Feb 24, 2021

Approaching half a million trees

Farmer in his woodlot: 600 trees suppled by ICRAF
Farmer in his woodlot: 600 trees suppled by ICRAF

 It seems impossible but, in February 2018, our nursery and training site was bare parched ground that we were just preparing. How far we have come! 

In three years, we have built a community learning center where we have held dozens of events. We have reached out to hundreds of households in the refugee and host communities. And we have enabled the planting of almost half a million trees.

Forester Gerturde Tiko reports this week that "The trees are doing very well. We've been showing refugees and farmers how to prune and trim them. We are also sensitizing people about bush fires and roaming livestock that damage the trees. We can't rule those challenges out. But we can minimize them." 

So far this year we have collected and sowed the seeds of eight species. They are germinating and will be ready to plant when the rains start in March-April.

Those species are: Afzelia africana - the big and much sought after African hardwood; Balanites aegyptiaca - the tree with nutritious fruits and leaves that the refugees enjoy and cook; Tamarindus indica - the pods of which have a highly nutritious pulp and you may know from Thai and Indian cooking; Gmelina arborea - a fast growing exotic that is good for poles; Albizia gummifera - a fast growing, nitrogen-fixing indigenous tree with flowers for bee forage; Senna siamea - an Asian tree that is naturalised, not invasive, and very good for shaping into bowers for shade; Papaya - the wildly popular heavily fruited pan-tropical tree; and Jackfruit - another naturalized tree, also Asian, with bumpy fruit that grow straight out of the trunk and can weigh 25 kg.

Moringa - the leaf powder of which you can find in health food stores - has not yet been sown because they grow so fast that we need less than a month to prepare them. The Markhamia trees, one of the best coppicing trees, are not yet seeding so we will have to raise them for the next rains. The seeds of Khaya grandifoliola - mahogany; Azadorachta indica - Neem; Annona muricata - soursoup; Mangifera indica - mango; and Vitex doniana, with small blue fruits - are also awaited.

We like to keep you up to date on what we are growing, partly for accountability. But perhaps most exciting in these dry months where life slows down was the publication of two journal articles emanating from research done in association with this project. The links are below. 

Like most of rural Uganda, the refugee settlement is not on the grid, and the first journal article presents our data that shows that if you combine small solar panels and wood-conserving energy efficient cookstoves with agroforestry - the planting of trees in fields -- households can be sustainably self-sufficient in energy without drawing down the woody biomass in surrounding forest and bush. That is a resounding statement. 

The next paper was written by ICRAF researchers with academics from Coventry University in the UK and is based on interviews with 40 refugees and members of the host community about the trees that we gave them. The link is also below.

Shade was the number one reason they wanted trees. One refugee, male, stated "“This tree, I planted it when I first arrived and now we are using it to talk under its shade. If this tree was not there, do you see how we would suffer? The sunshine is too much.”

Protection from wind was also a motivation. One refugee, female, had a tragic story. “My house was destroyed by the wind. I lost my daughter because of that. She was inside the house and the bricks collapsed on her. This was done by the wind. So I feel like it is important to plant trees around the house to reduce the wind from destroying our houses."

Having poles to sell and to repair and build their own houses was a strong reason to plant. "Attract more rain" was cited by 28% of refugees.

Being on good terms with the host community was a further reason. “I do not mind planting trees, even if I go back to my country," said a male refugee. "I know that someone here will enjoy the trees I am planting, and I can leave all the trees for them. I will not even cut them to sell them if I am going back home because I want them to remember us and be happy that we stayed here. We never know if we have to come back and they should be happy to see us, not angry with us because we have cut all their trees.”

Just 10% of refugees want to raise trees for timber but 100% of the host farmers do.

We are immensely reassured by these findings. Just three years ago, it was not clear whether refugees would even consider planting trees. It's now clear that they will.

We thank you for your support. We are going miles with what you have donated - hand in hand with out staff and workers and the refugees and host community.  

End note: Do read the piece (below third link) for the World Economic Forum on three of the species that provide hugely valuable micronutrients and that occur in this refugee-hosting part of northern Uganda but also across the Sahel and other drylands in Africa and even Asia. 

Young refugee repairs his radio under Senna bower
Young refugee repairs his radio under Senna bower
Refugee mother with pigeon peas, papaya from ICRAF
Refugee mother with pigeon peas, papaya from ICRAF
Refugees charge light and radio with solar panels
Refugees charge light and radio with solar panels
Refugee with guava + Markhamia trees just 1 yr old
Refugee with guava + Markhamia trees just 1 yr old
ICRAF community mobiliser interviews refugee
ICRAF community mobiliser interviews refugee

Links:

Nov 8, 2020

Pigeon peas, a radio show and eating tree leaves with refugees

A refugee homestead with GlobalGiving trees
A refugee homestead with GlobalGiving trees

Delayed by COVID, I have finally spent time in the refugee area. It was incredibly rewarding. The model is flourishing though like anything needs tweaks. Here are some snapshots.

On our way to NW Uganda, we pass through Gulu, an epicenter of pigeon pea. This woody legume is a centerpiece of our approach. Planted as hedges or among vegetables or a cereal like sorghum, it fixes nitrogen and provides food for people, fodder for livestock, shade for the soil and poultry, and stems for cooking.

With the help of market women, who have deep knowledge about what they sell, we buy 100 kg of two types. One has a particularly long season during which it produces peas. The other is particularly good for firewood, a major concern for us. Our hope is that, by integrating trees and shrubs like pigeon pea among crops (the practice of agroforestry), fuel from refugees' plots will replace some of the wood being sourced from the natural vegetation. 

Reaching the agroforestry center on the first day, we offload the seed and sit down to talk.

Our project is led on the ground by Joel and Gertrude. Their feedback is that it is not the time to plant pigeon pea and that they would preserve it by adding dried chilis, leaves of neem, and ash to the sacks. I really appreciate this traditional way to fend off insects. We will distribute the seed in the next rains to the 500 refugee households we work with: 200 grams of seed is enough for about 150 plants.

Our community-based facilitators, three young South Sudanese. are also part of the conversation, which focuses generally on "how it is going?" Amos has a heavy load of 195 refugee households but has good news. Refugees are getting poles from the seedlings we gave them. "Some are even selling them," he says.

Later as we move to homes, we see how this can be. Many species we supply have the ability to coppice, to grow additional long strong stems after the first stem is cut. And they do this rapidly. We see Gmelina, Melia, and Markhamia trees that had been planted in 2018 with four or five strong stems.

This is a sustainable system. The poles can be harvested on a rotation, again relieving pressure on the surrounding woodlands. There is an unlimited demand for poles for huts, latrines, fences, beds, drying racks for crops, trellises for pots and dishes, and more. We know about coppicing, an ancient practice in Africa, Europe, and elsewhere but had underestimated its role in humanitarian settings. 

We are encouraged too by the performance of the fruit trees we distributed. A year on from the last visit, papaya trees are more abundant than ever and figuring centrally in diets. Besides being eaten ripe, when harvested when unripe, the fruit can be peeled and cut into pieces that are dried in the sun. These can then be cooked in a nutritious stew with a sesame paste or with dried fish called mukene, says community-based facilitator Joseph.

These were positive findings but walking around, I sense that we are underutilizing assisted natural regeneration. We have not sufficiently stressed this easy, inexpensive, and fast way to get trees back. Our seedlings are quite often planted next to stumps that could be assisted to regrow. 

Good enough, Bidal, the third community-based facilitator, expertly shows us how to "treat" a stump so it regrows. But it remains a worry how to popularise this approach when seedlings and planting are seen as a more valuable intervention. Assisted natural regeneration is a vital way to restore indigenous species that are heavily used and critical for biodiversity. 

Day one finishes with a radio show in Arua, the district headquarters that is the jumping-off spot for the refugee area. Gertrude and Chale, a retired forest with copious knowledge of local species, talk entirely in the local language, Lugbara. The host of the show goes by the radio name of "Patience Sugar" and has a large following.

The topic is the importance of indigenous trees for nutrition and, as I sit in the studio with them, it is clear from the calls coming in that this subject is hot. One caller says "I used to look after cattle in the bush and would eat those fruits. I never fell sick then because they are medicinal. Today I don't see them. It's very annoying."   

Caller after caller says that these fruit species are disappearing. We have prepared key messages - let's eat them, prioritize them, feed them to our children, they are as nutritious as an orange, let's value and not look down on them, let's be sure not to cut these precious species for charcoal.

Day two also focuses on nutrition from trees. We drive the two hours back to the refugee settlement to meet with Dinka refugees who have prepared a meal for us of leaves from the dryland tree Balinites. These pastoral people rely heavily on the leaves in the dry season when leafy vegetables are scarce.

Our focus is not just homesteads but schools and other institutions, where trees can become permanent fixtures not vulnerable to being cut. So we visit a headmaster who has planted numerous seedlings of one of our hardwood species, African mahogany. They are thriving. He thinks they will attract "some rain". Above all, he is concerned to have shade for his pupils. "You can sit there all day without the sun shining on you. You can have an assembly under such a tree." 

We thank all our GlobalGiving donors and hope these snapshots are vivid for you. The project is exceeding our expectations. COVID has been an interruption. But with your generous funding, we are increasing our activities. 2021 will see more radio shows and more assisted natural regeneration, among other things. We are very proud when we see homesteads that are dense with "our" trees. They are your trees too. 

Pigeon pea seeds being examined by market women
Pigeon pea seeds being examined by market women
Project team saying "yes!" to nutrition from trees
Project team saying "yes!" to nutrition from trees
Refugees prepare a meal of tree leaves with maize
Refugees prepare a meal of tree leaves with maize
Gertrude on radio advocating indigenous fruit
Gertrude on radio advocating indigenous fruit
Bidal demonstrates how to assist a tree to regrow
Bidal demonstrates how to assist a tree to regrow

Links:

Sep 17, 2020

The trees are heavy with fruit and supplying firewood

Tree medley around a refugee home including Papaya
Tree medley around a refugee home including Papaya

Almost two years into raising funds on GlobalGiving - thank you all so much - and almost three in this region of over 400,000 refugees, we have hit our stride.

We are making a big impact on fruit consumption for refugee and host community families. And we are making a dent in the damage to the natural ecosystems caused by refugees' entirely legitimate need to use wood for cooking

You've got to love papaya, also called pawpaw. To date, this fruit species is our most rewarding. In 2020 we have distributed 16,700 papaya seedlings, In less than a year it has the potential to be loaded with large orange-fleshed fruit that can also be cooked when unripe into a vegetable stew. 

Pointing to a pawpaw tree 4 meters high, one refugee farmer told us, “I have just finished eating a ripe pawpaw fruit and my wife cooks the raw ones. She peels the outer layer and slices the pawpaw into small pieces that are cooked with sesame or peanuts."

Out of the 123,053 seedlings raised since January, 54,627 were either fruit or food trees. Food trees in this region produce edible leaves and include Moringa oleifera, the leaf powder of which you may find where you live in a health food shop marketed as a superfood. It is indeed very nutritious.

We are very happy about these inroads that we are making into the lack of micronutrients that can characterize local diets, which can be starchy.

On fuelwood, we are really delighted that women are making fewer long treks because they can use prunings from trees like Senna that we have provided for them. There is also an almost imperceptible but still real drop in the use of natural vegetation.

In total, we have raised 11 species of trees this year, a good range that includes mahogany, which produces neither fruit nor fuel but is a hugely important species for the local ecology. The latest field report says, " When it comes to numbers of seedlings planted, host communities usually plant more given the larger land sizes they hold. Hosts are also willing to plant long-term trees like Khaya (Mahogany) and Afzelia while refugees mainly prefer fast-growing trees like Moringa, Melia, Senna, and papaya for quick returns."

The field team has also sent photos of our trees being used as hedges, fodder banks for livestock, windbreaks, and for the supply of poles.

One of the most exciting developments of the last quarter was the use of radio to reach a broader group of refugees and host families than the ones with which we interact personally (about 400 households). We were super generously gifted $1000 by GlobalGiving itself to intensify our communication in this time of COVID-19. Two of our team spoke for an hour reaching an estimated 44,000 listeners. 

Phillip opened the show by saying, "People often think - refugees come for a short time and will be going back home, so why plant trees? But we say No, it's not like that. When refugees reach Uganda, the first thing they do is put their luggage under a tree and sit to rest there. That shows the connection between trees and people. We have found refugees are really interested in growing trees."

Hosted by a DJ called Baby Frank, the call-in show received 15 calls. The most common question was - "when are you bringing trees to our area?" Phillip reassured listeners that the project will expand - but in truth, it is a challenge. Natural resources are underfunded generally and do not have a high profile in humanitarian crises. This project is gathering data that is going to change that.

Gertrude, another of our young foresters, also spoke but in Lugbara, the main language of the region. She prompted Phillip when he did not know the Lugbara name for shea butter. She helped him by adding "In our region, people eat a lot of shea. It's very healthy and it does not come from anywhere except for a tree."

Phillip stressed how the oil from the kernel of the shea fruit is good for immunity. "This is important when pandemics like COVID come our way and we have to resist them."

It is a pleasure to work with such smart young people. We thank you immensely for your support. 

A young refugee with a grafted mango sapling
A young refugee with a grafted mango sapling
Onions, eggplant and a fodder bank of pigeon pea
Onions, eggplant and a fodder bank of pigeon pea
Refugees invest heavily in protecting fruit trees
Refugees invest heavily in protecting fruit trees
A refugee cooks on an energy saving stove
A refugee cooks on an energy saving stove
 
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