Ukraine is asking companies to invest in an unlikely area: minefields.
As the most heavily mined country in the world according to its Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, Ukraine is seeking to develop a business model from demining by introducing the profit motive to accelerate a process that could otherwise extend over decades.
Ukrainian officials say about a third of the country’s territory is potentially filled with landmines and unexploded ordnance, posing serious risks to civilians for years to come. State agencies and foreign charities currently carry out most of the mine clearance operations, but at the rate the government’s 16 certified mine clearance teams are working, they say it would take hundreds of years to clear the country.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Economic Development therefore strives to attract private entrepreneurs and encourage innovation. The first test of its commercial mine clearance initiative took place Wednesday at a site in central Ukraine, with demonstrations by three companies of their mine detection and destruction methods.
“We need to look for different ways to demine our lands,” said Yulia Svyrydenko, Ukraine’s Minister of Economy. “Otherwise, mine clearance will take hundreds of years and we must live and develop our economy now. »
The initiative covers humanitarian demining, that is, the removal of mines that remain years or decades after fighting has ended. This is distinct from mine clearance during combat, a job carried out only by the military.
Creating a free market for mine clearance has been a priority for the Ministry of Economy. His plan is for private landowners – farmers or local governments – to auction contracts to clear their sites in forested areas or open fields, which would present varying degrees of difficulty and danger. The ministry now has 69 applications from private companies; when a company is certified, it can make an offer.
The initiative includes encouraging domestic innovations that create products for export to other mine-plagued countries, rather than simply allowing Ukrainian minefields to be used as a testing ground for established foreign defense industry companies.
“Our goal is not to make money because we want to demine our country,” said Riabchenko Ruslan, a designer at the Postup Foundation, a group participating in the project. “But once the war is over, we will be able to export our technology” for mine clearance and other niche applications, such as archaeology.
Among the concept’s proponents is Howard G. Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett and head of global conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway. The younger Mr. Buffett’s charitable foundation supports landmine clearance efforts in Ukraine.
“It’s really important to create an environment where people are going to try to bring their best services and the best innovation to make that happen,” Mr. Buffett said.
Beyond saving lives, clearing farmland will play a role in lowering global food prices, Buffett said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Buffett met the first Ukrainian farmer to participate in a demining auction and watched as three companies demonstrated their work, including showing off drones designed to detect mines.
They worked in a field of dry, unharvested soybeans, lined with white and red ribbons and signs with small skulls warning of the danger of mines, a common sight in Ukraine. Mine clearance experts, using traditional methods of careful surveying and walking with metal detectors, worked for two months in this field alone, clearing about 120 acres.
The presentation on drone detection was aimed at an industry in which no country would want to excel. Yet it was a moment that was both sad and hopeful. “You’re going to see Ukraine become the world leader” in this area, Mr. Buffett said.