The end of colonial rule in 1821 was just the beginning of a nearly 200-year conflict between Peru and what is now Ecuador. Until the 1990’s soldiers from the two South American countries fought and died in multiple wars and skirmishes in history’s longest-running armed border dispute in the Western Hemisphere. Their most recent conflict in 1995 was triggered by accusations from both sides of military infiltration into the disputed territory. The short but fierce Cenepa War, named after the Cenepa region of the northwestern Peruvian Amazon lasted only a month, but was enough to bring both countries to the table to finally sign a peace treaty in 1997.
The treaty has increased trade 5-fold between the two countries but has not resolved lingering, centuries-old distrust that still exists between people on both sides of the border, a border lined with up to 45,000 landmines, according to some reports. These explosive remnants of war are a deadly souvenir of a historic conflict and still pose a risk to thousands of indigenous people in the region.
While on a recent trip to the Cenepa region with the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development, I met Wilyam Lucar. Wilyam heads up Contraminas in Peru. Contraminas, with funding from the US Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatementand in partnership with the Polus Center is tasked with overseeing landmine removal along the Peruvian side of the border as well as victim assistance and mine risk education efforts.
What I found most interesting in my talks with Wilyam is that an unexpected dividend of the removal of mines along the border has been the building of a truly historic partnership between Peru and its formerly hostile neighbor to the north.
“We strongly believe that the coordinated work that Peruvians and Ecuadorians are doing in the jungle, removing weapons and trusting each other, means that we are on the way to rise for another level in our relationship, ” Wilyam said ” like a binational unit for demining.”
I asked Wilyam, “Could one say that these landmines, once a weapon of war are now serving to bring Ecuador and Peru closer together?”
“Definitively yes! Peru and Ecuador have a very interesting relationship.” he said with a diplomat’s skill for understatement “In order to do our jobs, we are sharing our experiences, challenges and even our military equipment.
“We’ve been increasing our efforts together with confidence. I can’t say that this has been a short process, it’s taken time and lots of effort on both sides.”
Wilyam’s group is not only removing landmines along the border, it is working to build trust between neighboring countries who were enemies for nearly 200 years. It’s a groundbreaking and largely unknown story in one of history’s longest conflicts.