Maban County — John Gay is tired and angry after spending yet another sleepless night chasing grazing cattle from his sorghum field in South Sudan's Maban County.
It's a problem affecting most locals living in the vicinity of the Yusuf Batil and Gendrassa refugee camps, which were set up earlier this year and together host about 52,000 people and, according to Veterinarians Without Borders-Germany (VSF-G), 44,000 cattle, sheep and goats.
All those animals need food and that means many are heading into the nearby fields and eating the crops - mainly sorghum, but also pumpkins and green vegetables - planted by villagers. But this is posing a serious threat to the food security of people like John Gay, who wields influence in the area as an umda, or senior local chief. UNHCR is trying to help resolve the problem.
"As umda, I'm in the fields chasing cattle while refugees sleep comfortably in their tents," he complained. The refugees are aware of the growing friction and worried about what could ensue. Hamid Ali Ramadan, a refugee in Gendrassa, said they did not want to alienate the host community.
"But livestock are our wealth, our future. If [Umda Gay] expels us from here, we will have no livestock or future because we have nowhere to go." Things could get much worse if thousands more refugees start arriving in the two camps with their livestock as the dry season sets in from this month.
Aware of the potential for confrontation, UNHCR and partners such as VSF-G have taken steps to address this problem and other challenges in Maban County's four refugee camps, starting with a survey of various refugee and local community groups, including women, youth and traders.
This led to the establishment last month of a Host Community and Refugee Relations Committee in each camp. These ensure that issues with the potential to sow division and discord are dealt with openly, collectively, comprehensively and independently of humanitarian agencies where possible.
Gay was a member of the committee for Gendrassa Camp and the members made good progress over several meetings, including organizing a visit by the refugees to livestock grazing areas set aside for the refugees and setting conditions for their use of this land.
The committee meetings and the agreement on the grazing land helped warm relations and ease the tension between the refugees and the host community. Gay stressed that anyone violating the agreement would be punished, but one of the refugee elders pledged to honour the agreement and take measures against any refugee who broke it. This helped establish mutual respect.
Now Umda Gay wants UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies to help get the livestock-owning refugees in Yusuf Batil to agree to a similar commitment, "before it is too late," as he put it. The refugee leaders in Gendrassa have agreed to approach their counterparts in Yusuf Batil.
Fred Cussigh, head of the UNHCR field office in Maban County, praised the foresight of the elders of both sides in taking solid steps to resolve a thorny problem that could cause serious damage if not addressed. "UNHCR is very appreciative of the generosity and sacrifice extended to Sudanese refugees by Umda John and his community," he said, while adding that to maintain healthy relations, UNHCR would have to look in other counties for new refugee camp sites.
"Much is also expected of UNHCR and the humanitarian community," Cussigh stressed, before adding that "we will ensure that host communities also benefit from services brought to Maban, including access to health, education and employment opportunities."
What's more, to further smooth relations between refugee and host communities in Maban, locals will also benefit from a mass vaccination campaign planned in response to the high mortality rate among cattle, goats and sheep.
The health of livestock has deteriorated in the camps as priority is given to assisting the refugees. The joint initiative is aimed at rectifying, and so protecting refugees' assets. It includes measures aimed at monitoring and preparing for outbreaks of diseases, including Rift Valley Fever and rabies as well as better resource management. This campaign is being conducted by UNHCR, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), South Sudan's Department of Agriculture and VSF-G.
Maban County currently hosts more than 110,900 refugees who, across all four camps, have more than 200,000 livestock animals.