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UNHCR backs environment plan with pledge to plant 9 million trees

News Stories, 18 May 2007

© UNHCR/A.Webster
A refugee wheels his barrow through a nursery run with UNHCR help in Kenya's Kakuma camp. UNHCR is taking measures to counter environmental damage around camps for refugees and the displaced.

GENEVA, May 18 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has pledged to support a major environmental programme by planting and caring for more than 9 million trees this year in areas of human displacement. The gesture is aimed at making up for some of the environmental damage caused by refugees and displaced people around the world and to fight climate change.

"The main problem in areas of displacement is deforestation as refugees and internally displaced persons need to cut and collect wood for cooking, to provide light, for construction and for natural medical ingredients and fodder," explained UNHCR Environmental Senior Officer Valentine Ndibalema. "People also cut down trees to create areas for cultivation or to sell the wood in markets and have an additional income."

The resultant damage is a major concern for host countries and local populations because the land can take years, if ever, to recover. Ndibalema said UNHCR wanted to help in some way and so decided to join a major tree-planting campaign run by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP).

UNEP launched "Plant for the Planet: The Billion Tree Campaign" in November last year and it has so far won pledges to plant more than 960 million trees, while almost 14 million have actually been planted to date. The agency is encouraging individuals, communities, business and industry, civil society organizations and governments to take part.

"This kind of programme is crucial to fight against deforestation, which increases the risks of global warming as there are less trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," said Ndibalema, adding that planting of new trees and care of old ones helped protect against soil erosion and increase fertility.

UNHCR will enlist the help of refugees and host communities as it pursues the goal of planting 9 million trees this year. Seedlings of various types of tree are being produced and will be distributed for planting around shelters and homes or for reforestation of denuded areas.

In Tanzania, for instance, the goal is to plant more than 2.6 million saplings in and around refugee camps. Some planting has taken place in April and May. In Sudan, 1.7 million trees will be planted later this year in settlement areas for refugees and displaced people as well as around the homes of host communities. The target in neighbouring Ethiopia is to plant 1.8 million trees.

The idea for the UNEP campaign was inspired by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, whose Green Belt Movement has planted more than 30 million trees in 12 countries in Africa since 1977.

UNHCR and its implementing partners have developed programmes to educate refugees and displaced people about the environment and show them how to plant and care for a tree. The agency has helped plant trees over hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Asia and Africa since the 1990s.

"At the beginning, refugees were reluctant to plant trees and to take care of them, they thought they would be back soon to their countries and did not see the point of engaging in a long-term project," said Ndibalema. "Then they realized they would get benefits from planting, such as shade, fruit and stabilizing the soil."

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Environment

How UNHCR and partners seek to minimize the environmental impact of refugee operations.

Battling the Elements in Chad

More than 180,000 Sudanese refugees have fled violence in Sudan's Darfur region, crossing the border to the remote desert of eastern Chad.

It is one of the most inhospitable environments UNHCR has ever had to work in. Vast distances, extremely poor road conditions, scorching daytime temperatures, sandstorms, the scarcity of vegetation and firewood, and severe shortages of drinkable water have been major challenges since the beginning of the operation. Now, heavy seasonal rains are falling, cutting off the few usable roads, flooding areas where refugees had set up makeshift shelters, and delaying the delivery of relief supplies.

Despite the enormous environmental challenges, UNHCR has so far managed to establish nine camps and relocate the vast majority of the refugees who are willing to move from the volatile border.

Battling the Elements in Chad

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

Peaceful days and a safe environment is probably more than these Palestinian and Sudanese refugees expected when they were stuck in a desert camp in Iraq. Now they are recovering at a special transit centre in the Romanian city of Timisoara while their applications for resettlement in a third country are processed.

Most people forced to flee their homes are escaping from violence or persecution, but some find themselves still in danger after arriving at their destination. UNHCR uses the centre in Romania to bring such people out of harm's way until they can be resettled.

The Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) in Timisoara was opened in 2008. Another one will be formally opened in Humenné, Slovakia, within the coming weeks. The ETC provides shelter and respite for up to six months, during which time the evacuees can prepare for a new life overseas. They can attend language courses and cultural orientation classes.

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

Camp Life in Eastern Chad

Faced with nearly 200,000 Sudanese refugees from Darfur fleeing into the barren desert of eastern Chad, the UN refugee agency has essentially had to build small villages – including shelter, latrines, water supply and basic services – to accommodate the refugees and help them survive in a hostile natural environment with scarce local resources. The 11 camps set up so far shelter more than 166,000 refugees from Darfur.

While much work still needs to be done, especially to find sufficient water in the arid region, life in the camps has reached a certain level of normalcy, with schools and activities starting up and humanitarian aid regularly distributed to the residents. Meanwhile, UNHCR continues to improve services and living conditions in the existing camps and is working to set up new camps to take in more refugees from the ongoing violence in Darfur.

Camp Life in Eastern Chad

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