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Interdisciplinary Research Team Studies the Environmental Impact of Long-term Refugee Camps in Zambia

April 25, 2019

Research in Zambia

The research in Zambia was a continuation of a previous study Smith and Howard took part in that was conducted in Ethiopia and Djibouti with colleagues from the Institute for the Study of International Migration and the STIA program. “The earlier study was looking at arid environments in Ethiopia and Djibouti, and this time we’re looking at more fertile environments, which is the camp in Zambia, a camp called Meheba,” Smith explained.

The project had two components: quantitative research and qualitative research. Howard, an adjunct professor who worked on this project in his capacity as a geologist with the US Geological Survey, led the quantitative aspect, using satellite imagery to track changes in land cover and land use.

“What we want to do is look at the change of land cover types over time to see if there have been impacts to the environment, to the host communities, and to other environmental factors. And how are they using natural resources over time,” Howard said.

Prior to the trip, Howard, Chertok, and two STIA majors from his Remote Sensing class, Rebecca Ohman (SFS’19) and Signe Stroming (SFS’19), assembled time-series images of the camp over its history. In Zambia, the team’s job was to “ground truth” the imagery, assessing what the actual ground cover was in order to correlate it back to the images they processed beforehand. This work produced a robust dataset for predictive and historical modeling.

The students performed their assessments by “going out in the field every day with their boots and their backpacks and their notepads and collection instrumentation for data,” Howard said.

“We had to tune our bodies and minds into scientific instruments, and sort of ‘think like a satellite’ to build consistency into our observations,” Stroming said.

“I think the most surprising part of the experience was discovering what we were able to see from our bird’s eye view through satellite imagery versus on the ground,” Ohman said. “Massive termite mounds are actually visible in the satellite imagery, but we had no way of contextualizing what we were seeing before seeing them in person!”

On the qualitative side, Smith, graduate student Tessa Coggio (MAGES’19) and Yossinger studied refugees’ and other stakeholders’ knowledge and perceptions of environmental changes and management practices. During the fall semester, Coggio prepared background briefs on the history of the refugee camp and Zambia’s refugee hosting history to ensure that the team would be well-informed going into their interviews. On the trip, she helped to produce transcriptions and conducted one of the focus groups.

“It was an all-around incredible privilege to be there, and I’m thankful the people we interviewed were so gracious in sharing their stories with us,” Coggio said.

Back at Georgetown, Coggio is coordinating the transcription and qualitative coding of the focus group interviews for analysis.

“[The students] were essential to the work, we couldn’t have done it without them,” Howard said.

Expected Outcomes

The team is still analyzing the data they collected, but they hope that their conclusions will help contribute to the global discussion of refugees.

“There is a common perception that refugees degrade the environment around them. Our research will reveal if that is true or not,” Stroming said.

They hope to compare some of their findings in Zambia to what they found in the earlier study in Ethiopia and Djibouti.

“What we found is that there’s a fair amount of cooperation between refugees and the local host community that they live with. But we also found that they didn’t always have as much information as they needed about the natural environment and the impact of the refugee camp,” Smith said. “We want to look at that in Zambia and find out if that is also the case.”

Many of the refugees in Zambia have been in the camps for decades. Some have married Zambians, and others cannot or do not want to return to their home countries for various reasons. To help better integrate refugees into their new environment, the Zambian government is piloting an initiative to provide long-term refugees with local integration certificates. “But this is very difficult,” Smith explained. “They need resources to do it, but they also need to think about new models of governance, and administration, and resource management to do that.”

The Georgetown team hopes their research can help find solutions to environmental and resource management issues so that long-term refugees can put less of a strain on hosting countries like Zambia.

“The goal is really to produce a report that will have a set of actionable items for UNHCR, for the government of Zambia, that can help them with the work that’s happening inside the refugee camp in Meheba but also in this local integration area where Zambians are living and working side-by-side with refugees,” Smith said.

“If we find that the refugee camp is degrading the environment, we can provide nuanced observations and recommendations on better management options,” Stroming said. “If it is not, that is an incredibly politically useful fact that can counter negative perceptions of refugees.”

While the team’s research focused on the Meheba camp, Howard notes that their conclusions can be helpful to the development and maintenance of refugee settlements around the world.

“This researh can contribute to the global refugee situation by assessing all of these other camps and settlements around the world to help them grow in a sustainable way, or to place new settlements in areas that are sustainable,” Howard said.

Major Takeaways

Beyond the research itself, one of the highlights of the trip for Smith and Howard was giving their students the opportunity to take part.

“The students get a lot out of it,” Howard said. “It’s those experiential learning opportunities that we can give students that really can set the path towards where they want to go in the future.”

Stroming, for example, is interested in being involved in more research projects that combine remote sensing techniques with qualitative research methods.

“There is so much that can be learned about the interactions of people and their environment with a combination of those methods,” she said.

Ohman is looking into earning a technical degree in earth sciences or Geographic Information Systems, and hopes to apply these tools in the first stages of her career.

“There is so much potential in remote sensing and related technologies, especially in a world grappling with climate change and the overlap of human and non-human interests, and I think a creative application of these tools can truly make this vast world just a bit less overwhelming,” Ohman said.

“As an educator, I think that that’s very encouraging, and if we can give these kind of experiences to our students this is what we need to do,” Howard said.

Smith recalls that the focus group Coggio led ended up being one of the most challenging ones in terms of group dynamics when the local community’s sub-chief joined the group. “She looked over at me in the beginning and said, ‘Should I lead this?’” Smith recalled. “And I said, ‘you can do this,’ and she totally did. She did so well.”

“It was a fun challenge managing the dynamic of the room with this figure of authority present,” Coggio said. “Although it was intimidating for me as the discussion leader, he encouraged the focus group participants to speak freely, and the conversation went really well.”

“This is SFS, our students are just really, really capable, and they really shine out in the field and get that experience under their belt,” Smith said. “And of course we can do that in Washington, but we really should be doing that abroad as well.”

Smith and Howard also both noted how vital the multilateral efforts were on this project, which was a collaboration between the University, the US government, the UNHCR, and the Zambian government.

“The value of this collaboration was that the contributions of each team member was significant and benefited the project in a unique and substantial way,” Howard said. “It would have been difficult to do this project without the knowledge and expertise brought to it by our partners.”

The interdisciplinary nature of this research is highly unique, but proves to be indispensable.

“There are very few places that we can really say it’s not just interdisciplinary within the social sciences, but to be able to have a geologist and a political scientist work together and produce research that’s legible and policy-relevant in both fields is very exciting,” Smith said. “The proof is in the reports that we are putting out, and they’re valuable to a set of issues that are tremendously important right now in the world.”