Refugee and Asylum Seeker Environmental Conservation
As part of its Ethnic Environmental Participation project, which covered Edinburgh and Glasgow, the Black Environment Network reached out to refugees and asylum seekers to open up existing programmes of environmental activities to benefit the lives of ethnic minorities. BEN designed a programme of free activities for their enjoyment, including workshops at the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens and visits to the countryside. These took them away from bleak surrounding and lives that were without a focus, rife with frustration and boredom. Over time, a sympathetic relationship of trust was formed. They knew that BEN had no ulterior motive but to benefit their lives.
Giving something back
One day, a group came to us saying, “Scotland has been kind to us through you, what can we do to give something back?” BEN then went on to design another series of activities, introducing them to a range of thing to do to care for and protect nature so that they could decide what they would like to do. They gravitated to tree planting.
Making it happen
BEN worked with the Scottish Refugee Council and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) to develop a series of monthly outings to Cashel Forest, to support a project aiming to recreate Scotland’s natural woodland ecology. On a mountain overlooking Loch Lomond, Cashel Forest for a Thousand Years is one of many Millennium Forest for Scotland projects.
Recognising personal experience, embodying contemporary history
The Scottish Refugee Council offered training and support to BTCV staff to help them understand cultural diversity and the issues faced by asylum seekers and refugees. Then from January 1999, the volunteers took part in a mix of practical and educational activities including tree planting, charcoal burning and traditional woodland crafts.
A special plot was selected, which participants named the Eagle plot, since the eagle is a bird with an important niche in the forest ecology of Scotland, who is recognized by people in most countries of the world. There were 200 trees planted there at the last count.
However, because of the richly human context in which BEN works, they did not just focus on doing good to nature. They proposed that each tree they planted should be dedicated to someone they had lost or had to leave behind. Each person designed their own ceremony to dedicate the tree, drawing on religious, cultural and spiritual sources. They regularly return to visit and care for their trees in this place, which has become sacred to them.
As a result of the vision of the refugees and asylum seekers, this is not just a forest of green for the future. Many of the asylum seekers and refugees come from the familiar run of trouble spots so well known to us – Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia... This forest is a forest of memory and a marker of the contemporary history of civil strife, war and oppression that we are all living through.
Building on learning from this project, BTCV’s Environments for All programme went on to extend access to Cashel Forest, plus a range of other urban and rural conservation opportunities, to many socially excluded groups in Scotland, including ethnic community groups.
In 2004, BEN facilitated a networking trip for young men from Manchester to Cashel Forest to experience conservation volunteering. BEN is working with Tree Aid New Sudan Project and Red Rose Forest to develop a reforestation project for the North West of England.
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Cashel Forest - Refugee amd Asylum Seeker Environmental Conservation Programme