Exile, camps, and camels: recovery and adaptation of subsistence practices and ethnobiological knowledge among Sahrawi refugees

G. Volpato

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


The study of how people adapt to social and environmental change is central to current theoretical understandings of human-nature relationships. There are recurrent cases in human history in which entire populations have been uprooted from the environments in which they live, where it becomes exceedingly difficult for them to maintain their ways of life including their modes of subsistence, social and ecological relations, knowledge, and culture. The ways in which such people exercise their collective and individual agency to recover and adapt their relations with nature and with each other must be addressed as the planet rapidly changes, given current prognoses about the emergence of environmental refugee populations on a massive scale. Refugees who have been forced to live in camps for long periods present important case studies of human agency and adaptation under such conditions. Refugee camps are places where people must engage with whatever limited resources are available, and where people confront major complex problems when attempting to establish new relations with their camp environments and maintain or revive relations with their homelands. If they succeed, refugees can partly free themselves from dependence on food aid and take their lives back into their own hands. The general objective of the study was to advance the understanding of humannature relationships in contexts of forced displacement and encampment by investigating the ways people living in refugee camps struggle to recover preexile subsistence practices and associated knowledge, while in the process adapting to new environmental conditions and social relations arising from their experience as refugees. It also sought to provide a preliminary theoretical framework for studying the human ecology and ethnobiology of refugees living in camps. Fieldwork was conducted among Sahrawi refugees in western Algeria, and involved collecting data on Sahrawi refugees’ agency toward the recovery and adaptation of traditional subsistence and other related material and cultural practices, as well as to understand associated changes in their ecological and social relations, and culture. Five case studies were selected: a general study of camel husbandry, culture and livelihoods, an ethnobiological study of traditional medicinal remedies and cosmetics, an ethnomedicinal study of the conceptualization of illness and change in related health beliefs, an ethnobotanical and cultural domain study of camel forage plants, and an ethnomycological and commodity study of desert truffles.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Howard, Patricia, Promotor
Award date20 Oct 2014
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789462570818
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • subsistence
  • livelihood strategies
  • refugees
  • displacement
  • indigenous knowledge
  • social relations
  • culture
  • environment
  • nomadism
  • pastoralism
  • ethnobotany
  • anthropology
  • western sahara
  • algeria


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