An interview with Dan Stothart, Regional Humanitarian Affairs Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Venezuela’s economic crisis and humanitarian situation have led to the largest cross-border displacement of people in the recent history of Latin America. Estimates by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) say that 4.3 million Venezuelans are living abroad, of which 3.5 million in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Boa Vista, the state capital of Roraima State, located on Brazil’s northern border with Venezuela, is the municipality currently hosting the largest number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Brazil (around 40,000 people).
Shelters are at capacity. This poses many challenges such as food provision, security, health care, gender policies, cultural integration and environmental issues, including waste management and stress on the water table. The Brazilian government and its partners, including several United Nations agencies, have been working to manage these challenges while finding the best practices and opportunities for Brazilians and Venezuelans.
To support local and federal governments in addressing the environmental impacts of humanitarian responses to population displacement, UNEP joined forces with UNHCR.
Dan Stothart, Regional Humanitarian Affairs Officer at UNEP, coordinates the disasters and conflicts programme for the Latin America and Caribbean region. Here, he gives us insight into the environmental impacts and opportunities that have emerged from this crisis as well as the action that has been, and will be, taken by UNEP and its partners.
What is UNEP’s role in the UN response to this crisis, specifically in the context of Roraima?
UNEP’s interest in the situation in Roraima is related to exploring environmental impacts and the ways in which the migration and refugee situation in Brazil could become an opportunity to improve pre-existing environmental situations. UNEP now has an expert, based in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Boa Vista, working to advise all of the different response actors.
What are some examples of common environmental impacts in these migration crisis situations, that might be risky in Brazil? What is the UN doing to work with response actors to mitigate them?
Impacts can be associated with how the provision of food and shelter generates environmental impacts in terms of waste, and what that waste can do to the humanitarian situation. If you are delivering a lot of food—pre-cooked and in plastics—to shelters, firstly, you have the increased volume of non-recyclable waste, but when it rains this waste fills up with water and there is an increase of mosquito-borne diseases. We have to look at ways to reduce the production of waste which will then reduce the overall incidence of vector-borne disease.
Also, there has been an increased arrival of indigenous Venezuelans, some of whom we can support to integrate into Brazilian Venezuelan communities, supporting local agriculture, food security and environmental management as a way to ease the transition. UNHCR and UNEP are constantly assessing the best way to provide a response that is culturally and environmentally appropriate, bearing in mind that indigenous cultures are themselves constantly evolving.
There are a lot of different—both environmental and cultural—challenges to work on.
In some situations, you do have to sit down with agencies and remind them to look at environmental challenges. In this one, we are working with agencies that are very keen to reduce the environmental impact of their response actions and find a way to use the situation to address environmental problems and find durable solutions.
What are some of the opportunities that have arisen from this crisis to improve pre-existing environmental situations in Brazil?
One thing that humanitarian actors try to do is to make sure that the host community also derives benefits from the humanitarian response. The Brazilian government has a very ambitious programme called “interiorization,” which aims to help these people go to other parts of Brazil, also supporting them to find work opportunities. We are starting to look at how we can help people who have previous experience to find “green jobs” related to environmental management. In other cases, we are looking at ways to help municipal governments improve their waste management through the emergency response itself.
What has already been achieved by the UNEP project, and what are the next steps?
We cannot address everything, so we look at how the shelters function in terms of food provision, food waste, sanitation, and some other issues related to integration. Also, we look at some of the environmental programmes that other agencies are managing which are not related to the Venezuela situation, and see if we can help them expand or adapt their initiatives to address some of these challenges. We are also hoping to develop a project on recycling, creating employment opportunities for both Brazilians and Venezuelans, while also tackling some of the big waste management challenges in some of the cities receiving the largest numbers of refugees and migrants.