Julie Gassien bats at an incessant onslaught of gnats attacking the moisture in her eyes. All around her is the green fernery of the Angolan bush, the sounds of burbling water soothing from the forested background. She stands on an intricately balanced web of ecological importance, and steps from a newly constructed refugee camp meant to house up to 50,000 people.
Lóvua settlement in Northeastern Angola’s Lunda Norte province suddenly became home to an influx of families fleeing violence in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo in August 2017. As new refugees poured in their immediate needs mounted: wood for cooking and heat, water for drinking, cooking and cleaning, places to safely and hygienically dispose of human waste. Familiar requirements.
“When you put tens of thousands of people in a natural area,” says Gassien, “you don’t need an environmental PhD to know it’s going to be complicated.”
But in Angola, a recognition by both the government and by UNHCR that protecting the environment was an important factor to consider led to an unusual approach: an environmental and energy plan that was implemented from the beginning.
Gassien is part of it. An energy and environment officer with UNHCR, she’s charged with working alongside the Angolan Ministry of the Environment to ensure that the land, soil, and water of this corner of the country have a durable solution as well.
“We are paying attention to reducing any potential impact from the start,” she says, blinking as the bugs attack her face in the moist air. That includes working across sectors to keep a minimum forest density that avoids soil degradation and erosion, managing rainwater and pollution, and identifying common waste disposal sites that will be controlled, identified and of benefit to refugee and host communities.
This kind of environmental planning can make a huge difference in the lived experience of those involved. Conditions are dire nearby, in the overcrowded transit center in Cacanda, where refugees lack basic humanitarian standards of water, sanitation and hygiene and shelter. And in protracted situations elsewhere, environmental degradation has led to increased sexual and gender-based violence, antagonism between refugee and host communities and, in Haiti, an infamous and deadly cholera outbreak caused in part by a poor wastewater management strategy.
Getting things right from the start
Gassien knows how critical it is to get things right here in Lóvua . She started with an environmental assessment to identify the area’s main sensitivities, undertaken in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and required by national legislation before certain projects like new construction.
“In countries where we intervene, we tend to forget there are environmental laws,” reminds Gassien. “There is legislation, and countries have signed treaties. This has to be in the package of decisionmaking.”
As UNHCR set out to clear land for the settlement, Gassien’s analysis ensured the protection of the most foundational plants and species. They marked trees that should not be cut to preserve density and diversity, and carefully opened up other spaces where people could grow food in sunlight.
Gassien and her team are working on an environmental management document to define the measures that should be taken to reduce the environmental impact of the settlement, to be signed by UNHCR and the Angolan government.
They’re also meeting with refugees in focus groups to get a sense of their cooking needs, a main driver behind cutting down trees for firewood. Many refugees here use the “three-stone fire” method of putting wood in the middle to form a hearth and balancing a pot on the tripod of three stones. It’s one of the highest energy-consumption methods of cooking and generates a lot of unhealthy smoke.
Educating refugees on sustainable firewood collection will allow them to reduce what they’re taking now, and lay the groundwork for long-term sensitization and support for alternative techniques like biomass or solar energy. Gassien and her team are already collaborating with the community on designing fuel-efficient cookstoves, with a target of 2,000 refugees and 500 host community members using one by the end of the year.
They’re also continuing to work on a waste disposal solution that moves away from unhygienic, unsanitary and dangerous refuse pits commonly used in emergency situations.
As for energy, Lóvua is totally off the grid. So every refugee will have a solar lamp, and UNHCR is installing local switch lights in common areas. Gassien hopes to install off-grid solar lighting systems at main points like schools and health and community centers-small “plug and play” systems that community organizations can manage themselves. Refugees will manage, watch, clean and repair solar systems and reap the monetary benefits in addition to the environmental ones.
Not a place to waste
Each initiative Gassien and her colleagues are planning is being undertaken with community involvement: One of the hardest things to do, if you ask Gassien, but also one of the most essential.
“The first idea was to say, you have to pay attention to this place because there’s a community around here, because it’s a forest, because it’s for your own sake,” says Gassien. Without the activities undergirding that sentiment in place yet, Gassien admits they are just words. But she wants Lóvua ‘s new residents to recognize that their new forest home is “not a place to waste.”
“We really emphasized the environmental awareness-raising component, because we know it’s important to go back to the people and to explain and go back and explain again and go back again and explain again,” Gassien says.
So far, it seems refugees here have taken the message to heart. Community Natural Resource Management committees are starting to assemble to discuss challenges and options, and to put mechanisms in place to encourage dialogue about environmental issues with the host community even before any conflicts arise.
Gassien says a small group of young mobilizers are especially enthusiastic about the initiatives. And refugees beyond that core group ask what to do if members of the host community come to chop down trees the refugees have been cautioned to preserve.
But here is just one more example of how thorny things get. Because the answer is: nothing.
“This is their home and they can do what they want to do,” explains Gassien. When she talks to refugees living in Lóvua , she suggests leaving some trees for fruit and others for shade, and making conscious choices about which areas to clear for gardening. But she can’t make them, or their host community counterparts, do anything. “That’s why it’s really complicated. The environment is a collective asset but it’s only about individual action.”
Hope for Lóvua
If she could snap her fingers, Gassien says Lóvua would not exist. She hates seeing this swath of forest under such pressure from humans with no better options. But since they are here, Gassien hopes they can all work together to ensure that the damage is proportional.
Green corridors could guarantee the health of fauna, birds and insects that are important to the ecosystem. Thorough and responsible local waste collection and disposal would minimize contamination, pollution and disease. Using local materials for shelters could reduce the environmental impact of trucking building materials in. And fostering awareness among kids especially could ensure respect for the area for years to come. After all, the average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. The children who learn to be good stewards of these forests and water today will most likely be the ones managing these assets well into the future.
Gassien’s vision will not be easy to implement. “Bringing this to the fore in humanitarian situations is hard,” she says. “Everybody knows it’s important, but no one does anything because we have so many challenges.”
She says decisions are still too often based on short-term visions: latrines hastily constructed without forecasting how long refugees will realistically stay, for instance. In most cases, that’s when the environmentalist gets called in. When the place is literally overflowing with excrement.
Even in Lóvua, Gassien got behind the curve. She and her colleagues had time before the refugees from Kasai arrived to responsibly clear land for three villages, leaving the right amount of open space while managing the vegetation. But as more and more people relocated they overtook UNHCR’s ability to prepare spaces for them, and refugees were basically dumped in the bush to fend for themselves. “In those villages, the degradation is much higher than where spaces were opened and properly marked,” Gassien says. Her team is catching up with the delays, and making things right.
That’s why Gassien is so hopeful for Lóvua. Since she’s been here from the start, she’s able to recommend precedents and rules that will carry these people-refugees and the host community both-through to a sustainable short-term solution.
That solution doesn’t mean zero environmental impact. That would be unrealistic. But it should be one that took these streams and trees and soils and even gnats into account.
We should be able to say, “Yes, we assessed, and yes, it’s been a choice,” says Gassien. “We decided to degrade the environment in this way because we put other priorities first. For me, that’s the most important thing. To say you considered these things.”
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