KHARTOUM Sudan's Darfur conflict has devastated the environment in the region, stripping forests and destroying farmland, according to a U.N. report.
People caught up in the five-year crisis have cut down large areas of woodland, partly to feed a booming war-fueled construction industry, said a report by the U.N.'s Environment Program (UNEP) seen by Reuters on Wednesday.
Tree cover has become so sparse in some areas that Darfuris often have to travel more than 75 km (50 miles) from their camps to find enough wood to sell or use for fuel, it added.
"We're now seeing extreme stress on the environment around many of the camps and the major towns in Darfur," said UNEP's Sudan country director Clive Bates in a statement.
"We need to plant millions of trees and introduce new technologies for construction and energy as quickly as humanly possible."
The UNEP report said demand for wood in Darfur's three main towns El Fasher, Nyala and El Geneina had increased an estimated "two to three times" since the conflict started in 2003.
Numbers of saw-mills and wood-fired brick kilns have rocketed in the region's main towns to keep up with rising demand for building materials for new peacekeeping bases, displacement shelters and accommodation for U.N. staff, the report added.
It said brick-making kilns alone were burning up an estimated 52,000 trees a year, which meant "the current form of brick-making is having a disastrous impact on Darfur's fragile environment."
"The brick kilns are occupying and in many cases destroying valuable agricultural land by digging up clay soils around towns," the report added.
Farmers driven from their fields by the conflict often found the timber trade was the only business left open to them after taking shelter in displacement camps, said the report titled 'Destitution, distortion and deforestation'.
International experts say more than 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes since mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government in 2003, accusing Khartoum of neglecting the remote western region.
Most of the displaced have taken shelter in dusty camps clustered around major towns and peacekeeping camps, supported by the world's largest humanitarian effort.
The UNEP report said the move of people from the countryside to the cities had "triggered a sudden and large increase in demand for firewood."
There were also signs militias and government soldiers had started earning money from collecting and selling mahogany and other hardwood trees for the furniture trade.
Nyala's famous Kunduwa hardwood forest had been destroyed by extensive logging from 2005 to 2007 said the report, adding "its destruction is regarded by many as a tragedy that could have been avoided."
The report called for development organizations to launch environmental awareness campaigns, and to pilot the use of alternative fuel sources and building materials.
Khartoum says foreign states and news organizations have exaggerated the conflict.
(Editing by Charles Dick)