An unprecedented influx of Rohingya refugees into southeastern Bangladesh is putting the ecologically fragile region on the brink of an environmental disaster, officials and analysts warn.
As many as seven reserve forests, totaling about 2,500 acres, have been wiped out in just over two months in Cox’s Bazar district as incoming Rohingya refugees cut down trees for firewood and to construct makeshift shelters, area forest officer Ali Kabir said.
“Make no mistake, this is an environmental catastrophe,” he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
As many as 607,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to southeastern Bangladesh, after the Myanmar army and security forces launched an offensive against the predominantly Muslim minority in response to attacks by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents in Rakhine state on Aug. 25, according to the latest estimates from U.N. officials.
With 400,000 Rohingya already settled along Bangladesh’s southeast border before the latest exodus began, the number of refugees in the region has doubled the population of nearly 500,000 Bangladeshi people living in the region where about 15 refugee camps and settlements are situated, Kabir said.
“They have occupied 1,625 acres of forestland in Ukhia and 875 acres of forestland in Teknaf and have chopped down more than one million trees to make way for their huts,” Kabir said, adding that the refugees were cutting hundreds of trees a day to use as firewood for cooking.
As of last week, forest resources valued at about 1.5 billion Bangladeshi taka (U.S. $18 million) had been destroyed to accommodate the latest influx of refugees, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Hussain said his department initially tried to stop the refugees from chopping down trees.
“Some Rohingya attacked three forest officials who attempted to discourage them,” he said.
“The only solution is that Myanmar takes back the Rohingya population. Of course, that may take a long time. Until then, we really can’t do much. Once they leave, we can start replanting trees,” he added.
Saif-ul-Isma Asrab, assistant director of the Directorate of Environment, agreed.
“If we really wish to control the situation, we will need to relocate the refugees to another region at the earliest. There is no other option,” Asrab told BenarNews.
‘What’s so bad about cutting trees?’
Biswajit Sen, a local environmental activist, said the blatant disregard for nature was not only harming wildlife, but was also posing a serious threat to the region’s human population.
“Due to the rampant use of fossil fuel, Cox’s Bazar is already at a risk of climate change. The region often routinely witnesses either extreme rainfall or extreme drought conditions. Low-lying areas have already been swallowed by the sea,” Sen told BenarNews.
With the fresh Rohingya arrivals denuding more than 200 hills that once teemed with trees, the risks have increased significantly, he said.
“As a result of extreme deforestation, the sea level will rise further and swallow more land. Deforestation may also result in high tides, heavy rainfall and landslides,” Sen warned.
Abdur Shakur, 50, a Rohingya who arrived from Rakhine last month with seven members of his family, admitted to cutting many trees to make place for his hut constructed from bamboo and tarpaulin on a hill in Balukhali.
“Do you think the [Myanmar] army bothered about the trees when they were setting our village on fire? Killing people is bad, burning entire villages is wrong. What’s so bad about cutting trees? Everyone here is doing it,” he told BenarNews.
Rampant deforestation also increased the threat of animal attacks in the region that is home to a wildlife sanctuary.
At least six Rohingya refugees, including children, have been killed in separate wild elephant attacks near the Balukhali refugee camp over the last two months, forest officer Abdul Mannan said.
“Elephants almost always use the same path to move back and forth. They identify their path by the trees around. When you cut down the trees, chances of the elephants losing their way and entering areas populated by humans is more. This is precisely why such incidents are occurring frequently,” Mannan told BenarNews.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.