Ms Charity Gune, a widow, arrived at Agojo settlement camp in Uganda’s West Nile District of Adjumani in October 2016.
It was at the peak of the now five-year-old South Sudan war between President Salva Kiir and his former vice Dr Riek Machar. Ms Gune was allocated a 30 by 30 metres plot of land by government where she settled with her three children.
It was a forested land with different tree species such as shea nut, mahogany, but they were cut down to pave way for firewood and construction of houses.
Since hundreds of Gune’s countrymen started flocking to Uganda from troubled South Sudan, the world’s youngest State, there has been increased destruction of natural trees in refugee hosting communities.
As they pour in, the green canopy of different tree species and bushes pave way for settlement. Refugees had to slash the bushes and forests to get firewood to cook food supplies provided by the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
“When we arrived here, we were using the three stones for cooking and the fire wood could easily be blown away,” Ms Gune says, adding that that they had to fulfill their fuel needs.
Gune is not alone. She is part of the close to one million South Sudan refugees in different camps who have since fled South Sudan to Uganda to seek safety. Districts such as Adjumani, Arua, Yumbe, Moyo and other Uganda-South Sudan border districts are among the most affected areas.
According to the UNHCR report on Refugee and Host Community Ratios by District in November last year, the number of refugees in Adjumani district surpasses that of natives by 61 per cent compared to 39 per cent of the latter.
Mr Charles Giyaya, the district natural resource officer says, this has put much pressure on the natural resources of forests, lakes, rivers, and swamps as refugees in the district’s 18 settlement camps continue to use their traditional way of cultivation that involves cutting vegetation and burning bushes during the dry seasons.
“A total of 116 square kilometres of the land were allocated for refugees …and that size of area has been affected, losing 15 million trees[since 1989] because those areas where people (refugees) were settled had trees,” Mr Giyaya states.
The loss of green vegetation, including swamps, has caused floods whenever it rains and prolonged drought in the district. The dry season which used to fall from December to February now extends up to April due to changes in the eco-system, Mr Giyaya says.
The situation is no different in Bidi Bidi camp in the West Nile district of Yumbe, which is the largest refugee camp in the world with a total of 287,000 refugees according to current statistics from the Office of the Prime Minister.
Mr Steven Taban, a resident in Bidi Bidi camp says people clear trees and burn bushes for their own fire wood which sometimes also causes conflict with the host communities who share the same resources.
“…we have not yet got any organisations that have come up with seedlings,” states Taban, also a member of the refugee welfare committee in the camp’s zone two.
Given the interminable presence of the refugees in the country, conservation organisations in partnership with UNHCR have introduced energy saving stoves made out of clay soil among refugees. The refugees have also been equipped with skills of making the stoves, together with briquettes made out of dust.
Refugees who use the covered design of energy saving stoves say it provides a low rate of heat loss to reduce the amount of wood needed, save more trees from being cut, as wells as lift the burden off women and girls from collecting firewood.
A view of the camps shows wood burning stoves built afront almost every shack with barely any household using the traditional three stones for cooking.
I found 32-year-old Gune using pocket-sized pieces of firewood to prepare millet porridge and tea at the same time. She says: “When we used three stones, fire would easily be blown away by wind.”
Mr Denish Odongo, the Livelihoods and environmental coordinator Lutheran World Federation (LWF), which promotes environment conservation in one of the zones says they have so far achieved 60 per cent coverage of refugees who use energy saving stoves.
“These energy saving stoves are very efficient and use less firewood and does not need the whole tree trunk to be cut down; even the branches pruned are enough to make firewood at home. We sensitise and even train our beneficiaries, both refugees and host communities on how to construct,” Mr Odongo says.
The lower demand for firewood has helped bring down the prices of both charcoal, firewood and discourage people from cutting trees, Musa Tombe, another refugee in Mirieyi camp in Adjumani District, says.
“The cost of firewood is high… a bundle, which takes an average family for three to four days, costs Shs5,000 and people are now forced to embrace energy saving stoves,” Tombe adds.
Although five refugee camps in northern Uganda were visited for this particular story, this newspaper understands that with the help of non-government organisations, similar initiatives have been introduced in the other camps across the country as part of efforts to save more trees.
Environment degradation, however, remains one of the cracks in the country’s open refugee policy where degradation of natural resources goes unchecked.
Despite the introduction of the stoves to check deforestation in the region, other activities, especially charcoal burning, brick making and sand mining (which breaks river banks), are ongoing as refugees strive to secure a sustainable source of income and food.
But with the reduction in the firewood consumption, the residents and district authorities are optimistic that natural resources like Oliji wetland will be restored as their destruction caused floods whenever it rains, something that never happened before.
The use of energy saving stoves is also complemented with the replanting of both fruit and other tree species which are provided by local NGOs in partnership with UNHCR.
On the other hand, the host communities say they had lost valuable indigenous tree species like shea nut whose seeds are extracted to make oils and other products.
Ceasar Oyabo, a finance administrator at Romogi Subcounty in Yumbe District notes that some of their sacred trees like Mili tree which is of huge cultural significance had been destroyed in the search for firewood and timber.
Unfortunately, these have been replaced by different species like fruits given the limited land accorded to the refugees who cannot accommodate traditional tree species which occupy more space.
In other interventions, UNHCR has started marking other remaining trees within the settlement camps that are not supposed to be cut down.
Other than firewood, trees are also cut down to construct temporary shelters such as tents, prefabricated huts, or dwellings, and latrines constructed of locally available materials.
The use of energy saving stoves restores hope in a country where majority of the population use charcoal or firewood for cooking, accounting for the loss of large tracts of government forest reserves annually.
Forest conservation beyond the camps
President Museveni has on a number of occasions publicly expressed displeasure at the performance of the National Forestry Authority based on national statistics like the 2016 Joint Water and Environment Sector Review Report, which indicated that forest cover had reduced from 24 per cent in 1990 to just 11 per cent in 2015.
The report adds that between 1990 and 2005, natural forest estate outside protected areas reduced from 3.46 million hectares in 1990 to 2.3 million hectares in 2005 as people convert hitherto forested land into agricultural land, timber and charcoal burning zones.
The result is the current effects of climate change like dry spells and extreme temperatures experienced in the country as a result of the destruction of vegetation cover including forests which help to absorb industrial emissions, scientists say.
As a source of food to humans and animals, forests influence rainfall formation, provide energy, promote employment and enhance incomes, and nourish soils with nutrients that in turn support the agriculture sector.
An investigation by this newspaper in 2016 showed that much of Mabira forest in the central district of Buikwe had been encroached on by charcoal burners, farmers and others people in search for timber. Annually, Uganda loses over 200,000 hectares of forest cover and plants less than 7,000 hectares annually, an indication that the country does not have the capacity to replace the number of trees equal to those lost annually, according to findings by FAO.
The government economic interests have also compromised its will to protect natural forests as witnessed in 2016 when parts of Bugoma Central Forest Reserve in Hoima District, just like Zoka Forest Reserve in Adjumani District, were proposed to be degazetted for sugar cane growing.
This story was done in partnership with the, International Women Media Foundation (IWMF), an organisation working to elevate the status of women in the media.