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Restocking woody biomass to reduce social and environmental pressures in refugee-hosting landscapes: Perspectives from Northwest Uganda

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In the last decade, the influx of over a million refugees into northern Uganda, particularly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has steeply increased pressure on the natural environment. The demand on woody vegetation for various uses and the need to create space for newcomers have progressively denuded the landscape. This has the potential to fuel tension between the host communities and refugees, which if left to simmer could create another conflict. Identifying strategies that are innovative to meet the demand for wood and its products in such a way that trees and shrubs, and the ecosystem services they provide, can be available and delivered to both host and refugee communities is critical. The aim of this study was to improve understanding of the perceptions of refugee and host communities towards deforestation and the various options to address the emerging wood fuel shortage in and around Imvepi Refugee Settlements and Rhino Camp in Arua district, Uganda. A survey of households and farms was conducted to determine various viewpoints among the refugee and host communities, and their options for regaining tree cover. About 84% of the respondents, from both communities, agreed that environmental degradation is taking place, mainly due to cutting of trees for firewood, baking bricks and extraction of timber and poles for construction. Using stump density as the degradation proxy, it was discovered that almost 60% of the tree cover had been depleted in and around settlements over the last 2-4 years. To address the challenges of deforestation and the high demand for wood products, respondents proposed a three-pronged approach: tree planting and growing, conserving existing trees and promoting natural regeneration of trees with sprouting stumps. This study which mostly focused on planting, found that the average number of trees that refugee households were willing to plant was in the order of 50 and 32 in Imvepi and Rhino Camp, respectively. However, host community members had considerably more land and stated that they were willing to plant 863-1,249 trees per household. Further, refugee respondents indicated that they would plant 66% of the trees along the boundary of their plots, with the rest being planted inside the plot and around their houses. On their part, host community members stated that more than 66% of the trees that they had indicated they would plant would ideally be placed in woodlots. Both communities noted that they would require support in the following: acquisition of planting materials and farm equipment, and training in the management of trees. Refugees stated that they needed additional land for trees. Based on the study findings and expert opinion, 5-6 tree-growing options are recommended for refugees and host communities in and around Imvepi Refugee Settlements and Rhino Camp. In addition, refugees generated a visualization of how trees might be integrated into a typical refugee plot. Both communities expressed a strong preference for exotic species, viii despite a high reliance on native species. This requires addressing through sensitization since, among other benefits, indigenous species provide nutrition and underpin ecosystem services and biodiversity. Although choice of tree species is always location-specific, the results and recommendations of this study provide a valuable guide for implementing partners seeking to restore degraded environments in refugee and host community areas in Uganda and beyond.

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