Around El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, a film of fine dust settles on every surface, signaling a particular hardship for the women and girls camped in two teeming settlements nearby. It falls to them to gather wood for their families' cooking fires, but in this dusty, desert-like corner of western Sudan, few trees now grow and there is little wood to be found—at least not nearby.
So, three times a week, and sometimes more, women from the Abu Shouk and Al Salaam camps head out on four-hour treks to scavenge for fuel. If they don't come upon any trees, the women resort to clawing through the hard-packed earth to reach bits of root that they can burn instead.
But hard work is only part of their problem. Looming larger for these women is the constant threat to their safety: By venturing even a short distance outside of the camps they could face harassment, sexual assault, or even death. Since early 2003, conflict has wracked this region, forcing more than 2 million people from their homes. Many of them have sought shelter in camps like Abu Shouk and Al Salaam. But the demands of daily living—the need for wood, for jobs, for food—often require them to leave the safety of those camps.
Now, Oxfam America, together with the Sudanese Agency for Environment and Development Service (SAEDS), has launched a $132,000 program that will help thousands of displaced women stay safer in this volatile place. The agency is providing 4, 200 households with fuel-efficient stoves that, in many cases, will completely remove the need for women to hunt for wood. Two thousand of the stoves are kerosene-fueled; another 2,000 are efficient wood-burning stoves; and 200 of them use gas. The project will benefit about 25,200 people.
Women were excited about getting the stoves, said Sahar Ali, an Oxfam America program officer, who paid a monitoring visit to Abu Shouk in late January.
"Traditionally, the provision of firewood and fuel for cooking has been the responsibility of women," said Ali, in a report she filed after the visit. "There are few other sources of cooking fuel available to them."
But with the introduction of kerosene and gas, they now have other options. And the small round stoves that burn wood efficiently—as opposed to open fires—means women will need to make fewer of the dangerous scavenging trips.
Still, convincing women that gas is a smart way to cook has taken some doing, said Ali. They worried about its hazards.
"This is the first time for them using gas, and most of the houses are made from wood," said Ali. "If it burns, it burns all the camp. They said we prefer kerosene—not the gas."
The hesitancy about gas notwithstanding, the new stoves are bringing another important benefit to the region, too: some relief for the environment.
"North Darfur is mostly desert, and the few trees that provided a nearby source of cooking fuel when the camps were first created more than two years ago are all gone," said Ali in her report.
It's a trend that Ibrahim Suliman, a program coordinator for SAEDS, has watched for the past four decades as it's crept across the region.
"When I was a child, most of Darfur was covered in forest—even North Darfur," said Suliman, a native of Dar el Salaam, a small village about 30 miles south of El Fasher. But in the last 30 years, those trees and grasses have given way to desert. Why?
"Because of overgrazing," said Suliman. "Because there is no planning for animal breeding. And the firewood for cooking. And for houses—people build their houses from wood. And charcoal traders."
But with the introduction of the stoves, some of that degradation can be slowed since less wood will be needed for cooking. Suliman has even convinced his mother to switch to kerosene.
"She's very happy. It's clean," he said.
SAEDS is taking its concern for the environment a step further: It has launched a replanting project in Dar es Salaam and plans to begin a similar effort around the camps.
"Our philosophy is to restock the forest and all these things will be improved," said Suliman. "If we try to stop cutting trees and every year we try to plant many new trees, within four to five years we will be able to restock a big amount of trees. And we'll be able to at least make the environment more attractive than before and people can find grasses for their animals and be able to cultivate again. It might take a long time, but we have to start."
In Dar el Salaam, thanks to SAEDS, about 4,500 new saplings are now growing.
"In five to 10 years, I'm sure it will be green," said Suliman.
Near El Fasher, trees might also grow again. Oxfam's project with SAEDS calls for the planting of 10,000 seedlings around the camps. Families who have recently received the fuel-efficient stoves will be mobilized to do the planting.