- The Rohingyas turned to local forest for everything from shelter to fuel
- Till November 2018, they sourced 730 tonnes of firewood per day from the forest
- The influx damaged 17,841 acres of forest land
Two contrasting sights will welcome someone if they stand atop a hill in the Kutupalong refugee camp in the southern part of Bangladesh.
Myanmar's green hills stand out in the east, and dehydrated bare mounds studded with blue-black tarps of makeshift shelters mark the Bangladesh side.
That shocking contrast in this landscape is relatively new. It is an unintended consequence of brutal military operations in Myanmar that forced about a million Rohingya refugees to cross into neighbouring Bangladesh.
The refugees put up camps wherever they found space and turned to local forest for everything from shelter to fuel.
The influx has created an environmental crisis in Bangladesh's sensitive border district, stripping away 17,841 acres of forest land. The estimated loss of forest resources is about Tk1,800 crore, according to data from Bangladesh Forest Department (BFD).
Till November 2018, Rohingya refugees were sourcing 730 tonnes of firewood per day from the forest. However, that number is now massively on decline because of the intervention of the UNHCR – the United Nations' refugee agency – which now provides liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for Rohingya households.
Impact on wildlife habitats
Not only forest resources, the refugee influx has put its dent on things like rapid biomass reduction, loss of wildlife habitat and mortality risks for wildlife.
A report, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said Cox's Bazar South Forest Division covering Ukhiya and Teknaf is home to more than half of the country's wildlife species.
Wild elephants, barking deer, wild boar, monkeys, birds, squirrels, jungle fowl, small cats and different types of snakes were among the prominent animals of the forests.
"The most visible impact was on the elephant," said Raquibul Amin, country representative of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
He told The Business Standard that the Rohingya shelters eventually had blocked the only elephant corridor between Bangladesh and Myanmar, trapping about 40 elephants in the forests under Cox's Bazar South Forest division.
Between August 2017 and March 2018, at least 13 elephants were killed in human-elephant conflict.
Recently, three elephants were killed in the areas adjacent to Rohingya camps. It is an indication of increasing human-elephant conflict in the host community areas.
"The shooting of elephants is a new phenomenon. It must be addressed immediately as the use of firearms has links to the law and order situation," Raquib said.
Initially after the new settlement of Rohingyas, there were also conflicts with snake in the camp areas. Particularly, the camp 21 was the hotspot due to its proximity to the forest.
The IUCN official said there was a high incidence of snake intrusion and the number of snakes killed was also high.
Mohammed Mostafa Feeroz, a zoology professor at Jahangirnagar University, also one of the lead assessors of IUCN Bangladesh Red List 2016, thinks the habitats for almost all the wildlife of the Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary and Inani Forests, where most of the Rohingya camps are situated, have been affected severely.
"The human intrusion in the forests has badly damaged habitats of barking deer, small cats, and particularly of hawks," said Feeroz, adding that in a biodiversity monitoring at Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary during 2010-2012, it was found that the forest hosted country's most population of the hawks, which is also affected by the influx of Rohingyas in the region.
Initiatives for restoring the ecosystem
According to the UNDP report, forest land in Ukhiya and Teknaf was covered by tropical evergreen and semi-evergreen forests dominated by Garjan in the deep valleys and shaded slopes.
However, human activities, even before the Rohingya influx, denuded most parts of the hills which were re-occupied by sungrass, herbs and shrubs. On around 2,000 acres, the BFD had social forestry with plantation of short rotation tree species like acacia and akashmoni. Still, the protected forests were rich in biodiversity before 2017.
Some satellite images of the camps during 2018, depicting desertification of the forests, raised eyebrows of green activists.
However, in a recent visit to some camps, dots of green amidst the makeshift shelters were seen. The emerging trees were the result of three-year tree plantation programme sponsored by the UN agencies.
According to officials of Centre for Natural Resource Studies (CNRS), which is among the 12 partner organisations for the tree plantation programme, volunteers have planted trees on a total of 296 acres this year, adding to the 865 acres of plantation coverage in 2018 and 2019.
In the first two years, short rotation tree species like akashmoni, acacia hybrid and gamar were planted. Now, 34 of medium and long rotation tree species like kadam, jarul, hijal, chikrashi, champa, telsur, arahar, dhaincha, garjan and boilam are being planted. Part of horticulture, amlaki, amra and lebu are planted for the shelter homes.
Sujan Dutta and Azad, two forestry officers of CNRS, expressed their hope saying, "If the camp areas are left undisturbed after relocation or repatriation of Rohingyas, the forests would be restored."
Citing example of the Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary which had experienced massive deforestation during 1990-1995 and restored later because of conservation, Feeroz, a zoology professor, also echoed the views of the two forestry officers.
He, however, said tree plantation must not be timber-centric because bush and shrubs shelter small animals. "Irrational plantation sometime threatens natural ecosystem. There are at least 50 species, such as mandar, Shimul, Gutgutia and dumur, which provide habitation for hundreds of other animals. Conservation of such trees is also crucial to restore the forests," Feeroz said.
For conservation of the wildlife including the flagship elephants, IUCN official Raquib recommended establishing a wildlife rescue centre at close vicinity of the camps.
"A multi-functional landscape plan needs to be developed involving all agencies concerned and the local community. All development plans must be sensitive to the fact that Cox's Bazar region is a major elephant habitat and no development plan must aggravate the situation for elephants," he said.