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26 March 2024

ORFC24: How to Co-design Growing Spaces for Refugee Camps

Edward Macdonald recaps ORFC 2024 workshop, Cultivating in Crisis. Listen along as you read.

Oxford Real Farming Conference · ORFC2024 WORKSHOP-Cultivating In Crisis

As increasing numbers of people are displaced by war, the issue of designing refugee camps feels prescient. A couple of dozen participants from diverse backgrounds gathered in the Link room at Oxford’s Story museum, listening attentively to three community practitioners. Re-alliance is an INGO (International Non-Governmental Organisation) that approaches disaster zones with regenerative and permacultural design principles. Their case study was a fascinating precursor to the co-design group work.

The primary example was from Uganda, a commonwealth nation that hosts ~1.5 million refugees, mostly from South Sudan, the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), Burundi and Rwanda. Bukompe refugee settlement is situated 90km West of Kampala, the capital city. A relatively small camp, it is home to ~4000 people. The Ugandan government allotted adjoining agricultural land for this community to grow staple crops, which were farmed conventionally (with agrichemical inputs) following deforestation of the native jungle (charcoal-making was a short-lived means of subsistence). The resulting soil degradation caused yields to stagnate, and the community turned to YICE, a local Permaculture initiative, for guidance.

In partnership with a Kenyan organisation (Sustainable Village Resources) they led a workshop in the camp, where participants designed and set up a kitchen garden using regenerative principles and local agroecological knowledge (such as medicinal herbs, mulching, polycultures, agroforestry and constructed wetlands for waste-water recycling). Soon, 13 more gardens had been cultivated and a resurgence in ‘kitchen gardening’ ensued. Some of these families have achieved self-sufficiency for food and are able to sell their surplus at market, including high-value items such as mushrooms and moringa. Bukompe is now one of 158 Farmer groups across Uganda that form a network which YICE helps facilitate, with 40 Permaculture demonstration gardens to inspire others to grow their own nutritious fruit and vegetables.

The workshop participants were then offered three tasks. Firstly, to retrofit food-growing spaces into the crowded Za’atari Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. Secondly, to plan a camp of 16 houses from scratch or thirdly, to plan a compound of 6 houses in a rural semi-arid location. Each group of 6-8 people worked together for half an hour to navigate these design challenges before feeding back to the group. It was apparent that whilst the logistical constraints were different, these contexts all faced the same issue of meeting the needs of communities with which we were not acquainted.

A pivotal theme was the delicate balance between emergency and emergence, ie. between providing essential infrastructure for sheltering and sustaining displaced people, while enabling these communities to shape their own living environments. This brought us back to the model demonstrated in the case study, where community members each designed their own kitchen gardens with help from agroecological principles and their neighbours’ voluntary labour.

It was therefore surmised that camps might need to be designed so that each family dwelling has access to at least a decent garden or allotment, with thought given to solar aspect, shade and irrigation water. In the case of a small village, this could resemble a green belt circumnavigating the compound. In the more densely populated Za’atari camp, slivers of patio garden might line the streets and balconies, with available brownfield sites set up with a water tank and subdivided or shared as food gardens. Access to water, compost and seeds is often the limiting factor, so facilitating composting, rainwater collection and seed saving might be a core aim for grassroots organisations. And given that reliable sanitation and blue/green infrastructure is a design priority for every community, this would ideally be prepared for the arrival of refugees, along with an access track.

Edward Macdonald is a philosophy graduate who made a career change into organic agriculture, having been inspired by a stint volunteering in a Permaculture garden in East Africa in 2015. He has been attending the ORFC ever since and has worked at various Organic farms and market gardens. He recently started as the main grower at 5 Acre Community Farm, Ryton, Coventry. His special interests include composting, agroforestry, companion cropping and community skill-sharing.

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