There is a ‘green’ refugee camp in northern Cameroon – literally. You can see for yourself:
And it is a miracle that has happened even as Minawao camp, originally designed for 10,000 refugees, has swelled to more than 70,000 people, fleeing violence from the Boko Haram insurgency in neighbouring Nigeria, 30 kilometers away.
When they go home, ‘they will leave behind a greener and more developed village,” says UNHCR. “Everywhere we look is green now,” says Luka Isaac, president of the 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. Today, Minawao is very green.”
But when the refugees first began arriving in Minawao in May 2013, thinking they would be there for just two or three months, they cut down trees for firewood, causing tension with the local villagers. “Before the Nigerian refugees arrived in Minawao, we had enough firewood and you couldn’t see anyone within 100 meters. But since their arrival, everything has been destroyed. Our environment is treeless for miles,” said Boubakar Ousmary, general secretary of the canton of Gawar, bordering the camp.
When wood became scarce, refugees had to buy it, said LWF – often with the only thing they had to sell, food rations given to them by the UN. It was both a humanitarian and an ecological crisis. So in 2017-8, UNHCR and the LWF set out to “Make Minawao green again”, in both the camp and surrounding villages.
Land Life Company showed refugees how to give seedlings the best chance of survival, using a “cocoon technology”. A doughnut-shaped water tank made from recycled cartons is buried around the plant’s roots, which it waters using a string that connects to the young shoot.
“Since the project started, 360,000 seedlings have been grown in the nursery and planted on more than 100 hectares,” says Abdul Aziz, LWF’s project coordinator.“The camp was almost deforested, but this project has helped to repair the vegetation cover.” And seeing the difference the trees make, people protect them rather than cut them down.
The change, seen from the sky, is striking. Where video footage in 2018 showed vast stretches of sand surrounding buildings and shelters, the land now is green, and the first trees planted now provide enough shade for families to grow crops. “Before, during the dry season, the sun was so intense that everything burned,” recalls UNHCR’s Zara Maina.
Now the mango trees supplement family diets with fresh fruit for almost half the year, and produce a surplus that can be sold locally.
Eco-friendly fuel made in the camp itself from household waste is replacing wood for cooking. LWF has trained more than 5,000 households in producing ecological charcoal and distributed 11,460 energy-efficient stoves. Three hundred people work in producing charcoal and stoves, most of them women, and 5,500 households have been trained to produce charcoal.
Fibi Ibrahim, a refugee and mother of five who has lived in Minawao since 2016, belongs to a cooperative of around 100 women who produce and sell coal and the adapted stoves in Minawao. “The money I make selling charcoal briquettes allows me to buy soap, seasoning and meat to supplement the family’s rations,” she says. “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.”
Land Life Company provides jobs and training in the tree nursery and residents gain valuable experience in planting and maintenance.
The World Food Program and its partner, Public Concern, a Cameroonian non-governmental organization, has trained a team of 100 refugees (50 men and 50 women) who are paid to manage the monthly food distributions in the camp.“I love doing this. I just have to give everyone who comes by here their own oil ration according to their household size,” says Marie Luca, who fled her village six years ago when insurgents set her house and shop afire. ”With the pay I receive, I can buy other things for my family. There is no other way to make a living in this camp, so I appreciate this work.”
Marie hopes to one-day return to Nigeria to build a better life for her children in Banki, her home town, but says it is not safe yet, others have gone home and returned to the camp because armed groups are still there. She hopes to build a better life for her children in her home town of Banki when peace returns.
UNHCR also has been investing in solar energy systems, and reducing plastic waste.
The amazing Dutch Postcode Lottery funded the program through a US$2.7 million donation. It is part of the Great Green Wall initiative which aims to grow an 8,000-kilometre continent-wide barrier to combat land degradation, desertification and drought in the Sahel desert.
Refugees in Cameroon help build ‘Great Green Wall’ to combat desertification. UNHCR, Sep. 22, 2021
Minawao Refugee Camp – Cameroon. Land Life Company.
Five years in Minawao as a refugee. WFP West Africa, Feb. 19, 2020
Trees in ‘green’ Cameroon refugee camp, bring shade and relief from ‘helter-skelter’ of life. Humanitarian Aid, Mar. 1, 2019
Cameroon: Protect environment, create employment. Lutheran World Federation, Sep. 14, 2020