Ernest Jjingo – The Observer

Ernest Jjingo

The Observer

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), by end of May 2023, Uganda was hosting 1,547,981 refugees and asylum seekers with new arrivals continuing to enter the country mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. Since the beginning of the year, Uganda has received 14,381 refugees from DRC and 16,067 from South Sudan.

Terego district in the West Nile region is one of the areas where these refugees have chosen to settle. However, such an influx has aggravated the pressure on the environment resources caused mainly by wood fuel consumption for cooking and timber for temporary house construction leading to land degradation and vegetation cover depletion in the district.

In order to mitigate this environment catastrophe, Uganda Biodiversity Fund (UBF), a not for profit organization dedicated to conserving the environment by addressing the funding challenge to biodiversity conservation in Uganda has partnered with civil society organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Nurture Uganda and Ecological Christian Organization to implement a project of restoring and conserving degraded eco systems within the refugee settlement areas for improving the lives of refugees and host communities and building the resilience of the landscape in the face of climate change.  The fouryear project which ends in December 2024 is being funded by the European Union (EU) to the tune of 4.6 million Euros.

Imvepi refugee settlement in Terego district is one of the refugee camps where this project is being implemented. This settlement was established in 2017 to accommodate South Sudan asylum seekers fleeing war in their country after the Palorinya refugee settlement which was opened in 2016 in Moyo district quickly reached its full capacity.  

According to Pascal Ajusi, the settlement commandant of Imvepi refugee settlement, there are close to 450,000 refugees in the West Nile region with Imvepi alone having 75,000 refugees with an influx of about 3,000 refugees every year since 2021. These are mainly from DRC and South Sudan.  

He says that this sudden increase in population has therefore caused substantial impact on the environment in terms of tree cover vegetation depletion which has become inevitable since 2017 as the refugees need the trees for wood fuel and poles for constructing their temporary housing structures. Among the natural degraded environment was the Enywau river watershed which had a very thick vegetation cover but it is all depleted and the vegetation cover on different hilltops like Awa hill was also cleared and thick woodlands cut down.  


Unlike in other areas, the refugee settlement land in West Nile is privately owned and therefore government through the Office of the Prime minister (OPM) entered an agreement with private land owners to settle the refugees on their land.  

Located deep in Awa hill village, Odupi sub county, Terego district, Isaac Bandua is one of such landowners. Part of his land totaling to 25 hectares was a woodland at the peripheral of the settlement with indigenous tress species like sheer nut, mahogany and teak which were gradually cleared down when the refugees started coming in.  

Bandua says that before, the area had a thick vegetation cover which had remained intact and was even a habitant to animals such as leopards, antelopes, hyenas, monkeys and tree species like shear nuts but all these trees were cut down by the refugees for poles for building and wood fuel. Indeed today, this rocky landscape is a shadow of its former self with just a few stunted trees and grass still standing.  

“Before the refugees came here, it was a vast land with no settlement and it was only being used for hunting animals for food and collecting wild fruits while sometimes the community would get wood from it. In the 1990’s, some refugees came and cut down some trees but when they went, the vegetation regenerated. But when there was an influx in 2016, they (refugees) cleared down the forests for purposes of finding space to settle, wood fuel and poles for construction thereby leaving the land bare up to now,” Bandua says.

He adds that by 2021, the land had become so bare and they realized the need of restoring it. They therefore approached local leaders like the local council chairpersons and district leaders who forwarded their concerns to the OPM. That is when partners like UBF then came in to help in the restoration efforts of the natural vegetation of the land by giving landowners like him (Bandua) tree seedlings to replant and knowledge about the restoration processes.

Bandua and four other landlords were therefore selected by OPM through the settlement commandant and supported by UBF to establish woodlots to not only assist in restoration but also meet the increasing demand for wood fuel and poles which still persists.

Levand Turyomurugyendo, the Projects Manager at UBF says Bandua has 25 hectares of land where 1,100 trees have been planted per hectare with the survival rate of the trees expected to be at 75 percent which he says is high enough and therefore there will be no need for replanting in future as there will be enough trees which will continue growing.  

However, since the need for wood fuel and poles by the refugees persists, the restoration program is designed in a way which addresses this need while at the same time protecting the environment.

“The purpose with this is two-fold; the refugees who are settled need fuel wood and poles and so these farmers have been supported to establish large scale woodlots so that in future the refuges can still access those two products. After establishing the woodlots, we are going to aid the indigenous tree species which are in those landscapes to start growing together with the exotic trees which have been planted,” Turyomurugyendo says.  

Some of the exotic tree species being planted include gmelina arborea, giant lira and teak trees. “For purposes of meeting the demand for fuel wood and poles, we planted exotic species in the woodlots. These trees are able to sprout once they are cut so they don’t need replacement once utilized by the farmers and refugees which is sustainable and supports our restoration efforts while at the same time benefiting the host and refugee communities.”

He adds, “This season, we are going to be working with the farmers to assist those stumps to start sprouting so that as the other exotic trees are growing to provide poles, the indigenous trees like mahogany, sheer nuts, afzelia and turmeric are also growing again and continuing the restoration process. By the end of last year, we had established 242 hectares and our target by end of the project in December is 300 hectares.”


Since it was the actions of the refugees which mainly led to the destruction of the natural vegetation in the area, the project implementors thought it wise to involve them in the restoration process not only to make them feel part of the efforts and desist from destroying the environment again but also support their livelihood.  

Turyomurugyendo says that they have agreed with the farmers to involve the refugees by allowing them to grow crops in the established woodlots through the Taungya system where agricultural crops are grown in the forest for a short time among woody perennial tree species in order to utilize the land, control weeds, reduce establishment costs, generate early income and stimulate the development of the woody perennial species.   

On the other hand, some refugees are being hired by a UBF contractor to help in tilling the land who pays them a wage for their work after reaching an agreement. Two sisters, 20-year-old Esther Keji, a mother of two and 19-year-old Gladys Poni, a mother of one and currently pregnant with a second child are among the refugees who are benefiting from digging the land where the trees are being planted. They came from Kaje Kaje in South Sudan in 2017 because of the civil unrest there.  With the Shs 60,000 each they are being paid for digging the land, they are able to buy themselves food items and take care of their children.

Through Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) approach, farmers and refugees have formed groups where each farmer or refugee who works on a plantation is obliged to save up to Shs 5,000 so that they build up a financial base for themselves which they can use to borrow small loans from the financial institutions around. The groups are among the host communities alone, the refugees and the host communities or the refugees alone.

Going by recent events where UNHCR and government have been reducing the humanitarian rations being given to refugees especially in terms of food since 2020 due to limited funding which is making their survival in the settlements difficult, such interventions are believed to go a long way in supporting the livelihood of refugees in the settlements.

South Sudanese refugees Esther Keji and Gladys Poni digging the land for tree planting


Other approaches to addressing the wood fuel challenge in a bid of reducing pressure on the environment have been the introduction of briquettes and energy saving stoves which use grass instead of charcoal. However, Ajusi notes that since these methods come with a cost of purchasing these items, the potential users who are mainly the refugees seem to shun them.

Free tree seedings are also being provided to the refugees to plant at their homesteads with each homestead expected to plant ten seedlings on the 30 metres by 30 metres piece of land given to each household in Imvepi refugee settlement.

“If we the local community are very serious with these efforts, I am hopeful that in the years to come, our area will have restored its natural vegetation cover like it was before the coming of the refugees. We however request the government through OPM and local leaders to continue with their sensitization efforts among refugees and host communities about the importance of conserving the environment such that this goal is achieved,” an optimistic Bandua says.