Refugees impatient for seedlings as UK MPs open new season of tree-based solutions in NW Uganda

ICRAF field technician Joel Adriko displays a young Combretum and talks about how to manage trees. The refugees from refugee area Ofua 1 listen attentively but have already prepared holes and are keen to start planting. Photo: ICRAF/CWatson

For ten months, World Agroforestry (ICRAF) has worked in the refugee areas of Northwest Uganda and the long dry stretches have been tough. “We planted at the right time. But we immediately faced a month and a half with no rain,” said Lawrence Aziruku, a Field Technician with ICRAF based in the region. “Some trees did not survive. It was bad luck.”

This, however, has been pretty much the extent of the challenge. Close to 80% of the trees did survive and refugees and nationals have shown boundless energy for anything involving trees – from collecting seeds to protecting seedlings to assisting the regrowth of stumps.

It was galvanizing nevertheless to receive members of the UK parliament at ICRAF’s learning centre and nursery in Arua District on 15 November, where they symbolically sowed the first seeds of the season, launching seedling production for 2019.

ICRAF’s Samuel assists MPs Latham and Russell-Moyle to sow seeds of Afzelia africana. Photo ICRAF/COkia

Furthermore, as they pressed the seeds into pots, they were helping to make a statement of great import. These were not the seeds of any random tree but of Afzelia africana, an increasingly rare tropical hardwood.

“We gave them the choice of three species, but the MPs were so interested in Afzelia,” said  Dr Clement Okia, ICRAF’s Country Representative in Uganda. It was a superb choice. The tree is a key species in the mosaic of fields, forest, woodland and savanna that characterises Uganda’s north. Even in humanitarian crises, biodiversity is critical.

One million South Sudanese have arrived in Uganda since 2016. MPs Paul Scully, Nigel Evans, Pauline Latham and Lloyd Russell-Moyle were touring projects to support the refugees and host communities funded by the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID). Others in the group were Robert Towers, DFID’s Energy and Climate advisor; Fergus Reid, the Clerk of the UK parliament’s International Development Committee; and representatives of UNHCR and Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister.

The goal of ICRAF’s nursery is to raise 200,000 seedlings of about 20 species from a carefully curated list that includes exotics like jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), naturalized species like tamarind (Tamarindus indica), and natives like mahogany (Khaya grandifolia). All must be ready for the next rains due in late March.

Top: Susan Selua answers the MPs’ queries. She had planted five species, including papaya and Moringa olifeira which has edible and commonly eaten leaves. Photo: ICRAF/COkia

At another refugee home, Neem trees (Melia azedarach) planted in 2018. At back – a shea butter tree preserved for its fruit, oil and shade. In front – aubergine plants. Photo: ICRAF/COkia

The delegation also visited a refugee homestead where Susan Selua proudly showed them her thriving trees. “She was so articulate,” said Okia, “and the MPs asked many questions. ‘Why do you grow trees?’ ‘What are the benefits?’”

What the MPs saw were results of the project “Sustainable use of natural resources and energy in the refugee context”. Under this DFID-funded pilot project, ICRAF sought tree-based solutions to the challenges of the displaced.

Investing in Afzelia typifies the sort of innovation that ICRAF is attempting. Rarely raised, its seed germinated well, and ICRAF distributed it for growing on common land and around farms and refugee plots. Survival was good, which bodes well because, besides its high conservation value, it is severely threatened by illegal harvesting.

Afzelia has attractive red and black seeds in a large hard case. Photo: Xander van der Burgt

NW Uganda was already fragile and climate change-affected before the influx. So, a hallmark of ICRAF’s work in the region has been a focus on diversity, a strong determinant of resilience. The reasons are varied and have wide-ranging impact:

  • Forests with “trees that employ a high diversity of traits related to water use suffer less of an impact from drought”, found a group of researchers led by University of Utah biologist William Anderegg.
  • Children who live within 3 km of forests have greater dietary diversity than those living further away, report Ranaivo Rasolofoson at the University of Vermont and colleagues.
  • A diverse mix of crops can boost natural biocontrol of insect pests, found Zi-Hua Zhao of the China Agricultural University and colleagues from other countries.
  • And a diverse portfolio of fruit trees can provide year-round nutrition and income, reports Stepha McMullin and colleagues at ICRAF.

Consistent with these and other findings on diversity, ICRAF seeks to avoid simplifying the refugee-hosting area with a narrow set of tree species. Instead it promotes a broad set informed by a forthcoming study that found close to 80. “Resilience-building requires, as much as possible, mimicking the actual landscape structure and its components,” says Lalisa Duguma, a scientist with ICRAF’s Landscapes Governance research unit.

Fruit of the vine Saba florida. Wild food provides micronutrients, particularly for children. Photo: ICRAF/CWatson

Chale Achia reviews a draft guide to the useful trees and shrubs of North West Uganda produced by ICRAF. Photo: ICRAF/CWatson

ICRAF has also drawn on local experts to better understand the natural vegetation. Chale Achia is a retired forester and botanist in Arua. He had a positive agroforestry experience with Markhamia lutea in an earlier humanitarian crisis. “In a woodlot, it disappointed. But when you plant it with maize, its leaves retain water, and the maize harvest increases by 25%.” Chale has a list of indigenous “food” trees that should never be cut. They include Balinites aegyptiaca (Desert Date); Vitex doniana with its plum-like fruit; Ximenia caffra; Ziziphus abyssinica; Strychnos innocua and S. spinosa; Vangueria apiculata, the fruit of which Madi people call ‘pipipipi’ (sweet); two species of Annona (custard apple); the palm Borassus aethiopium with its fruit and edible tap root; Vitellaria paradoxa, the shea butter tree; and Grewia mollis.  “If you cook the leaves of Grewia mollis with cow peas, it makes it slippery so that it goes down very fast like okra.”

Arua district entomologist Cema Philliam is already training groups in beekeeping at ICRAF’s centre. Photo: ICRAF/COkia

Dr Okia shows MP Lloyd-Moyle a beehive made of bamboo, which can produce 15 litres of honey a year. Photo: RTowers

As the project’s second year gets underway, ICRAF’s thesis remains that Uganda’s policy of making land available to refugees opens an opportunity to create resilience with trees. Further, agroforestry is the key way to integrate trees because of its ability to generate multiple benefits and complement, rather than compete, with crops in a situation of limited space.

World Agroforestry will increase its protection of standing trees by adding value to them. Beehives in trees, for instance, can save trees from cutting as well as provide honey. It will also raise its focus on regenerating living stumps through famer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR). “These stumps have more potential to grow than seedlings,” said refugee John Amule, 28, as he snipped weak side stems off a stump with his machete.

John Amule, 28, prunes a living stump. He fled South Sudan with seed for multiple African food plants. Photo: ICRAF/CWatson

Planting, FMNR and protection are probably most impactful when done hand-in-hand. Along a stream degraded by brickmaking and cultivation, in an exercise supported by ICRAF, a group of refugees planted seedlings and pruned stumps while identifying standing trees for beehives.

ICRAF field technician Joel Adriko encouraged them. “As refugees, you have small plots, so trees are a way for you to continue to have your soil fertility and get your yields.”

The British MPs’ visit was a “whistle-stop” but Clement Okia described it as an encouragement to the team. “In the next two years we shall have a clear demonstration of the resilience from the tree diversity we advocate.”


ICRAF’s work in NW Uganda is currently funded by British NGO Mvule Trust and is soliciting donations via Global Giving.'

Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson is chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Before joining ICRAF in November 2012, she founded and ran two NGOs in Uganda -- Straight Talk Foundation and Mvule Trust. She was made a senior Ashoka fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2006. She has also been a foreign correspondent, working for The Guardian and the BBC, among others. A graduate in biology and Latin American Studies from Princeton, she has over 30 years of work experience in Africa with a focus on trees, youth, HIV, families, and communication for social change. She holds a graduate certificate in agroforestry from the University of Missouri.

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