In front of a mud brick house, a woman started a fire.

Using wood harvested from a grove of nearby acacia and river bushwillow trees, she arranged kindling and then layered over larger pieces culled from the fast-growing trees. When the fire was hot enough, she set a pot over the center to boil water for beans, a vital food source that will take hours to cook.

This daily ritual — enacted by many of the 1.5 million refugees displaced in Uganda — raises critical questions about how countries, communities, and humanitarian actors can efficiently and effectively provide safety and food for refugees fleeing conflict while also maintaining and utilizing the environments and ecosystems where they reside.

To tackle these questions, Sarah Juster of the College of Natural Resources and Environment has been researching how agroforestry – the integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to enhance environmental and economic outputs – can be successfully utilized to improve the day-to-day experiences of refugees living in the Imvepi Refugee Settlement in northern Uganda.

A recent Fulbright grant will allow Juster, a doctoral student in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, to expand her research exploring how different tree-based interventions might improve the lives of refugees in Africa.

Life in a refugee settlement

Living conditions for refugees in Uganda are different from the densely populated camps that western readers might imagine.

“The refugee situation in Uganda is unique because they’ve established open settlements,” said Juster, an Interfaces of Global Change Fellow in the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. “People in the U.S. are surprised to see these because there is a perception that refugees typically live in tightly packed, urban camps. In this case, refugees are given small plots of land to build homes and grow food while they are in the settlement.”

At the Imvepi settlement, refugees have built houses out of mud bricks and straw on land granted to them. They use surrounding land to grow crops to supplement food rations.

“The two primary challenges that refugees face are food insecurity and low access to firewood, which is needed as cooking fuel,” said Juster. “Dry foods provided by the World Food Programme such as beans can take a long time to cook, but firewood is not always available. Some households end up spending hours per day walking to find safe access to wood.”

Juster’s exploration into improving living conditions like these through the use of agroforestry practices started with a three-month study that she conducted for the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), an institute headquartered in Kenya that specializes in sustainable management of forests and reserves throughout Africa.

“I conducted an evaluative study on their programming with refugees and hosts in northern Uganda,” said Juster, a recipient of the Robert S. Burress Fellowship. “I sat down with about 80 households – both refugees from South Sudan and also some of the Ugandan households in villages that host these settlements – and I tried to assess the different benefits and challenges of agroforestry practices at the household level.”

A group of residents at an agroforestry site where maize is being interplanted with siala trees. Photo courtesy of Sarah Juster.

To further her research of agroforestry strategies, processes, and outcomes, Juster came to Virginia Tech to collaborate with Professor and Forest Management Extension Specialist John Munsell, a specialist in using agroforestry techniques to tackle natural resources challenges.

“Sarah’s research focuses on how and why agroforestry improves human welfare, environmental health, and regional security in regions of mass displacement,” said Munsell, who teaches in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “Her work combines site-based planting and canopy assessment and planning parameters with humanist research focused on priority setting for households, as well as how refugee-focused organizations can better achieve their goals.”

While conducting her research, Juster saw that CIFOR-ICRAF wasn’t the only organization implementing forestry and agricultural strategies in the Imvepi settlement, which has a population of approximately 65,000 refugees.

“I realized very quickly that there was a spectrum of approaches to increasing tree cover implemented by different organizations, with each developing their own unique programming,” said Juster, who completed an independent study course with Virginia Tech’s Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies, located in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “So far, there hasn’t been a holistic comparison of these approaches in terms of their unique benefits and challenges.”

To explore that research question, Juster and Munsell designed a two-pronged approach, conducting interviews with the staff at non-governmental organizations to understand the ambitions and efficacies of various tree-based approaches while also developing a household-level study to understand how the various approaches were being experienced by refugees and hosts.

In addition to agroforestry, Juster analyzed interventions that focused on the conservation of indigenous tree species, the construction of fuel-efficient cookstoves, and the establishment of large-scale woodlots.

“My goal isn’t to say that one model is better than another,” Juster said. “Instead, I hope to develop a decision-making tool that will enable organizations to consider and select strategies and interventions that will allow them to meet their unique programming goals and better engage with communities.”

Juster will expand on this project with the help of the Fulbright grant, which will fund nine additional months of research in Imvepi starting in the spring of 2024.

“Improving the efficiency and sustainability of land use where displaced people reside is crucial around the world,” said Munsell. “Increased population and limited land access places great demand on natural resources, which can result in significant degradation and sometimes human conflict. I’m not at all surprised that the Fulbright Program decided to support Sarah’s effort to address such an important issue through the lens of tree and forest cover preference and design.”

Juster (at right) and a resident of the Imvepi Refugee Settlement engage with a photo-based tool to assess the experiences of people living in the settlement. Photo courtesy of Sarah Juster.

Talking through pictures: a bridge across the language barrier

Conducting research in refugee settings can be challenging given significant barriers in language and culture between refugees and outside researchers.

“The process of talking through interpreters can sometimes become exhausting for people on both sides, and research fatigue in refugee camps is definitely a thing,” said Juster, who received funding from Virginia Tech’s Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, also in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, to conduct data collection. “This is especially true when surveys are long and repetitive.”

To alleviate that fatigue, Juster and Munsell are developing a photo-based data collection tool that utilizes a mixed-methods approach to social science research by asking participants to rank photographs as a means toward understanding their subjective experiences.

“In our case, the topic is what are the benefits of engaging with different tree-based interventions,” said Juster. “We selected photos demonstrating a range of potential tree benefits, including fruits, medicine, animal fodder, firewood, and also things like social cohesion and intergroup harmony between refugees and nearby host communities.”

Participants were asked to arrange the photos onto a rank-ordered grid based on which photographs were most meaningful to them. Juster tallied their responses and set them against demographic and program-involvement information to gain a quantitative understanding of the impacts of interventions for participants.

Juster piloted this approach through preliminary data collection procedures in May and June.

“I found that the refugees and host families that participated in the photo sorting really enjoyed the process, and the results will help us get a clearer understanding of what impact interventions are having,” Juster said. “Additionally, we’re going to be able to contribute a new methodological approach to studying issues in refugee contexts that can be used to measure a range of questions.”

In addition to exploring new methods for collecting data about refugee experiences, Juster is researching the dynamics of where refugees in the settlement go when they forage for firewood.

“Using participatory mapping, I will take transect walks with the refugees when they go to collect firewood, collecting geospatial data on distance and location as well as qualitative insights on why they go where they go,” she said. “I’m interested in the decision-making processes that refugees make in terms of which areas they prefer and which places they avoid. This information can inform us on where we should be focusing future planting efforts.”

Refugees walking to collect firewood and supplemental food at the outskirts of the Imvepi Refugee Settlement. Photo courtesy of Sarah Juster.

Juster admits that the experience of walking with refugees in their day-to-day lives is one of the aspects of her research that she most enjoys.

“It’s my favorite part of my research,” Juster said. “I took a few walks with refugees this summer and it was fascinating to see the forests through their eyes. In particular, there was a whole ethnobotanical side of their experience, where they are collecting different plants for medicine or food and bringing them back to their homes.”

Juster – a recipient of a CNRE graduate travel grant this year – will be presenting her research to the 5th International Congress on Planted Forests in Nairobi this November. Her Fulbright grant will fund her research in Uganda from March 2024 through November.

For advice and resources on applying for a Fulbright grant, contact Virginia Tech’s Fulbright liaison, Nicole Sanderlin, director of global engagement in the College of Engineering. The Provost’s Office assists department, college, or division leadership in facilitating leave for Fulbright fellowships. The Global Education Office, part of Outreach and International Affairs, provides support and resources for incoming Fulbright scholars and the departments that host them.

Related stories

Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment partners with The Nature Conservancy on $60 million grant to advance agroforestry

Cameroon forests, wildlife being preserved by farmers using agroforestry

Written by David Fleming