Refutrees is a new, grass-roots organization working in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Lebanon to build sustainable, eco-friendly projects that respond to community needs. Muftah  caught up with the organization’s  project coodinator, Pauline Le Rolland, to learn more about the group’s work

by Pauline Le Rolland
Source: Muftah, Apr 17, 2013

Can you tell us a bit about the insights underpinning Refutrees’ focus on addressing community needs through environmentally sustainable projects? Why, for instance, are environmental projects effective in addressing problems relating to health and living circumstances?

Pauline Le Rolland (PR): The original inspiration for Refutrees came from extended field research in refugee camps in the West Bank and Lebanon. Refutrees founder and CEO, Lamya Hussain, had engaged with refugee communities early on in her academic career, developing a holistic understanding of gaps in development initiatives on the ground. Through in-depth interviews and community workshops, Lamya found that many Palestinians were looking for “green” and sustainable projects to help improve their environment and contribute to better living standards. Inspired by these insights, Refutrees seeks to link environmentally sustainable projects to issues of health and livelihood in Palestinian refugee camps.
To increase indigenous capacity and ameliorate overall camp living conditions, it is important to design and develop projects that are multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. Environmental projects meet these criterion by holistically addressing issues of development, livelihood, and health.
Environmentally based projects also address persistent issues with degradation of resources, including land and water. The ad hoc infrastructure found in refugee camps, many of which resemble concrete jungles with no formal design or framework, have a critical impact on inhabitants. In Lebanon’s Burj Barajneh camp, for example, sewage water often overflows onto the streets and ground floors of homes during the rainy seasons.
In many conversations with local organizations, community members, and UNRWA affiliates, it was evident that there is no clear strategy to tackle these issues. It was these gaps that inspired Refutrees’ efforts to insert environmental issues into its development strategies.
The environment we live in is a large part of our livelihood and health. Unfortunately, many development agencies neglect these concerns when serving displaced communities, particularly those that have been displaced over the long-term. At Refutrees, we ask ourselves ‘how temporary is temporary?’ and feel compelled to break from existing platforms that have warehoused refugee communities and ignored the environmental concerns that affect daily life in the camps.

Among its first pilot projects, Refutrees will focus on building rooftop community gardens and Eco-Art projects. How will these initiatives work in practice and why were they chosen to launch Refutrees work?

PR: Refutrees is unique in merging art, culture, political activism, and socio-economic factors in designing sustainable and eco-friendly projects. For many indigenous communities, the relationship with land is socio-economic as well as spiritual.  Refutrees works to address issues around health, nutrition, and the environment by developing entrepreneurial concepts that are reflective of community needs and local resources.
The roof-top garden concept was born out of field-research into social enterprise and its role in empowering local communities. The project is a perfect example of how Refutrees seeks to build on-the-ground capacity in local communities. We believe that by using urban-agricultural models, such as roof-top gardens, to efficiently utilize limited spaces in the camps, we can sustain livelihoods while promoting healthy and nutritional diets. Roof-top gardens will allow communities to grow their own organic produce and improve environmental aesthetics.
Currently, we are gearing up to launch a massive fundraising campaign to fund the roof-top garden concept. We have identified local partners and will work with them to establish our first community garden. Our long-term vision is to replicate this model and continuously improve it by exploring a wide variety of vegetables that could be grown in these gardens. We are looking to work with experts who can advise us on how to manage these projects in light of local water restrictions and other limitations.
We are also working on an Eco-Art project, which attempts to respond to the lack of safe spaces for children in the refugee camps. The Eco-Art project serves as an example of how environment, art, and development are intricately connected. The project is also a response to a call from the Lajee Centre in the Aida refugee camp, which is fundraising to build a recreational space for refugee children.
In responding to such calls, Refutrees is committed to building capacity through creative and critical understandings of sustainability. Currently, we are seeking eco-artists to design and layout approaches for up-cycling local garbage and waste to curate a child-friendly, recreational space that is both green and functional. Ultimately, we hope that the Eco-Art project will improve living conditions and local aesthetics, while promoting environmental awareness by creating capacity to respond to community needs.

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