When Mary Aloyo crossed into Uganda from South Sudan, she was bussed within hours to the nearest refugee settlement. 24 hours later, she and her two children had been given medical treatment, hot food and a small plot of land to call their own with tools to farm and build a shelter. The Ugandan refugee operation is seamless and welcoming. Aloyo is grateful to Ugandans, she tells VICE Impact, four months after settling in.
Today, Uganda is home to 955,263 (and counting) South Sudanese asylum-seekers and refugees, who, like Aloyo, crossed the northern border seeking safety. Besides the killing, torturing, abducting and looting, South Sudan declared famine on February 21. Schools have been shut down, trading has stopped and many, like Aloyo, had to escape through the bush because of armed groups on the road. The situation is desperate, and as such, it comes as no surprise that the north of Uganda is home to the world's largest refugee settlement, Bidi Bidi.
Aloyo's new home is in Palabek refugee settlement. Opened in late April to take some of the pressure off Bidi Bidi, it is located a few kilometers east and only 30 kilometers from the South Sudan-Uganda border. Today, it already hosts more than 30,000 refugees, with bus families arriving most days.
Like Bidi Bidi, Palabek settlement has schools, churches, mosques, health centers, community spaces and markets. Refugees can move freely, work, access healthcare and are given land by local residents.
"We are like family with the South Sudanese. Here, in the north, we even speak the same language," James Dickso, a local field officer from Palabek, explained to VICE Impact. "Some are even our distant relatives, we couldn't possibly turn them away."
However, arriving into Palabek, as the luscious bush and the potholed red mud road open up into the settlement, it quickly becomes clear that the refugee operation is not all green. Northern Uganda is known for its rich grassland with shrubs and trees but you wouldn't know it standing in the middle of the Palabek camp. The forest has been cleared to make space for the refugees.
Palabek is no exception. Although, impossible to know precisely, some government estimates have claimed that approximately 11 million trees (and counting) have been cut as a result of the conflict in South Sudan and its forcibly displaced people.
"Unfortunately, deforestation is a common problem around refugee camps," Owen Grafham, co-author of Chatham House's Moving Energy Initiative (MEI) report 'Heat, Light and Power for Refugees: Saving Lives, Reducing Costs' explained to VICE Impact.
This is because tree cutting does not stop once the refugees arrive. Refugees inside Palabek, like in the vast majority of refugee camps across the world, depend on the remaining trees for firewood to cook.
In fact, according to MEI's ground-breaking model, an estimated 64,700 acres of forest (equivalent to 49,000 soccer fields) are burnt worldwide each year by forcibly displaced families living in camps. And this figure does not count the number of football pitches of forests cleared to build and make space for refugee shelters and welcoming centers.
Despite its significant environmental impact, the refugees access to energy is low, with 80 percent of the 8.7 million displaced people in camps have absolutely minimal access to energy according to the MEI. Often, in practice, this means households are unable to cook more than one meal day.
"The use of firewood for energy takes a major toll on human lives, with women and children, often bearing the brunt," Grafham said.
For example, Médecins Sans Frontières reported that 500 displaced women from Darfur in Sudan were raped whilst collecting firewood and water in the space of only five-months. And, based on the World Health Organization, an estimated 20,000 forcibly displaced people die prematurely every year as a result of pollution from indoor fires, leaving the displaced very vulnerable.
The trees in Palabek are vulnerable too. Many of those risk of being cut are either of local cultural importance or international importance. Some, like the chair-nut tree, listed under the International Unit of Conservation of Nature's 'Rare List of Endangered Tree Species', are both.
"In Uganda, the chair-nut can only be found in the north and it is at risk of extinction. It is especially vulnerable as it is in very high demand because its carbon efficiency is very high," Henry Mukiibi, the settlement's environmental protection project officer, explained.
Fortunately, for the trees inside this settlement there is hope.
"On arrival of the refugees in Palabek, we launched an initiative in which we marked the trees that were not supposed to be cut," Mukiibi said.
Working with LWF Act Alliance, the humanitarian NGO managing the camp committed themselves, and UNHCR, he implemented an environmental protection program to safeguard the settlement's biodiversity.
All endangered species, like the chair-nut trees have been marked using red paint. "This means they cannot be chopped down," Mukiibi explained. "Some trees can only be cut with authorization from the district. These are marked in yellow. However, in areas of the settlement where the refugees are settled, we have started to replant trees. We have been replanting trees along the avenues of the settlement and we have also started giving out tree seedlings to every refugee household."
Aloyo, like other neighboring households, has already received and planted the 35 seedlings she received a few weeks ago. "I have been looking after the seedlings really well, can you see?" Aloyo asked. The LWF Act Alliance team have been visiting the refugees frequently, encouraging them to water their trees.
"We've suggested that the trees can help them demarcate their plots," Dickso explained. "Climate change is understandably not something on their priority list at this precise moment," he pauses. "But they all want to create homes and settle, so they have been very excited about the seedlings."
"We've given out 13,000 thousand so far," Dickso said proudly as we sat with Aloyo who was busy chopping some ofigo, a local green vegetable she has been growing on her plot. "And we're giving more out every day, as new arrivals settle in."
A few meters around the corner, underneath the shadow of what Aloyo hopes her seedlings will become, sit a dozen adult students, and an 8-month old baby on a blanket. For these refugees, tree planting is about to become a serious business. Selected by their communities to attend this workshop, these students will, in 4 days time have been given all the skills and material necessary for them to be able to set up their own tree nursery.
The aim? Give refugees the chance to earn a living selling tree seedlings, while regenerating forests. With other governmental and humanitarian organizations pushing to start similar tree planting initiatives across northern Uganda, tree seedlings are about to become a product in high-demand, a market LWF Act Alliance wants to encourage the refugees to tap into.
"We promote making money from tree planting. This group is going to learn how to raise and sell seedlings," Sunday Along, a workshop supervisor, who is sporting a bright blue 'ask me about tree planting' t-shirt explained.
As we walked around her plot, Aloyo still sat and chopped oligo proudly points are the little sticks protecting her seedlings. She stopped chopping and sighed: "I do love these trees. Seeing them grow makes me feel at home."