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Women in Cameroon’s East Region bear responsibility for feeding their families, but a massive influx of refugees from the Central African Republic has increased competition for natural resources, making it harder to find firewood for their daily energy needs.

More than 26,500 refugees have settled in a camp in Gado-Badzéré, and many more have integrated into neighboring villages and towns like Garoua-Boulaï, an entry point for refugees fleeing conflict and insecurity after civil war broke out in December 2012. Both local communities and refugees rely on wood fuel for cooking and boiling water, creating competition over resources. In most cases, it is a woman’s responsibility to see that those needs are met.

Initially, women could harvest what they needed from nearby fields and bushes, but depletion of resources means that today they are walking up to 8 kilometers every day to collect firewood, according to Martin Azia, a traditional chief of Gado-Badzéré.

On the way, they face many risks. Traveling long distances makes them more vulnerable to assault, according to U.N. Women. During the rainy season, they trek through mud and thick vegetation to access the trees. When there is a bushfire, they navigate the ashes and sharp residual sticks to find what remains. Moreover, refugee women frequently come into conflict with local women as they compete for the same dwindling resources; both sides may reportedly resort to stealing wood from the other.

Today, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) is engaging with these women in Gado-Badzéré and Garoua-Boulaï as part of its Governing Multifunctional Landscapes in Sub-Saharan Africa (GML) project, which seeks joint solutions for healthy landscapes and empowered communities. These women’s insights and their stories are key to understanding what can be done to conserve natural resources while increasing wood fuel supply and limiting conflicts between host communities and refugees.

Four refugees and two Cameroonian women living in a nearby town spoke to CIFOR’s Arnauld Chyngwa about their experiences overcoming challenges in accessing wood fuel. Through their stories, these women demonstrate their resilience and resourcefulness finding ways to support themselves and their families.

Bouba Maïmouna. CIFOR/Arnauld Chyngwa

Maïmouna Bouba: A man claimed that my firewood belonged to him

Since she arrived in Cameroon seven years ago, Maïmouna Bouba has experienced a daily struggle to gather firewood for cooking and washing in the refugee camp at Gado Badzéré. Now, wood has become scarcer than before.

“Sometimes we [refugee women] have to walk very far,” she said. “We don’t own fields where we can harvest wood, so we have to go to the bush and get dirty.”

The already “dirty” task becomes even dirtier after bushfires because ashes stain the bodies and clothes of the women who continue going out to harvest.

It is challenging during the rainy season too, as the firewood becomes wet and smoulders when lit, rather than igniting: “We light the fire with great difficulty; we fan the fire to the point that our eyes redden,” Bouba said.

Harvesting wood is also risky, even in large groups. The women frequently run into problems with men and local landowners. One time, Bouba was returning to camp with a group of 10 other women, each carrying a bundle of wood. They were stopped by a man who told them to give him all their wood, claiming they had harvested it from his field, so it belonged to him.

Leaving the wood with the man, the women returned home empty-handed. They went to complain to the local chief and offered to pay his transportation to meet with the man and check the facts.

“We went to the man’s house and the chief explained to him that we are refugees and that we wanted firewood to cook for our children,” Bouba said. “I told the gentleman that I cannot afford to buy either firewood or charcoal; I need the wood that nature offers in the bush to cook for my children.”

Fortunately, the chief sided with Bouba and her companions, and the man agreed to give them their firewood back. Still, they have not gone back to that area to look for wood since that encounter.

Conflicts like these make it difficult for refugee women to meet their basic needs without putting their safety and well-being at risk.

Angeline Nandoe. CIFOR/Arnauld Chyngwa

Angeline Nandoe: Refugee women take our firewood

About four times per week, Angeline Nandoe goes to the bush with her friends to harvest wood for her family. As a native Cameroonian, Nandoe has always relied on collecting firewood for cooking on her three-stone-stove. These days, however, “to find wood is not easy since there are refugees who come to the same spots.” Angeline and other local women must travel increasingly long distances to find what they need.

Transporting the wood from such a distance poses another problem. Often, the women have to settle with collecting less than they need because it’s difficult to carry the heavy load all the way home. It’s possible to leave some in the bush for the next day, “but sometimes when we come back, we find that [refugee] women have taken it,” she said.

Following the roads, it’s often possible to catch up with the women who have taken the wood, but that “leads to a whole other problem.” Settling the dispute requires going to the local chief and naming the people who stole the wood — provided you know. He can then judge the dispute.

Nandoe believes access to transportation is the best solution to make sure the wood she collects gets home the same day.

Hdidjatou Boboi. CIFOR/Arnauld Chyngwa

Hadidjatou Boboï: Sometimes we have to skip meals

Standing in front of a white-painted concrete wall, Hadidjatou Boboï answered questions directly and frankly: “Yes. I have a lot of difficulty with wood, because when I go to look for it, I can’t find enough, and I have to walk very far,” she said.

Since 20-year old Boboï arrived in Gado-Badzéré with her mother and stepfather six years ago, wood collecting has been a daily struggle. Sometimes, she is chased away and sometimes there is so little to be found that she resorts to skipping the midday meal to save firewood.

“It has already happened to me that when I go fetch wood, I get threatened, or people steal my firewood and I must come home empty handed. Sometimes we even have our machetes stolen,” she added.

When things are stolen, she rarely complains to the local chief because she knows these things happen often here; the situation is difficult for everyone, but people can manage.

Once at home, Boboï cooks using a “stove” made of three bricks laid in a triangle shape on the ground. However, the it consumes wood very quickly: “I need four pieces of wood to cook a meal,” she said.

Boboï told us she would willingly help plant trees if it meant there would be wood closer to home instead of having to walk long distances and risk being robbed or worse.

Fadimatou Souaïbou. CIFOR/Arnauld Chyngwa

Fadimatou Souaïbou: I buy wood to avoid problems

At 65 years old, Fadimatou Souaïbou sells cassava and vegetables to earn enough money to pay for a day’s-worth bundle of firewood, which costs 100 francs CFA ($ 0.20). With firewood, she can cook her meals and warm water to wash herself.

Although buying firewood is expensive, Souaïbou prefers it over harvesting her own wood. Outside the relative safety of the camp and villages, women collecting firewood are frequently threatened or have their wood stolen.

As a refugee who fled violence in the Central African Republic and has been living in Gado Badzéré for five years, Souaïbou prefers to live as peacefully as possible with her neighbors.

When asked whether she’s had conflicts over land and resources with host community members, she shakes her finger: “No, not at all. I avoid looking for problems. If I ask something of someone and they don’t follow through, I stay calm; it’s the best way to be.”

That said, Souaïbou acknowledges there are several ways to improve wood fuel access in the landscape. Better stoves, for example, would minimize wood consumption. “It would also be helpful to increase the number of nearby trees with many branches that we could cut without permanently damaging the tree,” she said.

Haoua Housseini. CIFOR/Arnauld Chyngwa

Haoua Housseini: I was chased and had to drop my wood

Haoua Housseini relies on firewood to cook each meal. On an average day, the 44-year-old refugee from the Central African Republic prepares couscous or rice with sauce. When she has a little extra cash, she buys meat and vegetables.

Housseini often leaves her home in Gado-Badzéré to gather wood, but it’s risky: “Sometimes I gather wood, but then I have to drop it because I get chased. These are men chasing us, women and girls. What can we do?” She laughs as she studies the ground carefully. “Of course, I run away.”

During the rainy season, it’s even more difficult to harvest wood because of the mud and the thick ground vegetation that grows up, making it difficult to access the trees. When that’s the case, Housseini prefers to buy a bundle of wood for 100 francs. However, each bundle only has five or six pieces of wood — just enough to prepare one meal.

Having reliable and efficient wood stoves, as well as nearby trees for wood would make Housseini’s daily life safer and more convenient.

Marie Claire Zockneri. CIFOR/Arnauld Chyngwa

Marie Claire Zockneri: The wood is gone

Marie Claire Zockneri has lived in Garoua Boulai for 35 years. Her family, like the incoming refugees, also depends on wood fuel to cook their daily meals, including cassava, ground cassava leaves, and okra (locally known as gombo). Normally, Zockneri fetches wood from her family field — a difficult task already, as it is far away. Now, however, finding wood once she arrives is a big problem because the refugees get there first: “Sometimes I have to buy firewood because when I go to the field, I find that the refugees took everything,” she said.

Despite these problems, Zockneri said she hasn’t engaged in conflicts with the refugees. The situation for both groups is increasingly difficult as the growing population puts pressure on essential natural resources like wood.

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
This research was supported by the European Union.
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