A Rohingya refugee receives a sapling from the Catholic charity Caritas Chittagong at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar on Aug. 8. Aid groups have started offering refugees gas, stoves and tree saplings to sustain them and support the environment in Bangladesh. (Photo courtesy of Caritas Bangladesh)
Catholic and other aid groups are offering Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh gas and stoves to sustain themselves as well as tree saplings to help combat deforestation close to the Myanmar border.
Agencies including Catholic-run Caritas Chittagong, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been helping the persecuted Muslim minority eke out a living at the camps despite crowded and unsanitary conditions amid the monsoon rains.
Thousands of others who lacked documents have reportedly been evicted from the camps without warning to make way for tourism.
Since July, the the agencies have been distributing gas as an alternative means of fuel for cooking. The charities have coordinated with Rohingya community leaders to select 20,000 families from various settlements in Cox's Bazar.
Each family gets a 12kg liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder, a gas stove and a tree sapling. The cylinders cost 1,200 taka (US$14) and can run for up to a month on average.
The aid groups have also set up a refilling system to replace the empty cylinders as part of this six-month project, said Nikar-uz-Zaman, chief government officer of Ukhiya sub-district.
"The arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees has put the forest, wildlife and the whole environment under threat," he told ucanews.com.
"Forests have been cleared to make way for shelters, and firewood for cooking. So we decided to introduce an alternative way of cooking, to ease the pressure on the forest and the environment," he said.
A monitoring team will track the progress of the scheme in the coming months to see if it is effective in curbing the number of trees the refugees cut down to use as firewood, as well as to measure its cost-effectiveness and safety, he said.
"Once the pilot project has been successfully completed, we have a long-term plan for alternative fuel for refugees. This could be a catalyst for further conserving the environment," Nikar-uz-Zaman added.
Refugees return to Kutupalong camp after collecting liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) on Aug. 9. (Photo courtesy of Caritas Bangladesh)
James Gomes, regional director of Caritas Chittagong, said the agency was nominated to support 12,000 families.
The refugees have been cutting down trees for firewood out of desperation with scant regard for the environmental impact, he said.
"Now we're encouraging them to start planting trees instead. We've provided them with orientation and safety training regarding gas and gas stoves. There haven't been any accidents reported so far," Gomes told ucanews.com.
Refugees hail pilot project
"Now we don't need to scavenge for firewood in the forests, we can just light up the stove and cook easily," said 34-year-old Hamida Begum.
"We tell the authorities here when the gas runs out and they come to refill the tanks," added the Rohingya mother of three, who lives in the Balukhali refugee camp her children and partner.
Jamir Uddin also praised the project. The 45-year-old has been struggling to get by as the head of a seven-member family subsisting at the Kutupalong refugee camp, also in Cox's Bazar in southeast Bangladesh.
His family numbers among an estimated 700,000 members of this Muslim minority who have fled neighboring Myanmar since August 2017 when the military responded to insurgent attacks in Rakhine State with a crackdown on Rohingya settlements. The U.N. has compared this to ethnic cleansing.
"We felt sad that by cutting down trees we were destroying the forest, but we also felt trapped because we needed fuel in order to cook and eat," Uddin said.
"Now we don't need to harm the forest. I hope they can keep this project going for as long as we're here," he added.
Dipok Sharma, an environmental activist in Cox's Bazar, described this as one of the most progressive projects he has seen implemented since the refugees began flooding in.
"This is an innovative and smart way to save the environment," he said.
"We can't get back what we have lost but we can save what is left, and start over."
About one million refugees remain in Cox's Bazar. The two countries are still wrangling over a repatriation deal for the Rohingya. Myanmar regards them as unwanted Bengali immigrants and denies them citizenship.
Many fear for their safety and are reluctant to go home after allegedly seeing their villages torched and women raped by soldiers while mobs of local Buddhists further stirred up trouble.