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Seeing the wood for the trees
by Shiferaw Mekonnen

Refugees in Tanzania respond to an environmental campaign that uses roleplay and drama. (UNV)Refugees in Tanzania respond to an environmental campaign that uses roleplay and drama. (UNV)
03 November 2009

Arusha, Tanzania: I started working for UNHCR’s Tanzania operation in March 2007 as  a UNV volunteer Associate Programme Officer. In the same year, in addition to the Programme Officer function, I was appointed to be a focal person for environmental programmes.

There were 11 refugee camps in four districts hosting refugees mainly from Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo. As the area of operation was stretched over two regions and four districts from January 2008 I was re-assigned as UNV volunteer Regional Environmental Coordinator.

The environmental management programme includes sustainable natural forest management and promotion of natural regeneration; tree planting  and rehabilitation; agroforestry; soil and water conservation; small scale vegetable gardening; guided harvesting of construction materials and firewood; the use of sun-dried mud bricks for refugee shelters; promoting the use of firewood efficient stoves and cooking techniques; environmental awareness education and training; campaign e.g. World Environment Day; conflict resolution and environmental taskforce meetings; and camp cleanup. These areas were identified through environmental assessments carried out in the different phases of a protracted refugee operation.

Last year we raised 1,060,091 seedlings in three districts and these were planted in refugee camps and host community villages. The first survival assessment for these seedlings was carried out at the onset of the dry season (May 2009) and 86 percent of the planted seedlings have survived.

For this year’s planting season, which will start from mid November, 900,000 seedlings are in nurseries established in Mtabila camp and in six local community villages.

Firewood is the main source of energy in the refugee camps. Depending on the type of food they cook, the firewood consumption per person per day for a traditional three-stone stove was 2-3kg of dry wood.

However, through the promotion and use of firewood efficient stoves and cooking techniques, average firewood consumption is lowered to 1.2 kg of dry wood per person per day. The mid 2009 mud stoves coverage in the camps is 76 percent.

The forest management we practice depends on the location of the camps. Some of the camps were located in a natural forest and in such cases our management focuses mainly on sustainable uses, promotion of natural regenerations, patrol and protection, and environmental education.

On the other hand, some of the camps were located in open semi-woodland areas. In such camps we encouraged refugees to participate in tree seedling production in a central and group nurseries and later in field planting. Seedlings which were planted on farm plots at the host community and home gardens in the camps had better survival and growth.

Similarly, in areas where the camps were located in natural forest areas, refugees were allowed to collect dead wood and branches for firewood. However, in the case of Mtabila camp where the camp is located in an open area provision of firewood for refugees was a challenge.

In collaboration with the district natural resources office we identified a harvesting site which is over 55km from the camp. Local communities participated in the collection of firewood and UNHCR together with partners and the refugees arranged the transportation of firewood to the camp for general distribution.

The agroforestry practices were also implemented in the host communities and refugee camps. Since the refugees’ plots were small in some of the districts, they were encouraged to farm around the camps in personal arrangement whereby the refugees integrate trees with crops on a plot provided by a local resident. When the refugee repatriates, they leave the trees behind - share cropping.

Although income generating activities are now discouraged, especially in Burundian camps to promote repatriation, we used to assist farming groups in small-scale farming. The assistance includes seeds and working tools. Families benefited in diversifying their foods and this contributed positively in their health and nutrition as well as in earning some incomes through selling fresh produces.

In 2007 we had 11 refugee camps with a population of over 300,000 refugees. Currently we have only two open camps with a population of 95,000 refugees. All the camps which were closed, as refugees repatriate, were completely cleaned up and handed over to local authorities.

The UN country team in Tanzania developed a transition program from humanitarian assistance to sustainable development to assist local communities to develop former refugee camps infrastructures and use them appropriately; to bridge the gap in the host communities which was created from withdrawal of humanitarian agencies; and to maintain some of the services such as health facilities and water supply which were also serving local communities during the refugees operation.

The environmental management program has positively contributed in mitigating the environmental damage of refugee operations and for the peaceful co-existence of host communities and refugees although refugees were living in demarcated camps.
UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)