Concerns over what the annual rainy season in this part of the world, the southwest monsoon, may hold for the multitudes of Rohingya refugees who started streaming across the international border last August mainly into three upazilas of border district Cox’s Bazar, have been voiced from the start of the influx.
The concerns were exacerbated by three points in particular: the scale of the influx, the pattern in which the refugees were being settled, initially of their own accord but eventually by consensus among all stakeholders including the government, and finally the sense of alarm raised by flashfloods and mudslides during last year’s monsoon, which happened to be the most harmful and damaging in recent memory.
On the scale of the influx, it was recognized quite early on that the movement of the Rohingya that followed in the wake of an army crackdown on their villages in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state last August 25, represented one of the fastest-growing refugee crises of recent years, according to the United Nations.
Barely three weeks in, on September 15, the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR was reporting a whopping 380,000 Rohingya had entered Bangladesh. After 5 weeks, they had swelled to 512,000 -maintaining a rate of over 100,000 per week.
Eventually the number of entrants stabilised, although sporadically people kept entering and indeed traversing the border. It is now commonly estimated that some 700,000 Rohingya entered Bangladesh as part of the latest influx - more than ever before.
Coming to the pattern, it is the cutting down of hills and trees in the name of building safe settlements (as well as firewood, in case of trees) for the persecuted Rohingya, that worries most observers. Earlier, 5,500 acres forest land was allotted for the Rohingyas to shelter in Ukhia and Teknaf, although eventually over 6,000 acres of forest land was destroyed.
Abul Kalam, Rohingya Refugee Repatriation Commissioner, told UNB that around 150,000 people are in danger from landslides, floods and other natural calamities during the upcoming monsoon.
Some 20,000 families (upto 100,000 individuals)have been transferred into a fresh 540-acre area, where again hills and trees were cut down to make room for the makeshift settlements.
Dozens of bulldozers and hundreds of Rohingya labourers are being used for cutting hills in the forest lands owned by Cox’s Bazar South Forest Department.
This in turn has caused some locals in the areas to express deep concern over the incessant hill cutting in the last few weeks. According to them, two hills are being cut down per day for the purpose of housing Rohingyas.
Losing my humanity
Gaffuruddin Chowdhury, chairman of Palongkhali union parishad, said international organizations and non-government organizations (NGO) involved in dealing with the Rohingya crisis have been cutting down the forest resources to build ‘unsafe settlements’ using Rohingya people.
Md Ali Kabir, divisional forest officer of Cox’s Bazar South Forest Department, said that the Madhurchhora Forest area is a roaming zone for different types of wildlife, particularly elephants. Some 64 elephants are under threat due to the human intrusion and face shortages of food, according to the department.
The habitats of the animals are being destroyed at an alarming rate. Apart from this, slums are being constructed over huge quantities of forest land, said the DFO.
Ajmal Huda, general secretary of Cox’s Bazar Forest and Environment Conservation Council, alleged that even the NGOs committed to environmental protection and conservation are reduced to silence in the face of the destruction that continues in the name of sheltering the Rohingya who escaped persecution in Myanmar.
Moazzam Hossain, chairman of ‘Save the Nature’ suggests transferring the Rohingyas to plain areas or elsewhere, rather than moving to the hills. Similarly Advocate Ayasur Rahman, president of Save Cox’s Bazar movement, said that everyone knows cutting hills to build homes can never be safe.
“The forests are being razed in the name of safe settlements which are actually a threat to human life and in the process wildlife too,” Advocate Rahman said.
Professor M A Anwarul Haque, advisor to the Cox’s Bazar Forest and Environment Conservation Council, believes sheltering Rohingyas by cutting down hills was a wrong decision as their life is now at risk.
“It was necessary to fix a shelter for the Rohingya people with the consultation of Department of Forest, Department of Environment, and environmentalists,” said Prof Haque.
A loss of goodwill can increasingly be sensed among the local population towards the Rohingya refugees, who are now less seen as helpless folk fleeing persecution and more as competitors for scarce economic resources.
Cox’s Bazar Forest and Environmental Protection Council Adviser Naimul Haque Chowdhury Tutul told UNB as much -that local people have been passing their lives miserably since the first arrivals of the Rohingya population in the latest influx.
Now the forests and hills, and just as importantly the people themselves, are being pushed into the arms of an avoidable tragedy.
Even more avoidable than the fatal landslides that occurred in 5 districts including Cox’s Bazaar, and nearby districts during the monsoon last year. The region has a history of landslides, with over 300 deaths caused by them over the last decade.
Last June, heavy monsoon rain triggered a series of landslides and floods in Rangamati, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar, Khagrachari and Bandarban, killing at least 152 people. One estimate puts the death toll at 168.
According to officers at the Disaster Management Department, they were the worst landslides in the country’s history, and excessive cutting down of trees, which help to hold the ground together with their root system, alongside the unsuitable location of the habitats (landslide-prone) was held up as a reason behind their worsening.
And that was all before a single hill or tree had been cut for any Rohingya.