In the last two months, newly-arrived Rohingya refugees have cut down trees from 1,500 acres of social forestation project in Cox's Bazar mainly for building temporary shades and firewood.
The project in the district's south forest range is 15 years old and involved about 2,000 locals, mostly poor and unemployed, who hoped to enjoy 45% benefit from it.
Rohingya refugees, who have been arriving since late August, have also cleared about 2,000 acres of forestland in Ukhiya and Teknaf upazilas of Cox's Bazar, forest officials said.
Nearly 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape the latest Myanmar army crackdown on the ethnic minority in the Rakhine state. More are waiting across the border.
Cox’s Bazar’s Divisional Forest Officer (South Forest Zone) Md Ali Kabir said the refugees were burning about 750,000kg woods as fuel everyday.
PHOTO: Tarek Mahmud/Dhaka Tribune
“They have so far burnt forest resources worth an estimated Tk230 crore,” he said. “They use woods worth Tk5 crore every day as firewood.”
Only 40% of the newly-arrived refugees are staying at camps. The others are cutting hills and clearing forests to build shelters.
“The others started staying on about 3,500 acres forestland of Ukhia-Teknaf range,” Kabir said. “We must ensure alternative fuel for the Rohingya to save the forest.”
He said he feared that the region's forest would be gone if the current situation persisted.
Balukhali resident Jamal he had maintained an acre of forestland and planted about 500 trees as a part of social forestation project.
“The Rohingya refugees cut off all the trees within two days,” he told the Dhaka Tribune. “They even wipe out bushes from the hills. The cutting of trees has been a huge financial loss for many.”
Samlapur ward member Md Yunus said that more than 1,000 trees from the Samlapur beach had been cut.
Bunches of wood were seen piled up near most of the makeshift Rohingya sheds in Kutupalong and Balukhali. Some of the refugees were carrying bundles of tree branches to their sheds. Most of them said they were compelled to fell trees for cooking.
PHOTO: Tarek Mahmud/Dhaka Tribune
Abul Kalam, one of the refugees, said: “How can we survive? The relief is not regular due to long queues. So I collect woods from jungles and sell them to feed my family.”
The Unpraching camp next to Balukhali, housing about 50,000 Rohingya, was set up in reserved forestland.
Local Rahmater Bill Government Primary School’s Head Master Azizul Hoque said: “The district will soon become a barren land if one million Rohingya continue to cut trees for firewood.”
Cox’s Bazar environment activist Bishwajit Sen said: “Only two months ago, both sides of the highway were filled with green forests and jungles. It is a huge loss.”
Local forest office says, the refugees are setting up shelters by randomly cutting down trees and hills. The barren hills of the areas are now filled with rows of shanties.
Wildlife in the area has also been affected by the encroachment. The refugees built shelters blocking an elephant pass. Last Saturday, wild elephants trampled to death three Rohingya children and a woman at Balukhali camp.
Environment and forest department officials said the corridor of wild elephants from Balukhai to Myanmar via Gundhum has been completely occupied by the refugees.
After the influx in late August, the forest department conducted a survey and found that until October 2, the refugees had destroyed about 2,500 acres of forestland at Kutupalong, Thaingkhali, Balukhali 1, Balukhali 2, Modhurchhara, Tajminar Ghona, Nokrar Bill, Safiullah Ghata, Bagghona, Jamtoli, Teknaf, Whaikkong and Shilkhali.
However, Forest Officer Ali Kabir said he believed the newly-arrived Rohingya had so far destroyed about 3,500 acres of forestland.
Department of Environment’s Cox’s Bazar office’s Assistant Director Saiful Ashraf said the rampant hill-cutting may trigger hill-slides, which may cost the lives of many.
“It is an irreparable loss for our environment and ecosystem,” he said. “We are conducting a survey to estimate the damages to our environment.”
Ashraf said: “We have urgently to plant as many trees as possible on the barren hills. A concerted effort is needed to recover from the loss.”
Cox’s Bazar Deputy Commissioner Md Ali Hossain said the government, too, was worried after witnessing the scale of environmental damage.
“We have already discussed with the NGOs to arrange alternative fuel for the refugees but it will cost a huge amount,” he added.