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Q&A: 'With the Right Methods, You Can Be Self-Sufficient'

Interview with Boubacar Amadou, volunteer manager with the UNHCR in Chad

GORE, Jul 12 2008 (IPS) - The U.N. High Commission for Refugees says that in the five years since camps were established in Southern Chad for Central African refugees, U.N.-administered agriculture programs have reduced external food assistance to a minimum.

A refugee farmer in Dosseye camp, near Gore, Chad Credit: David Axe/IPS

A refugee farmer in Dosseye camp, near Gore, Chad Credit: David Axe/IPS

Since 2006, Boubacar Amadou, a 62-year-old Chad native, has overseen a portfolio of food self-sufficiency programs for more than 20,000 Central African refugees in Gore. The refugees here are among 60,000 who fled fighting in the Central African Republic beginning in 2003.

But the refugees compete with local residents for access to limited land for farming and grazing cattle.

IPS reporter David Axe spoke to Amadou at the UNHCR office in Gore about his work and his hopes for the area’s refugees.

IPS: What does "food self-sufficiency" mean in the context of a refugee camp?

Boubacar Amadou: Right now the World Food Program gives refugees in Gore some of their food – around 90 kilograms per person, per year, on average. (Overall, WFP meets around half of the Gore refugees’ food needs.) But it’s necessary, in the long term, that they produce what they need on their own. Thus we sponsor agricultural, animal husbandry and other income-generating activities, so they can feed themselves. We want to help lead them there.

What we do is prepare the people for a degree of integration into the local economy. It’s a durable solution to their food needs. Obviously, the best solution to a refugee’s needs is repatriation. But the next best thing is integration. That’s possible for certain refugees, but not all. Some are too traumatized by their experiences in the Central African Republic. Integration is especially possible here in Gore because there is a lot of intermarriage between the refugees and the local population.

But integration requires sufficient land and sufficient tools – and all of those things are expensive.

IPS: You have different programs for farmers and herders, right?

BA: Yes. The farmers, they need research. They have very little land, less than 1.5 hectares apiece, so they need the best methods and the best tools. But there’s not enough of anything. The refugee farmers came here with nothing, so it has been necessary to cover them, especially in the beginning, and particularly as far as seeds are concerned. HCR and our partner Africare give them seeds.

Every year we draw up an agriculture plan and discuss it with the farmers. For example, we found that each worker on a farm needs his own hoe. So we make a budget and give it to UNHCR. Now, UNHCR has a lot of refugees to take care of – 250,000 in the east – so there’s never enough to go around. But WFP contributes, and Africare does, too – they have some big American donors. We got around $1 million from UNHCR last year. One thousand dollars can set up the cultivation of 10 hectares.

The toughest thing for farmers’ self-sufficiency is access to land. Really, each family needs 2.5 hectares. Right now the average in Gore is just 1.3 hectares. So we have tried to introduce better production systems.

For instance, we’re trying to introduce the farmers to "rest crops," to take better advantage of the land. Many refugees grow rice, but it requires lots of fertiliser and depletes the land, so you need rest crops between rice harvests that can restore the land. Also, we’ve introduced "kitchen gardens" for growing small batches of vegetables. The refugees love these.

If you ask me, it’s not just about the quantity of land. It’s about the methods of production. You can get more out of land if you use good processes. With the right methods, you can be self-sufficient.

Still, we continue to negotiate with the Chadian government for more land for the refugees. We never quit negotiating.

Finally, we’ve begun offering credit to farmers and small retailers. One refugee used credit from UNHCR to finance a tea house. Some farmers finance tools. They have to pay us back, of course, but they have plenty of time – more than a year for tools, for instance. We want them to benefit for a while before repaying. And you have to wait until the harvest, in the fall for most crops, for the farmers to have any money anyways. And if you haven’t got any land, you can set up a business, like the tea house, and make money that way. With this money, you can buy food, so it’s another form of food self-sufficiency.

For herders, the biggest priority is veterinary care. That care includes vaccinations. There are epidemic sicknesses here that can be prevented by twice-annual vaccinations in July and October. Without the vaccinations, the mortality for herd animals is around 20 percent annually. With vaccinations, it’s just 2 or 3 percent. The refugee herders understand that they need the vaccinations – and it’s totally free.

We vaccinate the refugees’ animals and some of the animals of the surrounding villages. But beyond the vaccinations, there are other maladies – intestinal, for instance – plus injuries. So the animals still need additional care. But as far as herding goes, the route to self-sufficiency is simple … and fairly cheap. We’re beginning to improve the animals’ feed, too, but that program hasn’t started yet.

IPS: Is there a risk that refugees, once they’ve become integrated into the Chadian economy, won’t ever want to leave?

BA: There’s no risk. You can’t love any other country more than your own. There are some refugees who could stay – who are too traumatized, who saw too many killed. For them the Central African Republic is finished. But the others want to leave. And when they leave, they will take with them the methods they’ve learned here. Those who stay, they can integrate with the local population. The vast majority will return, because they’re attached to their country.

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