Many villagers in Baaba, a community of 600 in South Darfur, remember a shady forest of mango and guava trees that provided food and a valuable income for the villagers and a pleasant picnic spot for people in Nyala
, the nearby state capital. Over the last decade, that forest has degraded into eroded brush dotted by the occasional baobab
– a transformation that is unfortunately a familiar sight throughout Darfur.
Most of Baaba’s trees have become firewood and charcoal for the people living in nearby internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Baaba’s residents, who themselves returned from the camps to try to rebuild their lives at home, struggle to coax enough food from the soil, which has largely eroded away following deforestation. Afraid to venture any further than necessary from home for fear of violence and banditry in the countryside, they farm and graze the same land year after year without fallow periods – further depleting the soil and driving yields ever lower.
Baaba is like hundreds of Darfuri villages, which face a brutal mix of insecurity and environmental decline that leaves them one poor harvest away from being forced into the IDP camps. Baaba, however, is also a pilot participant in a new approach – the Community Environmental Action Plan – that aims to rehabilitate the local environment, enable people to sustainably manage natural resources, and ultimately to make communities more prosperous and resilient.
Most of Darfur has always been marginal land where farming and herding provide a meager livelihood and natural resources are few. Even before war broke out in 2003, soaring population growth (total population has quintupled since the 1970s) was putting intolerable pressure on the land, water, and trees of Darfur. The conflict in Darfur has since heavily disrupted traditional methods for sharing and maintaining natural resources, leading to environmental devastation. The worsening effects of climate change – though hard to separate from local environmental depletion – are also beginning to disrupt weather patterns and farming. The disheartening result is that even where fighting has subsided and displaced persons return home, they often find that the land no longer sustains them.
Traditional humanitarian aid and infrastructure projects are ill-suited to help, since persistent insecurity deprives humanitarian actors of access to communities for weeks or months at a time. Environmental decline didn’t start the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, but it threatens to prolong it and put a sustainable peace out of reach.
Community Environmental Action Plans
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), mandated to work on IDP and return issues in Darfur, aimed to address these challenges with Community Environmental Action Plans (CEAPs) in three pilot villages. CEAPs build comprehensive local capacity, enabling communities to manage natural resources sustainably and address environmental problems themselves without relying on outside support. The ultimate goal is to build the resilience and adaptive capacity of vulnerable communities. IOM worked with Baaba and two other villages to implement CEAPs, in partnership with the Swiss-based environmental NGO ProAct, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the government of South Darfur, and Darfuri environmental organizations. The project, funded by the Government of Japan, ran from early 2009 until mid-2010.
The CEAP process trains communities to understand the connections between a healthy ecosystem and a prosperous community and to promote livelihoods by rehabilitating the environment. Each participating village formed a CEAP governance committee, which was then trained to understand the environment as a single integrated system and to see how damaging one resource like trees can devastate other ecosystem services – such as pollination, groundwater retention, and soil fertility – that enable and promote human livelihoods. The communities then identified essential needs, including reforestation, water harvesting, and improved sanitation, and worked with IOM to develop appropriate responses. These activities were all implemented by the villages themselves, with technical and material support from IOM and its partners.
Building Local Capacity
The communities built low-tech but highly productive tree nurseries, producing and planting over 200,000 seedlings to restore damaged land and provide a sustainable wood supply. Local women learned how to make highly fuel-efficient stoves using locally available materials, cutting their need for firewood and allowing them to sell stoves in the nearby Nyala market.
Farmers received extensive training in sustainable agriculture techniques, including water harvesting, composting, agro-forestry, and intercropping (mixing complementary plant species together in the same fields). Volunteers were trained in effective hygiene practices and built latrines for each household. Water committees were trained to repair and maintain the villages’ indispensable but fragile water hand pumps, ensuring a more reliable source of drinking water. Each of these activities was governed by a community committee, including women and youth, trained to manage the projects for the benefit of the entire community and continue the work after the project’s end.
Through this approach, all three villages significantly boosted their livelihoods and agricultural productivity while becoming less dependent on the unsustainable exploitation of their fragile environment. The CEAP approach benefits greatly from focusing on capacity-building and local implementation, which fosters a strong sense of community ownership that persists after the project ends. Equally important, CEAPs attempt to address most or all of a community’s environmental issues simultaneously, reducing the risk that neglected environmental problems – particularly agricultural failure – will critically destabilize and displace a community in the future.
A Replicable Model
CEAPs aren’t a panacea, particularly in the conflict-prone areas where they are most needed. Insecurity, particularly a series of abductions of humanitarian workers from several organizations in 2010, cut off IOM’s access to the communities late in the project. Though the core activities were completed by working through local partners with more reliable access, the security situation left few opportunities for follow-up activities. Longer-term threats, particularly unrestrained population growth – which requires a comprehensive approach that includes addressing unmet need for family planning services – could undo much of the good that CEAPs accomplish.
Though insecurity prevented IOM from continuing the project, other organizations including UNEP are implementing and refining the CEAP approach elsewhere in Darfur and other regions in sub-Saharan Africa. As climate changes intensifies and the potential for related conflicts looms, the CEAP approach should be considered as a powerful and flexible tool to rehabilitate the environment and strengthen vulnerable communities.
Paul Rushton is a consultant for the International Organization for Migration, Sudan, and worked as a Programme Officer managing the CEAP projects in South Darfur from 2009 to 2010.
Sources: International Organization for Migration, UN.
Photo Credit: Camels graze in a destroyed and degraded village in Western Darfur, courtesy of UNEP; and pictures from CEAP sites in Southern Darfur, courtesy of Paul Rushton.