Photo credit: A child carrying fuel-wood in a refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar. Photo by Haseeb Md. Irfanullah

Environmental conservation in a refugee crisis: when calling it a cross-cutting issue is not enough

by Haseeb Md. Irfanullah
22 May 2019

It’s hard for me to forget 21 January 2018 − the day I first entered the world’s largest refugee camp with my International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) colleagues. More than 700,000 forcibly displaced people had taken shelter in Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar, fleeing violence and persecution in Myanmar. I was torn: as a human being, seeing so many people living in thousands of makeshift shelters in an extremely vulnerable condition was heart-breaking. At the same time, the unprecedented destruction of thousands of hectares of forest land dismayed the conservationist in me.

As well as the immeasurable human suffering, the refugee crisis has put tremendous pressure on the natural resources of Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf peninsula. This south-eastern region of Bangladesh is famous for the world’s longest sand beach, as well as rich marine, coastal, hilly and riverine biodiversity. The area has also been a hub of participatory conservation initiatives. Over the past 20 years, local communities have been working with the Bangladesh Forest Department (BFD), NGOs and donors to manage and protect these ecosystems.

How effective is environmental action in a refugee crisis?

The initial humanitarian response provided more than 900,000 refugees in 34 camps with shelter, food, health services, water and sanitation. Once the immediate crisis eased, environmental protection and rehabilitation interventions began to take shape, focused on saving the remaining forests from fuel-wood collection by the refugees, greening the camps to improve living conditions and protecting people from elephant attacks in a region that is home to 15% of Bangladesh’s 268 wild Asian elephants.

The first study on the environmental impact of the refugee influx was carried out by the UN in October−December 2017. This rapid assessment showed that refugees were collecting nearly 6,800 tonnes of fuel-wood every month. In 2018, to slow down deforestation, alternative energy options were provided, including improved cooking stoves, communal cooking spaces, rice husk briquettes and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). In the first two months of 2019, 31,000 families, out of more than 200,000, received LPG cooking sets, and another 96,255 received a refill. However, demand for LPG far outstrips supply, and requires substantial funding. Safety issues have also been raised by some agencies, and refugees may in any case continue collecting firewood for extra income.

The refugee camps are highly degraded: no trees, completely exposed, highly eroding soil. Massive earthworks have made hilly slopes prone to landslides. In July 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in collaboration with the BFD, proposed technical specifications for restoration, followed by a mixed plantation strategy by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In August 2018, IUCN identified 27 sites across 11 hectares in Camp 4 for plantation and planted about 5,000 tree saplings in six priority spots (two hectares). At the beginning of last winter, the survival rate of these plantations was more than 90%. As of December 2018, UNHCR partners had planted 1.16 million saplings across 40 hectares.

One of the challenges in reforesting the camps is land ownership. The BFD owns almost all camp land, which is now managed by the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner’s Office, with UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and their partners. As such, the BFD has yet to get directly involved in plantation in the camps. It also does not encourage planting fruit trees, as this would encroach on forest land after the refugees move out of the area.

At the beginning of 2018, IUCN and UNHCR started implementing the first environmental project to protect refugees from elephant attacks, which killed nine refugees between September 2017 and January 2018. Almost 550 Rohingya refugees were trained and given equipment to scare away elephants from the camps. They were grouped into 50 or so Elephant Response Teams (ERTs) – dubbed the ‘tusk force’ by the media – who keep nightly watch on the boundaries of 16 camps vulnerable to elephant intrusion from about 100 bamboo watch-towers. Up to February 2019, the ERTs had stopped 50 potential elephant attacks.

The ERT approach is essentially a temporary solution. Improving fodder supply to elephants in the forests and creating a new elephant corridor through the Kutupalong mega-camp are two possible permanent solutions. Before opening up a corridor, we need to understand elephant behaviour, for example by radio collaring the elephants, which has never been done in Bangladesh. Relocating thousands of refugees from the corridor path would be a major challenge.

Mainstreaming the environment in refugee crisis response

Nature conservation and environmental protection need to be seen as part of a much larger, complex context, full of uncertainties. Rohingya staying in the camps are not recognised as ‘refugees’ by the government of Bangladesh, and are not allowed to participate in the formal economy. While a first attempt at repatriation was made in November 2018, over the objections of the UN, not a single refugee volunteered to return to Myanmar. The government is also planning to relocate 100,000 refugees to Bhashan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal. At the same time, camps in Cox’s Bazar are taking on a more permanent shape – better-planned, more robust refugee settlements are being built, along with permanent offices of humanitarian agencies. Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar who accepted more than 700,000 Rohingyas in 2017 are starting to express frustration over sharing their land, employment and natural resources, including protected forests.

The 2019 Joint Response Plan (JRP 2019) requires $920.5 million to maintain priority response efforts in 12 sectors for 906,500 Rohingya refugees and 335,900 people in host communities. ‘Environment and ecosystem rehabilitation’ is one of four cross-cutting issues identified in the JRP. In the narrative section, it is addressed under 10 sectors. ‘Site management and site development’ refers to soil stabilisation and conservation through ERTs and watch-towers; the ‘Protection’ and ‘Food security’ sectors mention reforestation; and the ‘Food security’ and ‘Shelter’ sectors deal with fuel conservation and alternative fuels to mitigate deforestation. However, while mainstreaming environmental actions into response programme is encouraging, field implementation is a challenge without a clear funding plan for specific major actions. This is not included in the 2019 JRP. Likewise, while the ‘Protection’, ‘Food security’, ‘Site management’ and ‘Shelter’ sectors have 16 sector-level objectives to be measured by 55 indicators, only one objective under ‘Food security’ deals with rehabilitation, reforestation and land stabilisation; another, under ‘Shelter’, deals with LPG.

Given the complexity of the Rohingya refugee crisis and the uncertainties around its resolution, the environment and ecosystems of Cox’s Bazar will continue to suffer unless comprehensive, long-term actions with clearly defined funding plans are prepared and implemented to halt further degradation of the environment and to promote environmental improvements.

Dr. Haseeb Md. Irfanullah was the Programme Coordinator of the IUCN Bangladesh Country Office during 2014−18 and a member of the team that designed and started implementing the human–elephant conflict mitigation initiative with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Currently, he is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change and research system. He tweets as @hmirfanullah. The views presented in this article are the author’s and do not reflect those of any of the organisations mentioned.