- Nigerian refugees and Cameroonian villagers are taking part in efforts to reforest the area around the Minawao refugee camp near the border between the two countries.
- The influx of the refugees, driven from their homes by the advance of the Islamist group Boko Haram, led to a surge in logging for fuelwood and timber, and also sparked conflict with the locals.
- A reforestation program supported by the UNHCR, French development NGO ADES and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), and carried out by refugees and locals, has to date planted more than 400,000 trees across 100 hectares (250 acres).
- Initially, government experts chose the trees to be planted based on their ability to grow quickly and survive in arid places, but since 2017, community members have been brought into the decision-making process as the project’s managers realized that a participatory approach could generate better results.
MINAWAO, Cameroon — The refugee camp comes to life soon after dawn, some residents shouldering tools and exchanging greetings as they head out to the small farms they’ve established on the outskirts, others opening stalls selling breakfast, an aroma of yeast and sugar rising as the day’s first “puff-puff,” a yeasted fritter, is scooped out of hot oil. Joshua Bejeme selects a chewing stick and pulls on his boots and heads toward a nursery near the heart of the camp.
The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) set up the Minawao camp in July 2013 to house a growing number of refugees fleeing violence from the Islamist group Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria. It anticipated housing around 15,000 people on a 623-hectare (1,539-acre) site here, 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the border. By September 2015, it was home to more than 58,000, and the sparse woodlands around it had been cut down for firewood or to make shelter.
When Sani Habu arrived at the camp in 2014, he was one of those who cut down the trees, selling the wood to make ends meet. “I couldn’t imagine the damage I was causing. I was only interested in making money to take care of my family,” the Nigerian refugee says. Today, he’s one of the most enthusiastic beneficiaries of a reforestation initiative operating from the camp. His mud-walled house with a thatched roof is surrounded by trees he has planted.
A nursery for the future
This part of Cameroon forms part of the semi-arid Sahel region that stretches across West Africa, a zone between the wetter rainforests to the south and the Sahara Desert to the north. The ecology of the whole region has become less hospitable in recent decades because of generally rising average temperatures and reduced rainfall.
When they arrived, the refugees depended entirely on firewood for cooking, much as they would have done in the broadly similar landscape around the homes they had been driven from. Their new neighbors in the communities around Minawao also use wood and charcoal for cooking: at least 75% of households in Cameroon use firewood for cooking, according to a national household survey.
Minawao’s limited forests couldn’t support the needs of tens of thousands of newcomers for long, and the hills were quickly stripped of trees.
But the nursery at the heart of Minawao nurtures the green shoots of a recovery.
Every morning, Bejeme makes his way between homes built of sun-dried earth and roofed with thatch or faded white UNHCR tarpaulins to where a robustly practical fence of thorny plants keeps stray animals out of Minawao’s nursery. Roughly 40 by 20 meters (130 by 65 feet), it’s one of four; the three others are located in the surrounding communities of Gawar, Gadala and Zamay.
Bejeme volunteers here alongside Hawa Dawa, fetching water from one of the nearby boreholes to water rows of seedlings morning and evening. They also plant seeds and clear weeds from the tidy rows of seedlings in black polyethylene bags.
“I enjoy doing this because when I look around and see the trees which are already thriving, it revives my broken soul. It gives me joy and hope,” Dawa says. “The small stipend I get as a volunteer also keeps me going.”
Dawa says she’s proud to be part of the venture. “We depleted the natural resources here when we arrived and made this place barren. The onus is on us to replenish it as we have no other place to hold on to,” she tells Mongabay. She says she can feel the effects of her work in the nursery as the camp and its environs have become airier and fresher.
Project bearing fruit
According to Tcheou Tcheou Samading Abel, environment and energy officer at French development NGO ADES, which currently runs the reforestation project, about 400,000 trees are now standing tall in and around the camp thanks to the “Making Minawao Green Again” project. Adding up blocks of forest within the camp and smaller stands around people’s homes, these trees cover around 100 hectares (250 acres).
“We nurse these tree seedlings and give them to families in and out of the camp to plant. We also train them on how to plant using the cocoon technology,” Abel says. He adds the refugees and locals alike have enthusiastically accepted tree seedlings to plant, especially trees that promise to yield fruit for sale.
Because of the arid climate, the seedlings are planted using a technique developed by the Land Life Company. Each young tree is planted in a donut-shaped bowl made of recycled cardboard. The bowl and a ring-shaped cover hold water for the growing tree, slow the growth of weeds at the base of the seedling, and protect it against children, animals, sun and wind. As the tree grows taller and stronger, the cardboard bowl degrades naturally.
Initially, experts from Cameroon’s ministries of environment and forestry chose what kinds of trees would be planted based on their ability to grow quickly and survive in arid places. But since 2017, community members have been brought into the decision-making process as the project’s managers realized that a participatory approach could generate better results. Species are now chosen in consultation with refugees and locals. This consultation has seen a panoply of different tree species being planted, including fruit trees never grown here before: guava, mango, pawpaw, lime.
“These trees are already bearing fruits for their owners in different households,” Abel says. He adds they’ve also opened a common orchard known as “Espace Fruit” (Fruit Space), which is being managed by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) while it matures.
“Once the orchard will start bearing fruits, its management will be handed over to a local committee,” Abel tells Mongabay.
Other tree species planted in and around Minawao include cassia, neem, acacia, moringa, cashew and leucaena. Most of these are drought-resistant and their branches can be pruned and used for fuel. Some of their leaves are also used for medicine, food or fertilizer.
Looking to the future
Xavier Bourgois, spokesperson for the U.N. Refugee Agency in Yaounde, says the green spaces will be there long after the refugees have gone, leaving behind a healthier and more welcoming environment than when they arrived. Bourgois says it will then be up to the host populations to preserve the precious heritage.
“More than 400,000 trees have been planted to benefit refugee populations and host populations, making it possible to develop agriculture in the shade of green spaces, to feed and care for animals and people, to considerably reduce conflicts related to sharing resources, to bring back the rains, to protect women who no longer have to expose themselves to the risk of attack by fetching firewood far from the camp,” Bourgois tells Mongabay.
Bourgois says he believes they’ve now achieved the most difficult part of the project, which is to successfully grow the first green spaces. “Funding is always useful to sustain and develop these kind of absolutely essential programs, but some refugees are already trained in the management of nurseries,” he adds.
The project was initially funded by $2.7 million from the Dutch Postcode Lottery. Its ongoing costs are being met by UNHCR do nors, according to Bourgois. He says UNHCR is also carrying out reforestation programs in the Cameroon’s eastern region, which hosts more than 350,000 refugees from Central Africa. “However, the environment and climate of that region is more conducive to this type of operation, unlike [Minawao, in] the Far North where reforestation was a technical and environmental challenge,” he says.
Mohamadou Bachirou, an environmental engineer and researcher at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies in Cameroon (CEDC), says the reforestation project is a good initiative.
“Minawao is an area severely degraded by the increased demand for wood since the security crisis. Reforestation has been a solution to compensate for the already severe wood deficit in this area,” he tells Mongabay. But he notes that it takes years before trees can be fully exploited, whether for wood or fruit, meaning reforestation in Minawao at least initially has to be complemented by other alternative energy sources such as ecological charcoal.
For Kodji Paul, lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Maroua, the efforts at the refugee camp need to be expanded. “The reforestation at the Minawao camp is only symbolic because this reforestation is not largely extended to the neighboring villages. We notice the degradation of the vegetation around the camp, but NGOs like LWF which does reforestation is only concentrating in the camp.”
Paul says Cameroon needs to mobilize donors to expand the tree-planting campaign to all the other villages in the zone.
Fadimatou Hadjija lives in Gawar, one of these nearby villages. She says while only a few trees have been planted there, the project has helped to drastically reduce tension between locals and refugees.
“Look there,” she says, pointing to a vast piece of land that looks like an airstrip. “In my pre-teenage days, we used to play hide-and-seek here. But all the remaining trees there were cut down in less than a year when the refugees arrived. Many felt the refugees were a thorn in our flesh, fighting over the available limited resources with us.”
Others in Gawar agree that conflict with the refugees — which they say escalated around incidents of kidnapping and rape — had eased in recent years.
Hadjija’s immediate family were involved in a clash over firewood. “There were serious casualties, including my husband who had a wound on his cheek and some bruises on his knees,” she says.
She and her neighbors say they see the reforestation project and another project run by ADES that produces a charcoal alternative out of organic waste from farms and households as important interventions that are keeping the impact of the refugees on the area’s natural resources in check.
ADES has set up “nature clubs” for adults and children in a further effort to build an environmentally conscious culture among both refugees and locals. A working group bringing local organizations and government departments together has also been put in place to ensure the project will continue even after the refugees eventually return to their homes in Nigeria and the camp is closed.
For the moment, some of Minawao’s residents, like Hani Babu, say they see themselves taking root here along with the new trees. “This is about us; our future and those of our children,” he says. “For me, Minawao is home. There is no going back.”
Banner image: The nursery at the heart of Minawao nurtures the green shoots of a recovery. Image by Amindeh Blaise Atabong for Mongabay.
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