The critical biodiversity areas in Cox’s Bazar -- Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary, Himchhari National Park and Inani National Park -- face a grave risk of peril due to high level of human interventions following the Rohingya influx, according to two recent studies.
Already, more than 2,000 hectares of forest have been lost as a result of the expansion of campsites after the arrival of over 750,000 Rohingyas since August 2017. Before the latest influx, more than 300,000 Rohingyas were already living in the area.
Over the last one and a half years, tens of thousands of trees, both big and small, have been cut down to set up camps, make furniture and cook food, researchers have found.
The financial cost of this destruction of forest in Ukhia and Teknaf upazilas stands at about Tk 1,865 crore, but the long-term consequences are more environmental than financial, according to a separate report by the Cox’s Bazar Forest Department.
“Clearing of forests and vegetation enhances soil erosion and promote landslide,” said Sharif Ahmed Mukul, director at the Applied Ecology and Conservation Research Lab at the Independent University, Bangladesh.
He is one of the seven environment experts who wrote an article titled “Rohingya Refugees and the Environment” published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the prestigious Science Magazine early this month.
His fellow researchers include Prof Ainun Nishat, Saleemul Huq and Atiq Rahman.
“Expansion of the old Kutupalong camp blocked the only corridor used by the globally endangered Asian elephant as a migration route and trapped about 45 elephants in the western side of the camp,” the report said.
It also amplified human-elephant conflict, with 13 human casualties so far in the area. The remaining elephant habitat is under severe pressure from uncontrolled firewood collection in the forest, the article added.
Soil erosion and landslides are already common in the area, affecting water resources, irrigation, and groundwater reserves. But now, local biodiversity, including marine resources, acoustic environment, and air quality, is being degraded at an unprecedented rate.
Sharif Ahmed said Rohingya people are now frequently visiting the Bay of Bengal for fishing and other aquatic resource collection, causing pressure on local marine species and the environment.
“Also, discharge of domestic and other waste is causing water pollution locally, and heavy pressure on local groundwater reserve because of mass refugee influx within a very short period in the area,” he said.
The other study, done by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and the IOM, also paints a sorry picture.
The topography of Ukhia and Inani Forest range is diverse with almost flat land to medium hillocks.
Approximately 10 percent landscape of the area is occupied with well drained flood plains, and soils of the site are sandy to sandy loam in highlands and clayey to silt clay in the depressions, the report said.
“The demand for firewood from forests is likely to be higher than the environment can supply. It may also exacerbate the effects of flooding and cyclone; as low-lying, degraded land will become more exposed,” said the report.
However, there are some positive changes too.
The ICCCAD survey found that a year ago over 80 percent respondents used firewood as their main fuel, while around 20 percent used gas. But now around 39 percent of the Rohingya are using gas as their main fuel, and about 60 percent are still using fire wood. Some of them are using kerosene.
As a way out, researchers have suggested providing Rohingyas with alternative fuel to reduce the pressure on the forest. Planting fast-growing trees in fallow and other unused land in the locality could solve the firewood problem.
Sharif Ahmed said the major long-term strategy to improve the environmental condition in Cox’s Bazar area should be forest and landscape restoration both inside and outside the camp, using local and native tree species.
Creating and maintaining biodiversity corridors to facilitate elephant movement is also necessary to reduce human-elephant conflict and causalities in the area.
Although the government and NGOs are already working on the issue and planting trees, efforts are still scattered and limited, he said.
“A sound coordination between different conservation, development and humanitarian agencies is also critical,” he told The Daily Star.
Humayun Kabir, Cox’s Bazar divisional (south) forest officer, said the loss of forest and biodiversity due to the Rohingya settlements is irreparable, but the department is working on strategies to recover forest as much as possible.
Mizanur Rahman, additional commissioner, Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, said the government has instructed all organisations involved in refugee management to take up sustainable projects to help restore the forest.
“Work at the grassroots level is already underway,” he said.