In 2015, the number of people displaced by conflict hit a record high of 62.1 million people. Often, displaced individuals are forced to live in hastily established camps located near national parks and forest reserves. To generate income and meet their energy needs, refugees and internally displaced persons are forced to use the natural resources that their surrounding environment provides. But, this often negatively affects the fragile environments in which they have resettled.
During the genocide in Rwanda, about 2 million individuals fled the country, crossing the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo (“DRC”). Some of the refugee camps created to accommodate the refugees was established near or within Virunga National Park.
Virunga is a 3,000 square mile UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern region of the DRC, bordering Uganda and Rwanda. It is the oldest national park in Africa and is the continent’s most biodiverse protected area. It is also home to approximately 25% of the global share of endangered mountain gorillas.
Deforestation was one of the most severe consequences created by the mass influx of Rwandan refugees in and near Virunga. Displaced persons cut down the forest’s trees, to support income-generating activities, like selling charcoal and fuelwood. They also used these resources, as a source of energy. Early estimates of the area deforested during the Rwandan genocide vary, but the largest single deforested area measured about 20 km2.
Refugee-induced deforestation is also occurring in Ethiopia. The civil conflict in South Sudan has displaced 3.49 million people, of whom 1.6 million are refugees. Since the conflict began in 2013, about 300,000 individuals have taken refuge in neighboring Ethiopia. In order to meet their energy needs, South Sudanese refugees have resorted to using wood for energy, which they obtain by cutting trees. To counter the pressure these activities have placed on Ethiopia’s forests, the UN Food and Agriculture Program will be planting one million trees.
Despite their central importance, energy sources are often overlooked in refugee camps, with a majority of humanitarian assistance focused on providing food, clean water, and adequate sanitation. And, while there are a wide range of products, like fuel-efficient stoves and solar panels, available to meet the energy needs of refugees and other displaced persons, political, financial, and institutional obstacles limit the efforts of humanitarian agencies to provide displaced persons with sufficient energy.
Another obstacle to providing refugees with adequate energy sources is hesitation among host nations to provide access to energy, out of fear that “increased energy provision may prolong the existence of a camp,” according to The Guardian.
On average, displaced people live as refugees for about ten years, so long-term planning is important. It is understandable that host nations may be concerned about the length of time over which refugee camps remain, but their unwillingness to provide energy comes at the expense of their own natural resources. This has the potential to threaten their natural heritage, as well as the environment.