As the number of refugees world-wide continues to increase, climate change-related drought and famine disproportionately impact developing nations, where 85% of global refugees are hosted. In Uganda, for example, dependency on fuelwood for cooking and shelter purposes in refugee camps, combined with stresses from local charcoal production, contributes to significant regional deforestation. 

IGC Fellow Sarah Juster, a PhD student in the department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, is conducting research for the implementation of tree-based interventions in refugee-hosting northwestern Uganda. Sarah is a 2023-2024 Fulbright Study/Research Award Recipient, which will support her ongoing fieldwork abroad to compare program characteristics, household-level impacts, and geographic extent of several different tree planting and conservation efforts in refugee-hosting northwestern Uganda. This summer, Sarah is piloting data collection tools in Impevi, where she will then stay for 9-months in 2024 to collect data. She is also collaborating with colleagues from Muni University in Arua, located 100 km from the Impevi settlement.

Refugee farmer group
Refugee farmer group at a community agroforestry site developed by DanChurchAid, with maize intercropped with Markhamia lutea.

Uganda currently hosts 1.5 million refugees, more than any other African nation, and uniquely provides refugees with small plots of land within rural settlements rather than requiring them to live within closed camps. The Imvepi refugee settlement was established in 2017 to accommodate an influx of South Sudanese and Congolese refugees to the region and is currently home to approximately 65,000 refugees. 

Deforestation in this region is linked to drought, strong winds, soil erosion and the loss of tree products such as fruits, medicine, timber, and fuelwood. In response, non-governmental organizations are promoting tree-based interventions (TBIs)—efforts to conserve trees, plant trees, or facilitate resprouting trees—with refugees and Ugandan hosts. A variety of TBI approaches have been adopted, including community woodlot establishment, the distribution of tree seedlings to households for the practice of agroforestry, and designating areas of land for the protection and maintenance of indigenously resprouting trees.

Sarah Juster conducting photo assessment survey
Sarah Juster conducting a photo-based assessment of tree benefits to refugee households, using a Q-methodology approach.
Tree seedling nursery
Tree seedlings raised by CIFOR-ICRAF at a community nursery and learning center within Imvepi.

Working with her advisor Dr. John Munsell, Sarah’s doctoral project explores different TBI program activities and organizational characteristics across the four major environmental NGOs operating in Imvepi: World Vision, DanChurchAid, Danish Refugee Council, and CIFOR-ICRAF (World Agroforestry). She is investigating the environmental, economic, and social household-level impacts of TBIs using an innovative, photo-based data collection tool, aimed at understanding the subjective benefits of TBIs among refugee and host participants. Finally, she is piloting the use of participatory sketch mapping and transect walks to identify where refugees are currently collecting fuelwood (often 2-3 hours from home or more), fuelwood conflict zones, and participant-identified opportunity sites for future tree planting. 

TBIs in refugee settings can offer short and long-term remedies, as trees store carbon and improve microclimates while providing livelihood benefits for refugees. They can also reduce conflict and enhance cooperation over natural resources in fragile social and ecological landscapes. This research aligns with the GCC through its interdisciplinarity, drawing on the fields of forestry, geography, and sociology, and is focused on solution development for multiple “wicked” problems, including the global refugee crisis, climate change, and deforestation.

Sarah was motivated to pursue this research after conducting a household-level agroforestry assessment in Imvepi and the nearby Rhino Camp refugee settlement in 2022 for CIFOR-ICRAF. While conducting that study she realized that the diversity of TBI programming approaches and associated outcomes in these settlements has not been explored. Driven by a passion to improve livelihoods and environmental circumstances for refugee and host populations in this region, many of whom live on the edge of survival, Sarah aims to create useful data for NGOs and the global humanitarian community regarding best practices and opportunities for addressing tree loss in refugee and displacement settings. Her doctoral research draws heavily on her master’s degree in social work, long-term connections to East Africa, and agricultural and forestry experience. Her long-term goal is to work in policy and/or program development for humanitarian organizations in East Africa.

Sarah with refugee agroforestry participant
Sarah visiting with a refugee agroforestry participant, who is using a bean plant to protect a tree seedling from roaming goats.
Refugee carrying wood
Tracking fuelwood collection routes with refugees in Imvepi.