As more Nigerians have moved to Cameroon to escape the violence of Boko Haram, they have pushed Cameroonian resources to the brink. The most visible proof of their presence is the lack of trees, which are needed for firewood. Indeed, when the Minawao refugee camp was first established in 2013 by the United Nations, the area was surrounded by trees. Today, the population has swelled to 64,000 people, and trees are becoming scarce.

According to Fast Company, at least 1 hectare of forest a year per person — roughly the size of a Manhattan city block — is cut down as firewood or to make charcoal. That's a lot of trees. However, efforts are underway to make Minawao green again, thanks to the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) the organization's refugee agency, and the Dutch start-up Land Life Company.

Rebuilding the forest

A woman from the Minawao refugee camp inspects seeds before planting them Trees being planted include nut and acacia trees. (Photo: Xavier Bourgois/UNHCR)

The partnership is tackling the camp's problems in two ways. First, the UNHCR is creating a simple factory at the camp that will allow residents to turn agricultural waste into fuel sources for fires, reducing the need to cut down trees.

The second approach is simply replanting the trees that have been lost, and that's where Land Life Company comes into the scene. The company is focused on combating desertification through tree planting. But planting trees in such areas isn't likely to yield a great deal of healthy trees; the soil simply can't support them. Certain techniques like irrigation can enhance these efforts, but they're not always viable options. Land Life Company's solution is a biodegradable doughnut-shaped planter with a wax cocoon. You can see how it works in the video below.

The goal of Land Life Company's cocoon is give young trees the jump start they need to survive in such harsh conditions. The planter contains all the water the plant needs to establish a root system and a protective shell to keep animals, wind and too much sunlight from damaging the fragile sapling. The planter itself breaks apart in about half a year and provides fresh nutrients to the soil in the process. The whole endeavor is scalable given the relatively low cost of the planter itself, and it has yielded solid results in other areas.

"One of the reasons we were really attracted to the project is we were able to create quite a holistic approach to deforestation. Because if you just go at it by replanting trees and cross your fingers and hope the same thing might happen, then ... when you come back five years there will be no trees. You have to give people an alternative," Charlotte Jongejan, Land Life Company's head of marketing, told Fast Company.

About 40,000 trees have been planted in and around the camp since December 2017. And while there hasn't been any rain since then, the saplings are doing well. Another 30,000 trees will be planted in May and June, creating 250 jobs for people in the camp. Some of the trees will be nut trees while others will be acacia trees for tea. In addition to their food, the trees will also provide shade and help rebuild the overall ecosystem.

A hand reaches for a cocoon planter Land Life Company's planters are biodegradable and help the soil as they break apart. (Photo: Xavier Bourgois/UNHCR)

"You’re encouraging an ecosystem to come back to life where there was nothing — no insect life, no soil life," Jongejean said. "With a healthy tree growing, it's regenerating the soil, and that's bringing back insects, bringing back wildlife, and that just reboots the whole system."

The initiative is also helping to improve relations between the refugees and Cameroonians.

"There is quite a tension between those communities and these refugees communities coming in," Jongejean explained. "Host communities often don't have much to start with. They live in very poor circumstances. They have their own little smallholder farm and suddenly there’s 63,000 people on their doorstep competing for water, competing for land, and potentially going into their forests and chopping down firewood to cook."

Land Life Company also produced a short documentary about the project called "It Will Be Green Again." You can watch it below.

At a refugee camp stripped of trees, the residents are replanting a forest
Nigerian refugees in the Minawao refugee camp in Cameroon are replanting thousands of trees that were cut down for firewood.