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UNHCR – Refugees fight fires to preserve Mauritania’s environment
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UNHCR – Refugees fight fires to preserve Mauritania’s environment

After three hours of driving through the Mauritanian bush in pick-up trucks, the Refugee Fire Brigade arrives at the site of a fire.

A convoy of pickup trucks speeds through a field full of tall grasses and shrubs towards a plume smoke at the horizon. Men of all ages sit in the backs, with their eyes fixed on smoke. 

The smoke is coming from a large bushfire, and the men jump out of their trucks to get away. They are armed with only a handful of tree branches and begin to attack the fire, shouting inaudibly while moving in unison. The fire is extinguished in minutes leaving behind a charred area measuring two kilometres in length and three kilometres in width. 

Ahmedou El-Bokhary, 52-year-old Malian refugee and leader of this voluntary firefighters brigade, is at center of the action. 

He sighs as he wipes the sweat from his eyes, saying that this is the third fire we’ve put out in 24hrs. 

His fellow comrades gather around him as he picks-up his phone and speaks fast into it. He shouts instructions to find another fire five kilometres away. The men jump back in the trucks and accelerate in the opposite direction.

Ahmedou, along with his fellow firefighters, are a typical day for about 100 Malian refugees. The brigade sets fire to the area around Mbera refugee camp, south-eastern Mauritanias Hodh Chargui.  

Already, Mauritania feels the effects of climate changes. It is home to about 90% of the world’s desert, making it vulnerable to drought and deforestation.

The increasing heat has caused wildfires to increase at alarming rates, posing a serious risk to the declining tree and grass cover. This dry season, (from September 2020 to July this year), there were over 35 bushfires, up from 15 in the previous dry season.

We have never seen such a year. Ahmedou, a resident of this area since 2012, says that this year has seen the most bushfires.

Nearly 68,000 Malians reside in and around Mbera Camp, which is about 60 kilometres away from Mali’s border. Like their Mauritanian hosts most refugees are pastoralists who keep large herds. They started the fire brigade because of their heavy reliance on the natural environment to provide pasture for their livestock and their desire to protect the communities they live in.

“If we don’t put out the bushfires we’re doomed.”

The dry season, September to July, is when the long green grass grew during the rainy seasons dries out and becomes straw-like. This makes it easy for it to catch fire. 

Ahmedou explained that there is a lot of grass right now, and that when one section catches fire, it quickly sets the entire area on fire. We must intervene, because we don’t have any other choice. If we don’t put out bushfires, we are doomed.

  • After three hours of driving through the Mauritanian bush in pick-up trucks, the Refugee Fire Brigade arrives at the site of a fire.

    After three hours driving through the Mauritanian bush with pick-up trucks in pick-up trucks the Refugee Fire Brigade arrives at a location for a fire.  © UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

  • The refugees use branches to beat out the bushfire.

    The refugees use branches to extinguish the bushfire.  © UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

  • Volunteers take it in turns to take on the exhausting work of extinguishing the fires that occur almost every 48 hours during the dry season.

    Volunteers take turns extinguishing fires that occur almost every hour during the dry season. © UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

  • As president of the Refugee Fire Brigade, Ahmedou Ag El-Bokhary (centre) coordinates the refugee volunteers to battle bushfires in the area surrounding Mbera camp.

    Ahmedou Ag El-Bokhary is the president of the Refugee Fire Brigade. He coordinates the refugee volunteers fighting bushfires around Mbera camp.  © UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

  • UNHCR Associate Field Officer Benjamin Kambale says the Refugee Fire Brigade is spurring other refugees and members of the local community to get involved in protecting their environment.

    Benjamin Kambale, UNHCR Associate Field Officer, says that the Refugee Fire Brigade has inspired other refugees and members from the local community to take part in protecting the environment. © UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

These firefighters are so dedicated that UNHCR and the UN Refugee Agency support them with transport and airtime to their mobile phones to communicate with the network. 

We call the Refugee Fire Brigade whenever there is a fire. Mohamed Cheikh Macire is the prefect of Bassikounou.

He said that both refugees and Mauritanians should be concerned about the fires. The community can work together to put out the fires and improve relations by fighting a common enemy.

Benjamin Kambale (UNHCRs Associate Field officer based in Bassikounou) notes that the fire engine has become a symbol and emblem of environmental activism, inspiring refugees, their host communities, as well as partner agencies, to do more.

He explained that one of the key methods communities have used to prevent bushfires was the creation of firewalls. These are stretches of land that have been cleared of any vegetation that could fuel bushfires.

He explains that 100 kms of firewalls were constructed last year. These efforts are contributing to the Great Green Wall, a massive reforestation effort that aims to build an 8,000-kilometre-long barrier against environmental degradation in the Sahel.

SOS Desert, a local partner organisation of UNHCR has established tree nurseries in the camp where thousands of saplings can be tended by refugees or Mauritanians. As part of reforestation efforts throughout the region, more than 58,000 trees had already been planted by September.

Nearly 10 hectares have been set aside in the camp and surrounding areas for refugees and locals who want to grow vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, hibiscus beans, onions, and beans. The vegetable gardens not only help preserve the environment and reduce soil degradation but also improve the diets of refugees as well as Mauritanians.

VRPC (Vietnam Refugee Protection Committee) is one example of a refugee-led organization.Volontaires Rfugis pour la Propret du Camp) also conduct regular community awareness campaigns to educate camp residents on how to preserve the environment, the benefits of planting trees, reducing firewood usage and using renewable energy sources such as solar energy.

UNHCRs Kambale said that everyone is doing their part in addressing the climate challenge. A vocational training centre was also opened in the camp. This allows refugees and Mauritanians to learn how to maintain and install solar panels and take courses in mechanical engineering.

UNHCR plans to donate a firetruck in the district of Bassikounou 2022. Ahmadou, his brave firefighters, remain committed to their cause of saving the pasturelands which are vital to their way and livelihood.

We are not forced to do this work. We do it out of our own will, because we believe that someone who cares about animals, their loved ones, and fosters good relations between refugees, locals, and others, is worthy of our trust. We are proud of this.

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