Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - Environment: Where have all the flowers gone ... and the trees ... and the gorillas?

Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - Environment: Where have all the flowers gone ... and the trees ... and the gorillas?
Refugees (110, IV - 1997)

1 December 1997
Large-scale refugee movements often have major impacts on local environments. Experts are exploring new ways to minimize the damage.

By Craig Sanders

The Virunga National Park is Africa's oldest game sanctuary - and one of its most spectacular. A string of brooding, still-active volcanoes spike threateningly into the the limitless African sky, every few years shooting out 100-metre high fountains of lava. Their flanks are covered in deep-green rainforests which are home to teeming herds of game. Higher up, the world's last great concentration of mountain gorillas survive precariously on dwindling thickets of bamboo.

When hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees flooded into the region in 1994, an ecological disaster of grand proportions appeared imminent. The gorillas came under threat from local gunmen, poachers and refugees. Long columns of men, women and children began to hack out hundreds of tons of rare woods daily to heat their cooking pots. Within two years they had cut down millions of trees covering more than 113 square kilometres of virgin forest.

The picture was similar in Tanzania where as many as 600,000 refugees from Rwanda and Burundi were housed in the Kagera region in the north-west of the country. They consumed more than 1,200 tons of firewood each day; more than 570 square kilometres of forest were affected.

Mass movements of refugees damage their immediate environment, but it is only in the last few years that humanitarian agencies have begun to focus specifically on this problem. The Great Lakes crisis involved such huge numbers of displaced peoples in particularly fragile environments that the international community at large, perhaps for the first time, became fully aware of the refugee-ecology link.


The problem was not simply environmental. It also generated social, economic and political fallout. African governments have been particularly generous toward refugees. But when increasingly large swathes of land were occupied and then degraded by newcomers, local populations began to worry about their own social and economic well being. Governments counted the political cost.

Once it became clear that the bulk of the Great Lakes refugees would remain for more than a few weeks, UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies began to finance a series of environmental projects which, it was hoped, would minimize the impact of the refugees on the surrounding countryside.

One of the most unusual was UNHCR's decision early in the crisis to help rebahilitate the local volcanological observatory near Goma, especially when one leading authority predicted that nearby Mount Nyiragongo would explode within weeks and its 100 kilometre an hour lava flow would engulf the refugee camps. That did not happen; but a second expert only half-jokingly issued a two-point plan for any future evacuation: 1. turn your back on the volcano 2. run like hell.

UNHCR's Goma office tried to solve the perennial problem of supplying huge numbers of people with cooking fuel and halt the destruction of the nearby forests by hiring a fleet of 100 trucks to haul commercial firewood to the camps.At the same time, experts tracked any ongoing deforestation by analyzing satellite images, a useful technique when it became too dangerous for field staff to venture into the region. Aid officials tried a similar approach in Tanzania.

Those particular programmes were not entirely successful. In Goma, the firewood truck project consumed more than one-quarter of UNHCR's budget. The price tag in Tanzania was $1.2 million, or 80 percent of the environmental budget, according to UNHCR consultant Matthew Owen. ' The project was not only expensive, it also had little impact in reducing either fuel consumption or environmental damage,' he said.

Later, in the Virunga region, UNHCR began retraining, equipping and redeploying park rangers to protect not only the region's invaluable flora but also the dwindling population of mountain gorillas whose number had been further reduced by the upheavels.


Angelina Uwimana and her husband Justin were typical Rwandan refugees who reached Tanzania's Benaco camp in July 1994. Their experience is a cautionary tale about the do's and don'ts of dealing with environmental problems.

At home, Angelina ran a maize mill and Justin was a farmer. Life was difficult in Rwanda but, perhaps surprisingly, in Tanzania they had lots of spare time. Food was provided free each week. Clinics were better than anything their home village could provide, and there were people to do things they used to do for themselves. A European aid organization built them a new cooking stove of a type the Uwimanas had never seen before. Eventually 80 percent of the refugees received these 'improved' cookers. Justin was even given free handouts of firewood.

So far, so good; but then the tale began to turn sour. The Uwimanas and other refugees eventually abandoned their 'new' stoves because they had been built in 'the wrong place' in their huts and because their older, more primitive, stone fires could burn large pieces of wood from the nearby forests while the 'free' firewood had to be laboriously chopped into smaller pieces. Even the 'free' maize took an extremely long time to cook - normally four hours - which caused a dramatic increase in overall fuel consumption in the camps.

Environmentalists have now returned to their drawing boards, to analyse both their success and failures. According to Matthew Owen, the Great Lakes crisis 'has been a rapid learning experience for environmentalists, as well as a turning point in terms of interventions. We have learned many lessons. We now shy away from firewood supply. We do not put so much faith in the improved stove. We know the linkage between food and the environment.'

"The Prevention before Cure adage has been the most important lesson of the Ngara (Tanzania) experience," he added, emphasizing that the KEY environmental decisions, such as where new camps will be located in relation to each other and any nearby fragile ecologies, the size of each site, and the density of each plot, must be taken before refugees arrive in a new region.

Nature itself provides the final lesson. Two rainy seasons after refugees left Ngara, the natural woodland is reviving and baboons, buffalo and birds such as the Lilac Breasted Rollers and Superb Starlings have all returned.

In Kivu, labourers burned refuse and sealed latrines; waterpumps and storage tanks were moved to other projects, and local villagers picked clean any remaining refuse. The rainforests then overwhelmed a few stone walls and gravel tracks, the only surviving reminders of once bustling cities which housed hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 110 (1997)