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Lemon Tree Trust.

Farm small, think big: How agriculture can help in today’s global refugee crisis

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

World Food Day carries the simple message that food is a basic human right. Yet, in the face of several current high-profile refugee crises – along with millions more on the move across the world – it is a right that remains out of reach for far too many.

It is worth remembering that World Food Day commemorates the creation of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, which was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War, on October 16, 1945. It was a time when the world was crippled by hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. And that war still stands as a chilling reminder of what happens when the right to food is ignored and then suppressed.

At the end of 2016, we saw the highest accumulated number of forcibly displaced people since the Second World War, reaching an unprecedented level of 65.6 million people. As in 1945, the world is now on the move again. And the drivers remain conflict, political instability and poverty. Again, the results are hunger, loss of livelihoods and threats to human lives.

Syrian refugee and local community outreach officer from the NGO Lemon Tree Trust visiting a home garden in Domiz Refugee Camp, Iraq.
Syrian refugee and local community outreach officer from the NGO Lemon Tree Trust visiting a home garden in Domiz Refugee Camp, Iraq.
Lemon Tree Trust.

‘Low-space agriculture’ carries promise for the forcibly displaced 

Forced displacement has multiple correlations with food insecurity. Often people are forced away from their lands, and food production declines as harvests and farmlands are lost. In host communities and host countries, the sheer numbers of arriving internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees can place huge strains on local resources, jobs and markets.

However, many of today’s 65.6 million forcibly displaced people will find themselves in either refugee camps or urban areas in host countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Uganda or Ethiopia. And it is in these settings that ‘low-space’ and ‘no-space’ agriculture is uniquely placed to serve as a durable and innovative solution to reduce the huge strains on local resources, jobs and markets. ‘Low-space agriculture’ is a concept known from urban areas where space is very restricted, and farming is very small scale, such as in the form of home gardens. More of the current thinking on this subject was captured in a recent book chapter entitled the Role of Urban Agriculture in Disasters and Emergencies.

Urban agriculture concepts can be applied to refugee camps at different stages of structural consolidation and settlement, from tents to low-income / high-density urban suburbs. These solutions can contribute to food and nutritional security, income generation and social cohesion. Low-space food production, processing and distribution all offer opportunities for livelihood creation that can actively involve host communities, IDPs and refugees. It can also help people in areas under siege or subjugation, for example in Syria, where IDPs used container gardens, home gardens and roof top gardens to survive recent brutal sieges.

Farming for more than food

The role of these types of urban agriculture in linking relief, rehabilitation and development – especially for refugees and IDPs – was described in the January 2009 issue of the Urban Agriculture Magazine. The article concluded that farming is not only a survival strategy for displaced people to obtain food on a temporary basis; it is also a valuable livelihood strategy for those that settle permanently, and for those who eventually return to their home cities or countries.

In 2010, Professor Phillip Harris from Coventry University coined the term ‘stabilisation agriculture’. The concept focuses on enhancing the ecological and social resilience of agricultural communities to withstand and respond to natural and human-induced disaster conditions. This shows a strong link between agriculture and resilience, one that must be further strengthened to develop durable solutions for the current humanitarian crises.

For example, in 2016, in Yathrib, Iraq, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) funded the construction of a new irrigation sub-canal with a primary aim of conflict resolution and a secondary aim of land reclamation. The project has helped resolve a conflict across a traditional sectarian divide and has now allowed communities that were once forcibly displaced to return home.

In addition to conflict resolution, agriculture can also have a key function in disaster risk reduction programs. Whether landscape-level, agroforestry-based interventions that mitigate the impacts from erosion and flash floods, or agroecology initiatives that build ecological resilience in farming systems vulnerable to weather variability, agriculture can yield benefits beyond food, including resilience to hazards and even disasters. Promoting agriculture as a driver of resilience is especially important now that climate change-related extreme weather events are compounding the situation for forcibly displaced people, and in some cases even triggering the conflict and political instability in the first place.

Showcasing safe sanitation and resource reuse

Population density and the resulting high levels of urban and human waste is another commonality between urban settings and refugee camps. While initially always considered a challenge – to the health and well-being of people – these waste streams represent an opportunity to implement innovative drainage infrastructure and sanitation technologies, such as rainwater harvesting, sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) and resource recovery and reuse (RRR).

Drainage – or a lack of it – is a huge problem in many camps. Conventional systems are often only added as an afterthought many years down the line. However, the principles of SuDS are equally applicable to camps so that surface water is utilized where it lands or flows replicating the drainage patterns of natural systems. This can eliminate stagnant waters and reduce risks of disease, while remaining more cost effective than conventional drainage.

Resource recovery and reuse includes the safe utilization of liquid and solid organic wastes, such as converting solid organic waste into compost that can then be applied for soil amelioration. Another example can be found in Za’atari Refugee Camp in the semi-arid areas of north Jordan, where treated wastewater from the camp is used to irrigate fodder crops for livestock. Such systems can also be designed to enhance the environmental conditions of what are often bleak camps in harsh settings by supporting the growth of gardens, trees and foliage.

Humanitarian funding streams can then be used to implement SuDS and RRR projects, turning camps into showcases of innovative technologies. This can increase the potential for uptake of durable solutions by local authorities that previously might have had limited or zero exposure to SuDS and RRR.

Crises give rise to new models for delivering food security, resilience and security

The financial, institutional and technical challenges resulting from delivering humanitarian assistance to forcibly displaced people around the world are substantial. The limitations of the current model are affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarian aid. The current Rohingya refugee crisis unfolding in Myanmar and Bangladesh bears testament to these challenges by illustrating that durable and rapid responses require funds, resources, political leadership and time. 

In reality, the humanitarian sector today needs to do more, but with less, which is almost impossible. What is needed is a paradigm shift towards innovation and a new mind-set in how to assist the forcibly displaced.

Uganda, which has hosted refugees since 1958, for nearly six decades, is one place where some of the most durable models can be found. After decades of implementing low-density refugee camps that provided refugees with land, tools and seeds, the Government of Uganda has moved to a full integration strategy that co-locates refugees with resource-poor host communities. This way, when humanitarian actors construct schools, clinics, and implement livelihood and food safety-net programs, benefits are shared among both refugees and host communities.

A call for investments in the future

Given such models, humanitarian assistance should also be seen as an opportunity to develop and implement long-term, self-sustaining solutions – not designed as responses to a one-off crisis, but as support for ongoing development efforts, whether by national or international actors.

In responding to the current crises, farming will be an important part of the answer, because it can provide many of these crucial innovations, from vertical gardens to nutrient recycling. Investments into ‘low-space agriculture’ will be key to providing food security, resilience and safety to not only the millions of people currently on the move, but to future generations across the globe.


I think you'd be interested in our five month post-Permaculture Design course in Gawilan refugee camp in Kurdistan. The results are very gratifying indeed. And slightly differently the results from small scale gardens following a Permaculture Design Course in Kabul.
This article is absolutely key to dignity, occupation and food.

I am indeed interested in these two posts! Looking forward!

Hi Andrew. Thank you for this enlightening article. Would you be able to point me towards training programmes on low space agriculture? I am interested in applying such techniques in refugee camp settings.

Thank you Andrew. I shall.