Alliant Takes Heat on Mines

They say that one of every 226 people in Cambodia has stepped on a land mine; the country has one of the highest rates of explosives per square mile in the world, courtesy of the Vietnam War and Honeywell. The Minneapolis-based company was the largest U.S. manufacturer of land mines until it spun off its defense business in 1990. Now the top American land mine maker is that spin-off, Hopkins-headquartered Alliant Techsystems.

Land mines are considered one of the most insidious weapons of war because they stay around long after armies have left. Estimates are that the world's recent war zones--Indochina, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia, to name a few--are littered with between 100 and 200 million mines. Of the 26,000 people they rip apart each year, the vast majority are civilians. Civic, religious, and medical organizations have long pled for an international ban on land mines, to little avail. But the effort is picking up steam, and next week a group called the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines is scheduled to take things right to Alliant's door. Vietnam-era activist Daniel Berrigan and historian Howard Zinn will speak at a May 7 rally--flanked, in spirit, by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who recently signed a full-page New York Times ad urging an international ban on land mines. Land mines have been growing less popular in the military, in part because the people who place them are just as likely to be injured as the enemy.

Right now the Pentagon buys about $75 million worth of mining systems from Alliant annually; the company's gear is capable of firing almost 1,000 mines in less than a minute. Alliant representatives did not return phone calls for this story. But the company's public position has been that it's not to blame for most of the trouble with land mines because its devices are set to self-destruct after a certain number of days.

That's not good enough for opponents, who claim that both Alliant and Honeywell have long refused to deal with the issue. "It's a government problem," a Honeywell executive responded back in the 1970s when approached by a Mennonite group about land mines in Southeast Asia. More recently, Honeywell has been pressured to start putting money into mine detection; right now, the only reliable de-mining technique involves a person--often an amputee who's already stepped on a mine--lying on the ground and poking the soil with a stick. "We'll look into it," Honeywell CEO Michael Bonsignore promised when asked about de-mining at a shareholders' meeting in April.

Meanwhile, most of the world's governments have signed a U.N. convention declaring land mines a serious problem, and most haven't pushed very hard to do anything about it. (Follow-up negotiations are currently under way in Geneva.) The Clinton administration has issued a one-year moratorium on U.S. land mine exports, but it does not support a total ban on the weapons until 2008. There's also been talk of only banning land mines without a disabling mechanism--the kind Alliant doesn't make; that probably won't go over well with poorer countries, who note that in that event, the only country able to afford huge quantities of mines would be the U.S. Self-destructing mines currently go for about $30 apiece, while the less sophisticated kind can be found for as little as $3 on the international arms market.

Next week's rally at Alliant headquarters should be a polite affair, given that protesters have been meeting with company officials to work out the logistics. But that's likely to change down the road. "We'll be going to [Alliant CEO] Richard Schwartz's house, to his church, to his country club," activist Marv Davidov promises. "When I told their security guard that, he said that's harassment. I said, we're not blowing anything up. And if we had any plans to, we'd come to you for advice."

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