There are numerous hardships facing humanity all over the world. Be that as may, some become unbearable and force people to flee their homes and countries. But what happens when you run away from chaos and land into other unforeseen challenges? Well, refugees in Cameroon who refused to let circumstances dictate their fate are reaping the sweet fruits of their hard labor quite literally.
In the beginning
Minawao refugee camp is located in the north-eastern part of Cameroon. This region is mainly dry, sandy and dusty due to the effects of the sweltering African sun. Nevertheless, the area had enough trees that sustained the local population’s firewood consumption. In fact, the vegetation was better than most arid and semi-arid areas in Africa. You could not see a person beyond 100 meters due to the existing vegetation. However, this scenario was short-lived.
Settlement of refugees
In 2009, an altercation between the Nigerian police and members of Boko Haram, an Islamic sectarian movement founded by Muhammed Yusuf arose. According to Britannica, members of this outlawed extremist group were subjected to excessive force by the police. This did not go down well with the outraged members. They felt that justice had not been served and they started attacking police and other government institutions.
The insurgence got worse with time. By 2014, over 70,000 Nigerians fled their home country and sought refuge in Minawao Refugee Camp in Cameroon as reported by UNHCR. This overburdened the already dilapidated environment.
Rampant desertification sets in
With an additional 70,000 individuals to support, the area surrounding the camp quickly became a desert. Initially, before the refugees settled in, rivers used to dry up during the hot and dry months of the year. This made farming and other agricultural practices very difficult. Now, with over 95% of the residents in this region depending on firewood as the only source of cooking fuel, the trees quickly disappeared. All one could see were miles of sandy, brown, dry vast land that looked lifeless.
Effects of desertification
Eventually, resources got scarce by day. Firewood prices rose to rocket high levels and paved the way for conflicts between the refugees and the local community. Women had to walk for long distances just to look for firewood. This made them prone to attacks from criminals and wild animals. Similarly, wild animals could no longer depend on the already diminishing vegetation for food and shelter.
Quick and effective course of action
With things getting out of hand, a quick and effective action had to be taken with immediate effect to arrest the situation. In 2018, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) began an empowerment programme that brought relief to the residents of Minawao Refugee Camp and its environs.
To avert the looming ecological and human calamity, LWF grew tree seedlings in nursery beds. They managed to do this with the help of refugee volunteers . Later on, they distributed the seedlings to the camp administrators and various institutions like churches, schools, mosques and homes.
The refugees and the locals were then empowered through training on how to care for young seedlings in the harsh climate. They were taught how to use cocoon technology which uses a doughnut-shaped water tank to water the young seedlings automatically. Basically, the tank, which is made from recycled cartons, is installed in the hole where the young tree is to be planted. Then, it is filled with water and a cotton string connecting the plant’s roots to the water is installed.
New lease of life
Currently, over 100 hectares of land has been transformed with more than 360,000 seedlings planted since the beginning of the project. This has brought a new lease of life and Minawao residents can now smile again. The once dry brownish vast land has been replaced by a green environment that is not only refreshing to the eyes but comes with lots of gains.
The trees that were planted over four years ago are now providing shade and enhancing rainfall and water retention. The refugees can now grow crops under the trees since the plants are shielded from the hot sun. Previously, crops used to dry up before the harvesting stage. The leaves falling from the trees provide manure for the crops, increase soil quality and lead to better yields.
At the same time, the trees provide a more reliable source of firewood. This is enabled by the five-year cycle which sees new trees planted and old ones harvested. Other trees are ready for pruning in just three years hence providing firewood and roofing vines and poles. The trees also assist in freshening the air and blocking strong winds hence reducing soil erosion by far. The dietary needs and general health of the refugees have improved since the trees also provide fruits, cashew nuts and medicine in some instances.
“Everywhere we look is green now. 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.”Luka Isaac – president of the Nigerian refugees in Minawao
Another project that was initiated to sustain the reforestation process was the production and introduction of fuel efficient cooking stoves to the community. This initiative led to another production line.
Each household in the camp took its biodegradable waste mainly from crops to two centers that were set up to produce ecological charcoal from the waste. The charcoal making process included sorting out the waste, drying, carbonizing and making compacted briquettes.
According to LWF, over 5,500 households have been trained on production of the ecological charcoal briquette. At the same time, over 11,500 energy-saving cooking stoves have been distributed so far. This has led to reduction in over reliance on firewood for cooking fuel.
Apart from saving the environment, this project has also provided employment opportunities to 300 people who are mostly women. The living standards of these women and those of their families have greatly improved. They now have a source of income to meet other needs in their families and they no longer walk for long distances in search of firewood.
“The money I make selling charcoal briquettes allows me to buy soap, seasoning, and meat to supplement the family’s rations. 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.”Fibi Ibrahim – a refugee and mother of five
Comparison between a video footage taken in 2018 and the current landscape is breathtaking. You cannot fail to notice and appreciate the effort and work input that has transformed Minawao Refugee Camp and its environs. There is no better way to put it than this:
“In order to protect the world’s displaced, we must do more to protect the environment. Protecting the environment provides better protection for people.”Andrew Harper – UNHCR’s Special Advisor on Climate Action