The Rohingya crisis shows that refugee situations bear both human and environmental consequences. In an article by UNCHR (2001), it is stated that: “Refugees, however, cannot be expected to put environmental considerations ahead of their own safety and welfare.”
In Bangladesh, approximately 8,000 hectares of forests and vegetation have been cleared for the rising need of accommodation. A team of forest ministry estimated the environmental loss to the tune of Tk 2420 crores, according to The Daily Star. In the wake of the massive deforestation, there have been human-elephant conflicts in the refugee camps, totaling the number of deaths to 14 as of the time of writing, and heavy flooding and landslides during the monsoon period—which continue to batter the shelters and settlements of the Rohingya people.
Hamza Ali, a 46-year-old former woodcutter, says that he used to venture into the forest around the newly formed refugee camps back in 2017 to make shelters for his family. He said that many newly arrived refugees had to resort to cutting wood to build shelters and to cook using fuelwood.
But now sustainable initiatives by aid organizations have changed the scenario. And they spark a flicker of hope.
According to a 2018 UN report, the refugee population had to rely on fuelwood from surrounding forests for cooking and on trees for building their shelters, which then caused an intense depletion of vegetation cover from the hills. Currently, the situation is not the same as before. There are new policies that encourage using LPG (liquified petroleum gas) as an alternative to fuelwood, as production of fuelwood causes deforestation. About the effectiveness of using LPG, Ehsanul Hoque, Assistant Environment Officer from UNHCR Bangladesh, says “The demand for fuelwood within refugee community has reduced to 80%, which hints that if such fuel wood demand reduction prevails, natural habitat of tropical forest ecosystem will be able to regenerate soon, and the refugees’ urgency to venture into the forest to collect fuelwood and the eventual exposure to wildlife will also be minimized.”
Since 2018, a total of 1,135,735 LPG refills have been distributed among the refugee population. A recent study shows that after mobilising the LPG supply, the rate of deforestation has come within sustainable forestry rates and the rate of firewood demand has also plunged to levels that existed before the refugee influx.
At the beginning of June, when I was doing a story for The Diplomat Magazine on the human and environmental costs of a genocide, officials from Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Bangladesh told me that they have launched SAFE Plus—a joint among FAO, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the World Food Programme (WFP) that addresses environmental degradation through distribution of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and stoves, reforestation, and improved livelihood opportunities.
FAO leads the reforestation segment and is currently working with the Forest Department to restore 2,000 hectares of forest. So far, 672 hectares have been restored. The provision of LPG cooking facilities and fuel to almost every household in the camp, along with 35,000 people from the host community, has greatly reduced the pressure on forests, they said. FAO has developed technical guidelines to restore wildlife habitats, with a focus on elephants, and will pilot the restoration work on 20 hectares of forest in Cox’s Bazar later this year.
As part of a conservation strategy, FAO – in collaboration with the IUCN and the Forest Department – is assessing the area’s floral diversity (the diversity of naturally occurring indigenous or native plants). The work will identify “indicator species” to monitor the long-term health of the forests, as well as potential ‘mother trees’ that can be harvested for high-quality seeds to reforest the areas.
“FAO is also developing guidelines on SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tools) that will be used in Cox’s Bazar. SMART is an innovative management tool designed to assist protected area and wildlife managers to better monitor, evaluate and adaptively manage patrolling activities.” said the officials.
Aside from the afore-mentioned initiatives, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Bangladesh and UNHCR Bangladesh have jointly set up an Elephant Response Team that has played a significant role in reducing human-elephant conflicts in the camps. After a total of 14 deaths until 2019, no further fatality has been recorded, which should be credited to the elephant response model that the organizations have employed in the camps.
Because the volunteers from the response team have been properly trained to guide the elephants out of their camps whenever they come inside, there have been no casualties recently. The model’s aim is to keep both the elephants and the humans safe. After all, the elephants are already endangered.
Under the current situation, we can only hope that sustainable initiatives go a long way in bettering both the refugees’ lives and the environmental health.