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UN unsustainability in the Tindouf Refugee Camps
The UN says that it seeks sustainability in its work and programmes, that it seeks “integration of the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development in policy-making at international, regional and national levels”.
And the UN’s Children’s Fund, UNICEF, says on its website that “UNICEF has worked from its founding on nutrition programming aimed at fulfilling every child’s right to adequate nutrition,” because “good nutrition benefits families, their communities and the world as a whole.”
But these principles have seemingly not been applied in the Tindouf refugee camps. Here approximately 150.000 Saharawis have been in a desert exile for 35 years, since their homeland, Western Sahara, was invaded by Morocco.
Over the last 25 years, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) has spent many millions of dollars on keeping the Saharawis in the camps from starvation – although malnutrition in the camps is still widespread and WFP funds for the camps are decreasing.
According to the WFP, “opportunities for self-reliance in the harsh, isolated desert environment where the [Tindouf refugee] camps are located are extremely limited, forcing the refugees to rely on international assistance for their survival. Malnutrition rates remain high, with acute malnutrition at a critical level of 18.2 percent, chronic malnutrition at 31.4 percent and underweight at 31.6 percent.”
But until it was abruptly terminated in late 2007, UNICEF ran a successful and seemingly sustainable family garden project in the camps. The project saw 1200 family gardens constructed in extremely adverse agricultural conditions, vegetables and fruit trees being produced by means of minimum water and fertilizer input, using special water-stocking soil conditioners, and agricultural techniques taught to the participating families and school children.
“Any neutral observer will understand that there is a dramatic difference between shipping food aid to the refugee camps for 35 years, as has the WFP, and creating local food production in a sustainable way, as has the UNICEF project,” says Botany Professor Willem Van Cotthem, who was a UN scientific consultant on the gardens project from 2005 to 2007
Van Cotthem is still puzzled why the UN suddenly ended the project. “The enthusiasm about the successes with the family gardens in the camps was unprecedented,” he says. “All the Saharawi ministers and the President himself expressed their hope that UNICEF would continue that magnificent project until every refugee family had its own garden.”
And the reason for the terminations of the project was not a lack of information of the project’s accomplishments, he insists, nor any misgivings about its achievements. “Staff members of UNICEF, UNHCR and the World Food Programme visited the camps several times to observe the progress made. Medical doctors and consultants of UNICEF repeatedly confirmed that the consumption of fresh food and fruit had a very positive effect on the level of malnutrition.”
Small-scale family gardens that produce fresh food are widely accepted as being an important part of a successful food production, and subsequently on the nutritional intake of desert populations such as in the Tindouf refugee camps, and they are also a cheaper and more sustainable way of supplying food than shipping it from abroad, Van Cotthem insists.
“A growing production of vegetables and fruits forms the embryonic stage of a potential local market development in the camps,” he says. “And training the refugees in agricultural and horticultural techniques, as a group of experts and technicians did, is a rewarding investment in knowledge and skills that is applicable in any future situation, even if the dispute with Morocco gets settled and the refugees return home.”
According to Van Cotthem, the reason given for terminating the project was an Al-Qaeda-executed terrorist attack on a UN building in Algiers that killed over 60 people, including 17 UN staff members – an attack UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called an “abjectly cowardly strike.” “And if lack of funds is the reason for stopping the garden project,” says Van Cotthem, “then one cannot understand why a project for sustainable development of local food production is stopped in favour of shipping food.”
And Van Cotthem is adamant that the results of this omission, on top of food aid cutbacks, are and will be disastrous. “Malnutrition will enhance and hunger will be looming. Already in 2007-08 the level of food stocks in the camps was catastrophic. But the international organisations are fully in a position to compensate the reduction in shipped food by offering the Saharawis the chance to develop a maximum number of gardens.”
In the mean time, the Saharawis themselves and private initiatives such as the “Be Their Voice” –programme, which runs small-scale family gardens, have attempted to fill the gap left by the UN. But as the Saharawis are strapped for cash and NGO-driven programmes rely mostly on private donations to a mostly unknown refugee crisis, the capacity and scope of such projects is by no means sufficient.