Refugees in Cameroon have turned a desert camp without trees into a thriving forest – WATCH
What was once brown has turned green, thanks to a special collaboration between the Dutch Lottery, the UN and a group of humanitarian Lutherans.
In 2014, Minawao began hosting at least 60,000 refugees in Cameroon who fled violence linked to the Boko Haram insurgency in neighboring Nigeria. An already dusty arid region, the arrival of refugees has accelerated the process of desertification by cutting down all surrounding trees for firewood and cooking.
But, within a few years, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) succeeded in empowering the refugees to transform the region into a thriving young forest.
In this very harsh climate, rivers dry up during the summer months and planting and harvesting is difficult. Already, 95% of the inhabitants of this region in the far north used to cook and heat themselves with firewood. In addition, the refugee camp has become its own town in need of its own supplies.
Before the Nigerians arrived, the local population had enough firewood and “no one could be seen within 100 meters”. After their arrival, the environment was destroyed and became “treeless for miles,” said Boubakar Ousmary, who governs the township bordering the camp.
The price of wood has increased considerably, causing community conflicts. Faced with this ecological and human catastrophe, the UNHCR and the LWF launched in 2017 its unique program which would make it possible to reverse deforestation and tackle the problem in two ways, including the promotion of renewable energies.
Now communities are working together to restore and protect the environment.
“Everywhere we look is now green,” says Luka Isaac, president of Nigerian refugees in Minawao. “The trees have grown, we have shade and we will have enough trees to make our environment beautiful and healthy. Before, the air was very dusty. Now the air we breathe is very good.
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Plant trees, harvest fruits
The LWF grows fruit trees in nurseries, with the help of refugee volunteers, then distributes the saplings to camp administrators, schools, mosques, churches and households.
The refugees were trained in the use of ‘cocoon technology’, developed by Land Life Company, to give seedlings the best chance of survival in a harsh environment. This involves burying a donut-shaped water reservoir made from recycled cardboard that wraps around the roots of the plant and feeds it with a string that connects to the young shoot.
Now, four years later, 360,000 seedlings have been grown in the nursery on the outskirts of the camp and planted on 294 acres (119 hectares). And, they record survival rates of 90%.
Fruit trees, acacias, cashews or moringas will provide fruit, medicine and much more. A five-year planting and harvesting cycle guarantees material for firewood, as well as vines for roof construction. After three years, some trees are large enough to be pruned for firewood.
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The trees also break the wind, reduce erosion and provide shade, enough for families to grow crops, which was not possible before.
“Trees give us a lot,” Nigerian refugee Lydia Yacoubou told UNHCR. “First, they provide the shade needed to grow food. Then the leaves and dead branches can be made into fertilizer for cultivation. Finally, the forest attracts and retains water. Precipitation has even increased.
At the same time, the project provides new livelihoods, while reducing carbon emissions from wood combustion.
Alternative energies empower women and girls
To ensure that the new forest is not immediately felled, the production of energy-efficient stoves has been started, as well as two production centers for “ecological charcoal”.
Households in the camp send their crop waste to the charcoal center where it is sorted, dried, charred and compacted into briquettes by trained refugees, which are then used in specially adapted stoves. The LWF claims to have trained more than 5,500 households in ecological charcoal production and distributed 11,500 energy-efficient stoves.
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300 people are employed in the production of charcoal and stoves, the majority of whom are women. Having their own income empowered them and improved their position in families. Since charcoal has become the main source of fuel, girls have more time available to study for school.
Fibi Ibrahim, a refugee and mother of five who has lived in Minawao since 2016, is one of the workers.
“The money I earn from selling charcoal briquettes allows me to buy soap, seasonings and meat to supplement the family rations,” explains Fibi. “I hope that soon, when I have saved enough money, I can start my own shop in the camp and fully meet the needs of my household. “
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Funded by a donation of $ 2.7 million from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, the Cameroonian program is part of the Great Green Wall initiative which aims to grow an 8,000 kilometer strip of vegetation and trees to fight against desertification and drought along the border of the Sahara.
Seen from the sky, the development of the site in a few years is striking. Video footage shot in 2018 showed vast expanses of sand surrounding buildings and shelters. Now the earth is covered with vegetation.
Watch the Reuters video below…
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