Tree planting is an important and popular practise to protect the environment. However, simply planting trees does not guarantee any environmental benefit if seedlings do not survive. In harsh conditions, such as Northern Uganda, the focus must be on tree growing. Tree growing refers to all the activities before, during and after planting that ensure survival.
In Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, the second largest in the world, refugees and surrounding Ugandan communities have an intimate relationship with their trees. Year round, firewood is collected for cooking and boiling drinking water. The trees provide a shady place to sit and meet with friends or simply take a break from the scorching 40°C sun. In late March the mango trees explode with fruit which punctuates the end of the dry season and alleviates food insecurity, providing vital nutrients.
Bidi Bidi’s 240,000 refugees put huge pressure on natural resources. Tree populations have been decimated. Conflicts regularly break out between the Ugandan communities and refugees over the few remaining trees.
The burden on the environment is compounded by uncertain land rights and length of stay. Refugees feel unmotivated to plant trees if they hope to return to their country of origin. There is also the risk that Ugandan land owners will claim ownership of any trees grown on their land by refugees.
Refugee schools of 1000-3000 pupils occupy large areas of land in the settlement. In the rush to provide classrooms, latrines and staff housing; the schools’ environment are often left barren. The HYT team found many of the schools have no trees at all. During the lunch break, when temperatures can reach 40℃, children either shelter in classrooms or walk home.
Tree planting in construction
Construction contracts often include a clause to plant trees, usually between 10-30 seedlings, often planted ceremoniously at the end of a project. Despite good intentions, in Northern Uganda the timing of planting, species chosen and protection from pests really matter if seedlings are going to survive.
HYT, in partnership with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), is pioneering community-led tree growing at each of the 50 refugee schools that will receive a water tank under the 1 Million Litres project. The partnership is based on a shared desire to invest sufficiently in pre and post planting activities.
ICRAF’s expertise was invaluable, the mix of species offered to HYT was carefully curated by ICRAF’s industry leading experts. Each species was chosen to maximise environmental and direct benefits while surviving in Bidi Bidi’s harsh environment. Each school will receive 300-500 seedlings based on available space.
Within each school an Eco Club was formed consisting of teachers and pupils. HYT held training sessions with the clubs focusing on environmental protection and practical tree husbandry. The clubs are involved in mapping the school, choosing planting sites, planting and seedling care.
In secondary schools where eco-club members are over 18, HYT employed students to clear the school land, plant, protect and water the trees. In primary or nursery schools, parents were paid to carry out these tasks. Paying stakeholders to carry out the heavy lifting in projects creates an important sense of ownership which will encourage the community to continue caring for the trees long after HYT has left.
The greatest threats to young seedlings are stray animals and curious children. Bamboo is commonly used to make baskets that protect seedlings but each basket costs £1. Protecting all the seedlings would add £25,000 to the project cost. HYT found an alternative by recycling old cement sacks from its own and neighbouring construction sites.
In Northern Uganda the annual weather patterns are unpredictable. Seedlings were planted in April which typically marks the beginning of a 4 month wet season. Despite a wet April, in June the rains failed to arrive, over 30 days without a drop. Using mobile money payments HYT was able to employ a teacher at each school to water the seedlings through the dry spell. The teachers are ready to continue this work when the dry season arrives in November.
6,300 trees have been planting as of July 2022, the seedling survival rate is excellent. Teams are constantly watering trees during dry spells and the seedlings have survived through their most vulnerable months. HYT will continue to support the schools for two years to maximise survival.