UN Refugee Agency Turns to Tree Planting

Rwandan refugee camp in east Zaire
Rwandan refugee camp in east Zaire (present-day Democratic Republic of Congo).

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has pledged to plant more than 9 million trees in areas of human displacement this year, enlisting both refugees and host communities to meet this goal. By distributing seedlings of various species in denuded areas, UNHCR hopes to plant more than 2.6 million trees in and around refugee camps in Tanzania, 1.7 million in Sudan, and 1.8 million in Ethiopia.

There were an estimated 8.4 million refugees worldwide in 2006, according to UNHCR, while the ranks of internally displaced persons (IDPs)—those who do not cross an international border—are estimated at between 20 and 24 million. Although some refugees and IDPs end up in urban settings, the large majority find themselves in marginal regions of poor countries, where they have little choice but to cut and collect wood for shelters, lighting, cooking, and to make room for cultivating crops. The result can be serious deforestation and soil erosion that hurts both refugees and host communities, especially if large numbers of people arrive suddenly or are unable to return home for extended periods of time.

In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, some 2 million Rwandans who were marooned in neighboring countries for several months caused nearly irreparable environmental damage in parts of Tanzania and Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC), cutting down large numbers of trees for fuel wood. Within nine months, refugees at the largest Tanzanian camp had to walk 12 kilometers to reach the nearest source of fuel wood. During the 27 months that the refugees squatted in DRC’s Virunga National Park—listed as a World Heritage site due to its wealth of rare species—a total of 113 square kilometers of forestland was affected, two thirds of which was clear cut. Virunga and other parks in eastern DRC also sustained severe damage from skirmishes as the Rwandan conflict spilled across the border. Garamba National Park was host to refugees from Sudan as well.

UNHCR has recognized that in such situations, its humanitarian mission cannot easily be divorced from the demands of a healthy environment. The agency decided to join forces with the U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP), which initiated the “Plant for the Planet: Billion Tree Campaign” in November 2006 and is encouraging individuals, communities, civil society organizations, businesses, and governments to sign on. So far, close to 14 million trees have been planted in an effort to regenerate forests and fight climate change. UNEP says its campaign was inspired by the Green Belt Movement, the grassroots group founded by 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, which has planted more than 30 million trees in African countries during the last three decades.

UNHCR and its partner organizations realize that the tree-planting initiative is about more than putting large numbers of saplings in the ground. They are seeking to involve refugee populations directly in environmental management and rehabilitation activities, in the hope that such stewardship can have positive effects long after displaced populations are able to return home.

More Resources:

Michael Renner, Fighting for Survival, October 1996

Michael Renner, The Anatomy of Resource Wars, Worldwatch Paper 162, October 2002

“Deforestation Continues,” in Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2006–2007


This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.