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Wandering souls & disappearing forests.

It's tough to write about refugees. It's tough--not because of the vacant eyes and distended bellies and withered limbs, or even because of grief-stricken mothers trying to suckle the corpses of their babies--but because of a quirk of the English language. Although "refugee" is derived from "refuge," it sounds a lot like "refuse."

Sadly, the word "refuse" defines the plight of refugees--they are considered "throw-away people." Tossed aside by events and by people more powerful, they lose everything, including their dignity. It is tough to write about a mass of millions upon millions of such people.

It's also tough to write about refugees and trees. The two seem almost mutually exclusive. Refugees reflect everything that is wrong about the world--a loss of dignity and vitality. Trees symbolize the opposite--strength and life. Mixing the two is like mixing oil and water.

But it's important to write about refugees in terms of forests and trees because many refugees need trees to survive, and many are refugees because of a lack of trees. Trees are also becoming a principal means for providing refugee rehabilitation. The good that comes from trees is clearly evident in refugee populations that either flee treeless environments or deforest an area because of their numbers.


Refugees are people who migrate when conditions make human life impossible or intolerable. Refugees leave their homes for political, economic, or environmental reasons. According to accepted international definitions, however, environmental and economic factors (aside from natural disasters, that is) are not considered reasons for seeking refuge.

The United Nations defines a refugee as a person who migrates "owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country..." Therefore, to be an "official refugee,"a person needs to cross an internationally recognized border because of a fear of political persecution at home.

In July 1991, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that there are more than 16 million "official" refugees worldwide. The majority live in Asia and Africa. Given the official definition, it should come as no surprise that over six million Afghans, 2.4 million Palestinians, and 1.4 million Mozambicans have fled or been forced from their homelands. But how many others have left their homes because of collapsed economies or disintegrating environments, without crossing an internationally recognized border? No one really knows, although the World Bank estimates that an additional 17 to 20 million people could be considered refugees. No one knows how many people have moved because this year's crop yield is less than the last's, or because the four-hour walk for water simply becomes too much, or because being a maid or a houseboy is a little better than life on some treeless plain.

It's impossible to write the individual stories of 36 million people. All too often, refugees are thought of as whole groups of people. Refugees may come in groups, but these groups have names. They are Afghans, Chewas, Tamils, Brazilians, Kampucheans, Haitians, Guatemalans, Somalians, Oromos, Salvadoreans, and hundreds more.

In telling the story of refugees and trees, we tell the story of whole populations. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, for example, an influx of 100,000 refugees will desertify 360 hectares (about 900 acres). They will consume 75,000 metric tons of fuel wood annually (that figure does not include trees used for shelter or other purposes). It's not unusual to see vast areas of denuded land around refugee camps. If refugees congregate in one place, their sheer numbers turn a political event into environmental disaster.

The relationship between refugees and the environment is different in different parts of the world. However, there are similarities: Refugees usually represent the poorest of the poor. The rich may migrate; the poor flee for their lives. Most poor refugee populations are found in arid and semi-arid regions, where the relationship between humans and the environment is already tenuous. Refugee populations tend to be skewed toward the old, the young, and the female.

The environment works on refugees in different ways. In Malawi, for example, the environment is destroyed first because of a man-made event: war. In Brazil, Haiti, and Mauritania, people are made refugees partly because of the environment, and partly because of human actions. Whatever the original reasons, refugees are in a battle with the environment, and only when they make peace with and embrace it will they "conquer" it.


Mauritania, in northern Africa, is famous as the country that is blowing away. The capital Nouakchott, clings to a barren coast and is filled with former nomads. In Nouakchott, people spend their time clearing yesterday's sandstorm from water wells, digging homes out from under shifting dunes, and waiting for the next foreign-aid shipment.

Mauritania is named for the Moors and Berbers who have led a nomadic life for centuries. They are known as great warriors and traders throughout North Africa, but they are partly responsible for making their country into a desert. The spectacular increase in their cattle herds has led directly to a rapid decline in plant cover, especially around watering spots. These bare spots expose the ground to the wind, which further erodes what little topsoil remains. Once the thin veil of soil is lifted, the desert moves.

People from northern Mauritania, desperate for arable land as their grasslands become desert, move south into the narrow, fertile valley of the Senegal River. These are lands farmed for many generations by people who moved north out of the dry woodlands of the lower SudanoSahelian belt. The farmers once were a ready pool of slaves to be captured and sold by the region's nomads. This ancient enmity is reborn as the former nomads encroach on the farmers' lands.

In 1989, tensions caused by the changing environment created an international incident. Farmers in the river valley came under attack by the former nomads. In neighboring Senegal, those allied with the farming people rioted against Mauritanians who were long-time residents of Senegal's capital, Dakar. Those Mauritanians were evacuated back to Mauritania, and a new group of refugees was created--all because of a changing landscape hundreds of miles away.


Nearly one million Mozambican refugees have settled in this southern African nation. In fact, refugees today form nearly 20 percent of Malawi's population. Though many of them have been integrated into Malawian life, the sudden increase in population has had severe effects, including a decrease in the vegetative cover. Thousands of people move through the forests to cut trees. They travel scores of miles for fuel wood. In some areas, people even dig up roots for fuel wood.

This sudden increase in human population led to an equally sudden decrease in tree cover. The inevitable result in this mountainous country was erosion and flooding. In 1989 and again in '91, thousands were left homeless as a result of flooding, along the Shire River and in Malawi's Phalombe district.

Many refugees in places like Malawi recognize their impact on the land and simply say, "We have eaten the trees."


The level of environmental and political crisis in Africa is not unique. In Brazil, people fleeing the drought-ridden Sertao area in the northeast are legion and legend. Not surprisingly, much of their movement is hidden from the headlines. It is an internal migration that has been going on for centuries. One famous saying sums up this movement: "In the Sertao, one stays and dies, or leaves and suffers."

The syndrome of stay and die or leave and suffer is a chronic condition around the world. Like many chronic conditions, it has gone on for so long that it seems normal. Inevitably, though, the patient takes a turn for the worse while those at the bedside wonder at the speed with which death approaches.

In northeastern Brazil, the land sighs from exhaustion, and with each energy-sapping breath, a few hundred thousand more people are shucked off the land. Centuries of high population growth rates, skewed land-holding patterns, and predatory agriculture have overburdened the land. The aboriginal forests gave way to coffee; coffee gave way to cotton; and today cotton is giving way to manioc.

As the soil becomes increasingly infertile, people move to the growing coastal Cities. Smallholders move when their subsistence yields drop as their families grow. Other people are forced to move when large landowners worry about declining productivity and expel residents to make way for cattle.

Are the people fleeing the Sertao refugees? Not according to official definitions. And neither were their spiritual cousins who fled the America's Dust Bowl in the 1930s.


As this article is being written, thousands of Haitians wait to be forcibly repatriated. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the U.S. government could send them back to Haiti. The Haitians are not considered "official" refugees because they were only fleeing economic hardship.

This legal fine point obscures the relationship between wandering souls and disappearing trees. Haitians may not be legal refugees, but their lives are threatened because their land can no longer provide for them. While the Sertao gives up its people in steady sighs, Haiti's convulsions spill thousands into the sea.

Haitians flee their country because of political problems exacerbated by a ravaged environment. When Columbus first landed on the north coast of Hispaniola (the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic), the western portion of the island now known as Haiti was densely forested. As a French colony, Haiti became famous for its mahoganies and other hardwoods.

After achieving independence in 1804, Haitians broke up large plantations and established a thriving peasant economy. Farmers cut forests for fuel and to make space for a growing population. Between the farmer and the timber merchants, Haiti's natural infrastructure eventually collapsed.

Today Haitians struggle just to feed themselves. But when that struggle or the threat to life is too great, they push into the sea and reach for Florida.


While millions suffer and die because the land will no longer provide succor, a movement is growing to incorporate tree planting within relief and development programs. The U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development are leaders in this effort. For at least 10 years, the U.S. government has been working with relief and development groups to encourage tree planting within refugee areas.

In the early 1980s, the U.S. government took the lead internationally on planting trees in Africa. Soon volunteer organizations such as CARE, Africare, Church World Response, and Save the Children undertook forestry projects throughout Africa. In Somalia, the American government and relief agencies went one step farther and worked directly with the refugees. In such dusty spots as Luug, Jalalaqsi, and Belet Huan, tree nurseries were developed to plant fuel wood plantations and shade trees in the camps and along camp roads.

Though not all the programs are successful, they provide a foundation of knowledge and inspiration for future tree-planting efforts. For example, in Mexico's southern states, the U.N. High Commission on Refugees sponsors tree planting to assist communities suffering from the influx of Guatemalan refugees. The plantings are designed to help both the locals and the refugees.

In Haiti, forward-thinking organizations such as the Pan-American Development Foundation have integrated tree planting into market- and institutional-development programs. Haiti is a land of farmers, many of whom farm small and rapidly degrading plots. PADF learned that Haitian farmers have a keen understanding for the value of their property and of what crops will bring them a high return in local markets. Any trees planted would have to have at least a seemingly immediate benefit. With this information, PADF designed a program that gave trees to farmers for their own use--to sell for polewood and fuel wood. In turn, the farmers agreed to retain some of the land for tree planting that would in turn lead to increases in soil fertility.

Although tree planting in refugee camps is a long and difficult task, people are learning how to meet the immediate needs of refugees with long-term reforestation. Successfully matching refugees and trees inspires tremendous hope. The U.S. Forest Service's Forestry Support Program is creating guidelines for refugee-rehabilitation programs. These guidelines focus attention on refugee and host-community needs in the context of local environments. Without actually saying it, these guidelines recognize trees as an integral part of successful environmental and economic systems that refugees so badly need.

Education is the key--it can empower a refugee population to make a difference in the way they live, sometimes even preventing them from becoming refugees. Once a refugee knows that he or she can influence the future, he or she gains hope. And with knowledge and hope, no one can be kept a refugee for long.

Humanity's impact on the environment is an ancient story. In an attempt to understand the past uses of forests and their implications for our future, the New World Conference on Rescue Archaeology is being held in Puerto Rico this December.

This international conjference is being convened by the Organization of American States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Forest Service's Southern Region. For more information, contact Dr. A.G. Pantel, Conference Chair, U.S. Forest Service, Call Box 25000, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, 00928-2500.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:World Forests; includes related article; lack of trees force people to flee to more livable environments
Author:Field, Ted
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:Paddler's guide to great floats.
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