Nurturing the Displaced - permaculture in practice

Linda Eckerbom Cole
Friday, 19th June 2020

African Women Rising has won the £10,000 First Prize of the 2019 Permaculture Magazine Prize, in the most difficult of circumstances. The lessons learnt about soil, water and building social capital can be applied the world over.

Agnes had to leave her home in the middle of the night when her village in South Sudan was attacked. Two neighbors were killed; pregnant, she ran, with her husband and young child. Today she is living in Palabek Refugee Settlement Camp in Northern Uganda together with 38,000 other refugees from her home country. Her family has since expanded with the new baby, and she is also taking care of two orphans who arrived at the camp unattended. 

Life in the refugee camp is not easy. The scarcity of food and the hunger her family experiences are of serious concern. The monthly distribution of food aid rations – cooking oil, maize, beans, flour and salt – from the United Nations World Food Program are often not enough to cover the needs of her family. Many households experience up to a week each month when the rations run out and they don’t have enough to eat. In fact, the camp in Palabek, one of 12 such camps for South Sudanese refugees, has the highest prevalence of acute malnutrition of all the camps across Northern Uganda: 12%. Anemia amongst children age 6-59 months is at 46%.

African Women Rising has been working in Palabek Refugee Camp, focusing on developing innovative, long-term solutions to help solve this food security problem (see ‘Permagarden: Reversing Malnutrition in a Refugee Camp’, PM100). As a technical approach, the permagarden method helps meet the short-term food needs of the refugees as it builds their long-term resilience. It does this by increasing access to diverse and nutritious sources and adequate quantities of food grown around their homestead. Those refugees selected for the one year program learn, through training and implementation of the permagarden methodo-logy, an innovative approach towards intensive food production in land and resource constrained situations. Despite refugee camps being inherently degenerative, refugees learn to manage natural resources through the intentional design of their compound, harvesting water and capturing waste streams to enhance the fertility and productivity of their 30 x 30m (98 x 98ft) plot of land. The management of existing trees and the planting of other multipurpose trees, living fences and other biomass plantings provide materials for building, pest remedies, dry season nutrition and medicine. This helps reduce pressures on the environment – such as the collection of fuelwoods, gathering of wild foods, burning of charcoal – that will continue to worsen as time goes on, exacerbating tensions between host communities and refugees. Strengthening the ecological base of food systems also reduces vulnerability across time by shoring up resilience in the face of climate instability and extreme weather events.

Healthy Soil is the Basis …

Healthy soils are crucial for productive agricultural systems to provide: water (hydrological) and nutrient cycles that support individual and community level health; ecological stability; food security; and economic viability. A living soil is the basis of a sustainable agroecosystem, necessary for building the resilience of refugee farmers to environmental shocks and stresses. In practice, the training leads participants through a series of techniques to create productive soils with a rich balance of microorganisms, organic matter, and other necessary elements to support optimal plant growth over time. 

Water is also a vital part of a healthy farming system and is often the largest need for smallholders. AWR’s permagarden approach maximizes the amount of water brought in to a farming system when needed, primarily by increasing the amount of rain that infiltrates and stays in the soil, ensuring water ecosystem services are maintained. A core element of the permagarden training is to help extension workers support refugee farmers to optimize water management. Water is crucial for productive farming systems and the lack of it (or sometimes, too much of it) is often the largest barrier to the overall productivity of growing systems. The approach teaches how refugees can use water harvesting techniques to increase the amount of water in the soil during times of adequate rainfall as well as through dry seasons or gaps within the growing season. It also describes techniques they can use to decrease the damage caused by erosion or downstream flooding. 

In a humanitarian context, regeneration is more than just these important agroecological based principles and practices embraced by our farmers. Each of these program areas build on the dreams of the women we work alongside, helping to rebuild their social fabric, personal capacity and financial strength. Most refugees arriving in Palabek have lost many of the friends and family structures that they relied upon previously for social support. Apart from providing food for the family, and some residual income and ecosystem services, some of the most profound effects of AWR’s programs are to help rebuild those layers of social capital. Extra food to provide to neighbors. Some small money for school fees or church offerings. Female mentors and role models. Experiences from northern Uganda and similar programs working with displaced populations in Ethiopia and eastern Chad show the pivotal role household food production can play in rebuilding social capital. While not often captured as part of programmatic indicators, many beneficiaries speak of this critical function in the process of taking an active role in the work. For AWR, rebuilding social capital and social networks has become a critical part of our programs.

This year, AWR’s permagarden program will increase access to diverse sources and adequate quantities of food for 6,600 refugee families, reaching over 35,000 individuals.

Linda Eckerbom Cole is executive director of African Women Rising. She has extensive fieldwork experience in community needs assessments, preventive health interventions, and small-scale farming in Guinea- Bissau, Angola, Mozambique, and Uganda. Linda has a Master’s degree in Humanitarian Assistance from the Friedman School of Nutrition, Tufts University. Linda is
the recipient of the 2014 Leah Horowitz Humanitarian Award.

Useful links

2020 Permaculture Magazine Prize

Taking permaculture to schools, community and those in need

For full details on 2019 winners visit: Permaculture Magazine celebrates climate change solutions

For full details on 2018 winners visit: £25,000 Permaculture Magazine Prize Announces Winners