing major human resource constraints. There is no resource pool in African countries to support the expert-based industry. Also, donors are losing interest in funding the costly process of humanitarian demining in favor of issues where more immediate results can be obtained and social impact is easier to measure.To reduce the risk of death and increase efficiency, manual demining has been combined with mine-detection dogs. Dogs have been trained to sniff the presence of explosives. They work alongside human deminers at the frontline. In fact, mine detection dogs scan a wider area and detect explosives faster than any other known method. However, trained dogs—most of them imported from Europe or America—are still very expensive. A well-trained mine detection dog costs up to US$40,000. Imported dogs are prone to tropical diseases, and their weight can easily set off a landmine.Besides these few technologies, the field has not seen a lot of innovation of more cost- effective and scalable demining methods to match the demand. With the current techniques, it will take five hundred years to clear the world of all landmines.
Bart was finally convinced about the need for cheaper technologies when he analyzed the landmine problem in Africa in 1995. He was surprised by the complexity and high technological levels of new technologies, by and large proposed by research institutions outside the continent. Bart knew that it would be difficult to adopt technologies such as ground-penetrating radar or airborne infrared detection in Africa. He set out to develop cheaper, efficient technologies that relied on resources locally available in places plagued by the problem of landmines. Starting in an old rented laboratory in Belgium, Bart trained rats to detect explosives in minute amounts. Even if he scored major successes, he knew that for the technology to be adopted, it had to be based in the areas hardest hit by the problem of landmines and it had to win over the critics in the field. In partnership with Antwerp University and Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), Bart relocated his laboratory to Tanzania in East Africa. Besides the partnership between Antwerp University and SUA, Tanzania is politically stable and has close proximity to mine-affected countries in Africa. Tanzania provided the right environment for Bart to concentrate on developing and spreading the technology. He set up a world-class training facility in Morogoro 190 kilometers west of Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania's main urban center. Bart has worked out a partnership with the Tanzania People’s Defense Forces to supply him with deactivated landmines for the training program. Sokoine University of Agriculture provided him with the space to build his training facility and over 24 hectares of land to use as a training minefield and support through its rodent research center. All together, Bart’s team has developed the most varied landmine detection testing facility in the world.Bart’s choice of the rat, especially the African Giant Pouched Rat, is based on its advantages over other species. This rat species is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. Its vast spread in the region and its relatively longer lifespan (it lives up to eight years in captivity, while other species live for a maximum of three years) guarantees a sustainable supply of rats for the demining program. Weighing between 0.8 and 2.8 kilograms, their light weight enables them to navigate through minefields without setting off active landmines. In comparison to mine detection dogs, rats are much cheaper—total costs including staff salaries range from $3,000 to $5,000 to train a rat for mine detection. Compared to manual demining, a rat scans an average of 100 meters in half an hour, twice the area covered by an expert deminer in a day.The rats are trained to differentiate between the smell of explosives and other smells by rewarding them every time the correct sample is identified. Demining work is conducted in teams of human trainers, their rats, and scientists. The rats who pass the training become official HeroRATS, which is the basis of a creative marketing and fundraising campaign for the project.Bart understands that for his technology to be adopted in the competitive demining field, he has to win over his critics. To legitimize his technology, he drafted the IMAS for the use of rats in demining, which sets strict training and safety guidelines for using the technology. Bart is working closely with the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining to use the document as the accreditation standard for the technology. Before being officially allowed to work as mine detectors, the rats have to pass a licensing test. Bart has so far 23 accredited teams—teams that have been licensed to work as mine detectors. Every six months, the Mine Action Authority in the country of operation tests the performance of the animals. If they score all the hidden mines on blinded boxes, they obtain a license for another half year of operational work.The rat detection technology has so far been very successful. Bart has been contracted by the Mozambique government to clear minefields. He has also entered into agreement with five demining citizen sector organizations to clear various minefields. To date, Bart’s teams have opened 416,500 square meters of minefields. Although directly impacting on local population’s living standards, the currently cleared area is still small compared to the vast suspected areas on the African continent. With the support of 11 countries in East and Southern Africa, the technology will be deployed on suspected land in border zones of these countries to enable displaced people to return to their villages and borders to be opened again, connecting communities on both sides.Bart hopes to apply a similar approach to other fields. He is in the research phase of using rats to diagnose tuberculosis. So far his tests prove that two rats can analyze 320 samples in 40 minutes—it takes a whole day for eight highly skilled technicians to analyze the same number of samples. Bart is also looking into more effective technologies in the environmental field to detect pollutants and toxins; containers and parcel checks at customs and border security; aviation security; and in rescue operations to search for victims under rubble after natural or man made disasters.
On his ninth birthday, Bart Weetjens got a hamster for a present. This set the beginning of a long fascination with rodents. He spent a substantial part of his early teenage life raising hamsters, mice, and rats, and distributing them to pet shops for sale. He also developed a liking for weaponry, preferring toy guns and other war machinery for presents. At age 14 he joined Cadet School to learn military skills, but after only one year he quit, the experience creating a life long revulsion for war or the military. Graduating as a product development engineer, he designed a simple soybean-threshing machine for rural communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, his first experience in Africa. Bart got working experience in European industries, among which designing buses at VANHOOL in Lier, Belgium. He was part of the team that developed the concept of low step-in buses that help the disabled to access the bus, now used in public transport all over Europe.Wanting to use his skills to benefit communities in Africa, he started an exchange program between Kenyan and Belgian students. This program failed, but the constant presence of stories in the Belgian media about victims of landmines on the continent brought to him the idea of using rats as mine detectors. Although no donor believed his approach, he found a helping hand with his former professors back at Antwerp University where he had graduated. He was connected to Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro, Tanzania—a partner university to Antwerp University—where Apopo finally found a home from where HeroRATS were furthered through a close co-operation between Africans and Europeans.
When Mozambique declared itself free of known minefields in 2015, Bart left APOPO to deepen his meditation practice and explore its relation to social change. He currently lives in Belgium and is working on The Wellbeing Project (http://www.wellbeing-project.org/).