By Cathy Watson
Uganda is top of the class on refugees. No other country demonstrates such generosity or smartness towards people who flee their countries. Almost alone, Uganda realises that refugees add millions to the Gross National Product and bring infrastructure to remote areas.
The country also wants to do the right thing. David Kazungu, the Commissioner for Refugees, says the current influx of South Sudanese are “our brothers and sisters. Our populations are intertwined. And many Ugandans have been in exile and appreciate what it means.”
Almost uniquely, Uganda gives refugees the right to work, own a business and move freely. It has a no camp policy. Instead of confining refugees, the Government avails them gazetted land. Alternatively, communities make available communal land that they feel that they can spare. The latter is the case in Yumbe, where communities have provided a vast woody savannah for “Bidi Bidi”.
Bidi Bidi is the world’s fastest growing refugee settlement. At 250,000, it holds almost many as Dadaab in Kenya and over twice as many as the largest camp for Syrians. Yumbe’s population has surged from 495,000 to 755,000 in months. Each refugee family gets 30 by 30 metres and additional land to farm.
“We donated this land for humanity,” says retired Major Noah Acikulu, an elder, who, like many West Nilers, was once a refugee. “It was used for grazing and where we cut grass.” But the community also knows that health centres and roads are being built and boreholes drilled. “Sixty per cent of the pupils in our schools are from the community,” says Bidi Bidi commandant Robert Barya.
The huge task of taking in refugees has provided jobs and stimulated the economy. Picking cotton on his father’s land, Hamza Yassin, 23, says the coming of the refugees “is an opportunity because the place was empty. It has created a marketplace.”
“What is unique about Uganda is the settlement model,” says UNHCR Senior Field Coordinator Jens Hesemann. “Communities have been outstandingly welcoming. But it comes with high expectations that if they host refugees, it will be for their benefit.” One enormous risk is that devastation of natural resources will sour relations.
Bidi Bidi camp is located in wooded savanna that is community land
Yumbe is so water stressed that water for refugees is trucked from the Nile. This directly relates to loss of trees that occurred before the refugees came. But with the entire district cooking on wood and refugees needing hundreds of thousands of trees for huts, the situation is worsening. “So many trees are being destroyed,” says forest officer Zabibu Ocogour. “We risk losing big ones that are important for rain,” says production officer Rashid Kawawa.
But if Uganda can lead on refugees, it can lead on environment too. The “Government is driving environment protection,” says Charlie Axley of UNHCR, which is supporting briquette making, energy saving stoves, tree planting and marking biologically important trees that must be left. “We need to show refugees we are conserving our environment,” says Ocogour. “They may not understand.”
“The question is how can we make refugees and host communities lead a sustainable life,” says natural resources officer Serbeet Kawawa. He wants woodlots, restoration of degraded wetlands and riverbanks, avenue and orchard planting, environmental education and central nurseries.
But refugees’ plots contain many cut trees that are already re-sprouting. So without ado, Yumbe can also start the fast and simple approach of farmer-managed natural regeneration of living stumps. In two seasons, the stumps can reach two metres. With established roots, nearly 100% survive. FMNR is ultra-low cost with no need to source seed or raise, transport and plant seedlings.
The trees that regrow will be largely indigenous, improving water infiltration and soil porosity and providing shade, fodder, fruit, construction material and forage for pollinators. Prunings of trees on farms can provide fuel year round. Women and children will make fewer trips to collect wood.
FAO’s guidance on Safe Access on Firewood and Alternative Energy in Humanitarian Settings says Integrated Food Energy Systems – most of which are agroforestry – are ideal in such crises. They suggest pigeon peas, which provide food and twigs for cooking and improve the nitrogen and carbon content of soils, which helps to hold moisture, all of which raises the yield of other crops they are grown with.
On the outskirts of Bidi Bidi is another perfect “integrated food energy system” – a fig tree with yams growing under it. The fig tree’s roots pull up water from the depths – an action called “hydraulic lift”. Its leaves fertilize the soil. The branches are pruned regularly to provide fuel to make bricks. Examples abound.
But the sobering news is that 300,000 more refugees from South Sudan in 2017 are anticipated, according to UNHCR, not counting those from Burundi and DRC. And conflicts often last decades.
“Instead of doing environmental rehabilitation after repatriation, we need to prevent damage right away in the emergency phase,” says natural resources officer Kawawa.
The writer is the chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre