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Refugees and environmental destruction

Refugees and environmental destruction

Refugees and environmental degradation
Muhangaizima Cultural Park opened an illegal road to facilitate illegal tree logging within Hoima District.

Eliminating misinformation and providing solutions

Kampala, Uganda | ISAAC KHISA | Uganda, which hosts 1.5 million refugees, is the top country in Africa to host them and one of the top five countries that host them. The country has a relaxed policy that allows refugees to live in camps, but it also has 48 refugee settlements. Most of these are located in areas where there is the most environmental degradation.

This is why a number of ministries, environmental protection agencies and non-governmental organizations have always stated that the influx of refugees into the country is a major contributor to environmental degradation.

The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) states in its 2018-2019 State of the Environment Report that soil and water are polluted in refugee-occupied areas and adjacent natural resources, such as Bugoma central forest reserve and others.

However, it does not provide sufficient statistical information to support its assertion. This is because, unlike other countries, refugees in settlements share resources like wood fuel and land, water, and health services with their host communities.

To assess the impact of settlements upon the environment The IndependentOne month of investigation was carried out in refugee-occupied areas of Bidi Bidi (Yumbe District), Nakivale in Isingiro District and Kyangwali (Kikuube District) and Rwamwanja (Kamwenge District) among others.

The goal was to dispel any misconceptions and possibly help to devise appropriate measures to preserve the environment in the face of refugee influx.

Business blamed

Yumbe District is home to about 240,000 South Sudanese refugees at Bidi Bidi settlement Refugee Camp in five zones. These areas include the sub counties Romogi, Kululu and Odravu. The vast empty spaces that used to be covered with tall grass and trees are now filled with young trees. Stone quarrying and sand mining are rampant. This is mostly blamed on refugees, although there is no evidence.

However, a forest extension worker said to The Independent that environmental destruction was occurring even before the arrival in 2016 of refugees.

Habib Edema Hussein stated that locals had already used the natural resources available for cultivation, charcoal production and timber production in the area before the influx.

“When you look at the individual homes and the settlements, people are using firewood and charcoal as source of fuel. He said that only the rate of degrading has increased due to the influx of refugees and the increase in population.

“We (also) have prominent business people who deal in logs of endangered tree species like Afzelia Africana and Mahagony despite the local council’s ban. Business men collaborate with landlords to cut those trees and since it’s an illegal deal, such people don’t come to our offices for clearance as claimed by some people.”

Muhammad Anule, an elder residing near Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement Camp told The IndependentBecause of the low population, the effects of the destruction were not felt as much before there was an increase in the population.

He stated that refugees are the cause of the environmental destruction. This is because they arrived with an increase in the population which put pressure on it.

Patrick Aleko is a refugee who trades in tree seedlings at Bidi Bidi settlement. He said that the problem has been caused both by nationals and refugees.

“We have the host community that is living with us and so the pressure on the environment has been a combined one, he said. He said that nationals and refugees compete for wood fuels such as logs, cooking and construction materials.

However, we have to make sure that the environment in which we live is conducive and we should ensure that the depleted environment is replaced,” he said as he tended his tree seedlings.

Rashul Ijoga is the Chairperson of LC III for Barakala Town Council, which hosts Bidibidi Zone One settlement. He stated that timber and log businessmen are the greatest threat to environmental degradation in the country’s northern regions.

He stated that traders target endangered and old species that have remained for more than 100 years, in disregard of their contribution to the environment.

“The refugees can’t be blamed for the destruction of the environment leaving out the host community. The community assumes that the land where the refugees are settled belongs to them and most often go into the settlements to cut the big trees like Afzelia Africana and Mahagony,” he said.

“The local community are the ones behind the logs and timber business. No one outside the refugee hosting areas can locate places with endangered tree species but it is the village local councils and the local community exposing such tree species to businessmen,” he added.

Mawa however stated that stone quarryinghas been done by refugees since the beginning.

According to The Independents investigations the same scenario is repeated in other areas around Nakivale Settlement Camps, Kyangwali Settlement Camps, Kyaka II Settlement Camps, Kyaka II Settlement Camps, Rwamajja Settlement Camps, and others. Only Kiryandongo District is the exception. This is where the vegetation was destroyed in preparation for refugees arriving from 2013 to 2017.

The Nakivale Refugee Settlement Camp is located in the south-western part of the country. It houses approximately 145,200 refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Somalia. The Lake Nakivale Wetland was protected well before 1994. Prior to that, cattle keeping, fishing, and harvesting wetland materials for household use were the main human activities. The settlement is in poor condition today, with water quality being degraded and human waste disposal.

Some of these findings are documented in a 2013 study in the African Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, titled The cost of poor soil use practices in Lake Nakivale Wetland (Isingiro District), Uganda.

Shallon Buingye, chairperson of Nakivale Lake Community restoration subproject, says most of the destruction has not been caused primarily by refugees, but by nationals, who encroached onto the government land that was meant for refugee settlement.

She claims that this was due to a shift in land use practices by locals, from cattle keeping to crop agriculture.

Busingye claims that locals have become more interested in commercial cultivation of maize. The wetland was eventually encroached on to increase food production, human settlements, and urbanisation.

The area around Lake Nakivale Wetland has been affected by livestock that remains. This has resulted in soil erosion and, subsequently, siltation.

Kyaka II settlement camp, which houses more than 125,000 refugees, majority from Democratic Republic of Congo has seen an increase in tree cover.

Not to blame refugees

The latest report, published jointly by Food and Agriculture Organisation of United Nations, World Bank and Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, titled Assessment of Forest Resource Degradation and Intervention Options for Refugee-Hosting Areas of Western and Southwestern Uganda, 2020, states that the increase in tree cover in Kyaka II settlement is not related to the influx of refugees. This was noticed in 2017, a year before the arrival of Congolese refugees.

The report also notes that tree cover loss in the 15km buffer between refugee camp and forest was more severe in the buffer that is accessed daily by locals than in refugees’ access to the buffer. This suggests that there is a stronger link between local actions and the degradation than refugees, according to the researchers.

The report indicates that 12,093 ha of the buffer’s tree cover was lost within 15 km. Nearly half (about 49%) of this loss occurred in areas where natural forest was converted into other land uses.

The study also found no correlation between tree cover loss, refugees in Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement, and the presence of refugees. The available statistics show that 6,915 ha of tree coverage was lost within the buffer zone (15 km) between 2001-2018. This is contrary the 5km buffer zone standard, where refugees live near forest cover.

Kyangwali Refugee Settlement Camp is home to more than 133,000 refugees. Refugees have always been drawn to the Bugoma forest reserve, which is mainly used for wood fuel or construction poles. Nationals and investors also descend on the Bugoma Forest Reserve to harvest timber, charcoal, and expand land for their commercial agriculture.

Kinyara Sugar Company, a sister company to Hoima Sugar, is one such investor. The company is removing the Bugoma central forest reserve, which is 22 kilometers in size, to make room for sugar cane cultivation amid protests by environmentalists. Security is provided through the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces.

Multiple sources also reported The IndependentBunyoro Kitara Kingdom is supporting the sugarcane project and has contracted a private company for the felling of large trees for timber production and charcoal production. This will allow Hoima Sugar begin sugarcane farming in the forested regions. However, The IndependentCould not independently verify this claim.

Trucks carrying timber and charcoal to urban centres are now commonplace, despite the potential negative effects of environmental degradation on the population.

There are no environmental impact assessments

Uganda’s history as a host country for refugees dates back to colonial rule when the colonial government laid foundations for self-reliance policies.

In the 1940s, Ugandan territory was used by the British government to house around 8,000 Polish refugees. Nakivale settlement, established in 1959, is Africa’s oldest refugee center.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Uganda currently hosts over 1.5million refugees. Most of them are from South Sudan, DRC Burundi, Somalia, Burundi and Rwanda.

This makes the country of east Africa the top refugee host country on the African continent. It is also one of five top hosting countries worldwide, after Turkey, Colombia and Pakistan.

The country has been praised for its open-door policy to refugees, which has led to a large inflow from the region.

Despite this, there has not been a Strategic Environment Assessment of the refugee program. NEMA states in its 2018-2019 report about the state of environment, that these settlements were established without the necessary approvals and clearance. It also cites limited financing and human resources constraints.

According to the environmental protection body, only three refugee settlements have ESIA certification. Two certifications were obtained after the establishment of settlements. This restricts monitoring, inspections, enforcement and compliance to post settlement scenarios.

NEMA asserts that, although all refugee host districts have been able to take advantage of government interventions through projects such as DRDIP (Development Response to Displacement Impact Project), engagement and support to the national environment agencies as originally planned has not yet been realized. This has led to tensions between nationals and refugees over the availability of natural resources.

The NEMA report states that it is necessary to develop a strategy to involve national environment management agencies in order for projects to achieve their environmental targets.

DRDIP targets infrastructure development, improved livelihoods, protection of the environment and protection of refugees in areas where it operates since 2015. Phase I received funding of US$50 millions, while Phase II received US$150 million over five years starting in 2019.

Government agencies respond

NEMA Executive Director, Dr. Barirega Akankwasah told The IndependentEmail explains that although refugees are not the greatest environmental degraders, they do require additional resources like energy, construction, and water.

He stated that the refugee influx will increase competition with the nation’s natural resources already limited.

Barirega stated that it was important to now cushion the environment from refugees’ influx and national population pressure.

This can be achieved by setting up woodlots for energy and water extension, providing technical guidance on best land practices, continuing education and awareness, and providing shelter that does not require the cutting down of trees like tents.

Barirega stated that it is crucial to educate, monitor and support refugees in the best environment management practices. Barirega said NEMA has been unable to do this because they lack the money, staff, mobility equipment and environment monitoring equipment.

New interventions

Not all is lost. Enock Twagirayesu is a refugee from Rwanda of Rwandese descent and is the chairperson of Nakivale Green Environment. This community-based organisation focuses on refugee environment advocacy. They have planted close to 60,000 trees from the buffer zone, which is 200 meters from the lake. It is intended to be free from human activity.

He said that the trees would provide them with timber and firewood for building. We used to plant sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and other vegetables, and our gardens would extend up to the lakeshores. He stated that water levels have increased since we started to observe the buffer zone. The buffer zone is where the lake extends its shores.

We have attempted to restore the lake. We have planted trees, wetland restoration, and delineated the lake. This was done in conjunction with sensitizing the communities to the need for conservation, Akiteng Constance, an Environment Assistant officer at Nakivale Refugee Camp, told InfoNile online.

Rashul Mawai Ijoga, LC III Chairperson of Barakala Town Council which hosts Bidibidi Zone One (Yumbe District), stated that they are working with many stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations, to restore the environment through tree planting initiatives.

He said that OPMs DRDIP has planted trees in Yumbe District for wood fuel, just as it is in other refugee host communities.

Julius Muchungusi is the head of communication at the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), which acts a coordinating entity of the refugees crisis. He stated that NEMA has a constitutional mandate and can conduct environment impact assessments throughout the country, including in the vicinity of refugee communities.

According to him, NEMA’s inability to act means that NEMA is reporting itself.

He said that NEMA’s mother body, the Ministry of Water and Environment (MoW&E), is usually involved with OPM affairs related to the environment.

He said that NEMA is well represented.


The grant from the aided in reporting this story. African Centre for Media Excellence, with support from the European Delegation Uganda.

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