Rohingya Refugee Camps Turn to LPG, Reforestation to Save Depleted Bangladesh Forests

Cox’s Bazar, 31 May 2019 (IOM)*  –Khair Hussein remembers when cooking a meal meant a back-breaking trek up a dirt slope to collect firewood from the nearby bush. He isn’t sure which was worse – the sweltering heat of the dry season, or the thick mud of the rainy season that made many paths impassable. As time went on, the bush receded and price of firewood from vendors doubled.  


LPG is reducing demand for firewood in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps. Photo: IOM

In mid-2017 violence across the border in Myanmar drove nearly a million Rohingya onto the previously uninhabited hillsides of Cox’s Bazar. Families desperate for fuel to cook the rations they received from aid agencies scoured the area looking for firewood. The result, according to IOM, was the deforestation of some 7,000 hectares.

With the monsoon and cyclone season fast approaching, the implications of a treeless landscape in and around the camps are stark. Soil erosion is a growing problem and there is an ever-present risk of deadly landslides triggered by heavy rains.

In 2018 the humanitarian community in Cox’s Bazar stepped in to address the problem, launching programmes to reduce the need firewood and to replant trees in and around the refugee camps.

IOM, in collaboration with the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), launched “Safe Plus” – a project to provide the refugees and local communities with Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) stoves and fuel, while rehabilitating deforested areas.

Under the scheme, refugees and local villagers are given LPG stoves, fuel tanks and access to re-fills. Some 45,000 LPG stoves have already been distributed, with a target of 80,000 by June.

Patrick Charignon, who heads the IOM unit which oversees Safe Plus, says that the project has been very successful, but its three-year work plan remains less than 30 percent funded. He also highlights the importance of the parallel effort, in partnership with FAO, to replant trees in and around the camp. “The initiative works because it addresses both the demand for firewood and the rehabilitation of the area’s forests,” he said.

Replanting is essential to combat dangerous soil erosion triggered by the heavy monsoon rains. Vetiver and Broom grass and indigenous trees can protect slopes by holding soil intact. Other plants and trees can also be used for medicines, according to IOM programme officer Saiful Fuad.

“The project has worked with local authorities to determine the best plants and trees for the area. One is the Neem tree, which gives the famous scented oil used in South Asian medicine. We also plan to plant teak. Bangladesh has some of the world’s highest quality teak wood,” he said.

But he admits that some trees and plants simply don’t work in Cox’s Bazar’s unique eco-system. “Eucalyptus, which is common in many tropical areas with poor soils, has roots that are too weak to withstand the wind. The birds won’t nest in eucalyptus,” he added.

The LPG programme has been universally welcomed by the refugees and local communities, who say it reduces their spending on firewood and means cleaner air in their homes and in the camp. It also reduces the risk of violence for women forced to walk further from the camp to collect increasingly scarce firewood.

“Wood has also become more and more expensive and so LPG is now one of our top priorities,” said Khair, who fled his village of Thin Baw Kwey in Myanmar with his family of six in 2017.


2019 Human Wrongs Watch

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