The recently built Rohingya camps in Ukhia and Teknaf of Cox’s Bazar have damaged the biodiversity of the area, conservationists say.
The camps have threatened the natural habitat of the wild animals such as elephants.
The forest department and other international agencies working for biodiversity, have said the Rohingya camps are destroying the forest. They have several times referred to the damage of the biodiversity in the area.
According to a ‘quick environmental impact assessment’ of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Rohingya camps have become a threat to biodiversity in the area.
A number of animals and plants will become extinct forever if the building of settlements continues in this manner, the report further said.
The report observed that it will not be possible to overcome the loss of land. The camps are not only a threat to Bangladesh, but also to global biodiversity, it added.
The UNDP report also said the Rohingya camps are damaging the nature in three areas facing ecological crisis. These are the coastal areas of Teknaf, Saint Martin Island and Sonadia Island.
There are two more restricted areas near these camps -Himchhari national park and Teknaf sanctuary. The proposed Inani National Park is also at risk.
There are a total of 1,156 species of plants and animals in the surrounding area. Important animals like elephants, deer, small Indian wild cats, big Indian wild cats, and wild hogs are on the list. Elephants are highly endangered and deer are endangered.
The UNDP has identified 28 threats to forests, land, water, animals and human health. It also provided 54 recommendations to overcome the situation. The evaluation report was recently sent to environment and forests ministry.
It said that the government of Bangladesh has to ensure safety of as much property as possible, so that recovery of the environment is possible after the repatriation of Rohingyas.
Speaking with Prothom Alo, environment and forests minister Anwar Hossain said the ministry is well informed about the damage of environment and biodiversity for the Rohingyas.
He insisted that the international community along with the UN also has to take the responsibility.
The minister said the government is planning to shift Rohingyas from the area. Plantation will take place after that. The minister also said initiative to supply gas to the camps for cooking has also been undertaken so that no more trees are cut down in the area.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 655,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh since 25 August following persecution carried out by Myanmar military forces in Rakhine state.
The Rohingyas took shelter in Teknaf and Ukhia of the district.
A total of 867,500 Rohingyas are there only in Cox’s Bazar district whereas the two upazilas have 472,000 local residents.
UNDP officials related with the reports however did not have any comment about the report.
Species in the area
According to experts, the area is part of the flying zone for migratory birds flying between Middle and East Asia to Australasia. The birds will change their route if the environment of their resting place is damaged, said experts.
The UNDP report said the area is full of biodiversity as it has both coastal areas and hills.
The area has almost 143 types of plants, 113 types of shrubs, 184 herbs, 87 types of creepers and other parasitic plants. There are also 198 types of invertebrate animals, 48 types of fish, 27 types of amphibians, 54 reptiles, 243 types of birds and 43 types of mammals are living in the area.
The Rohingyas did not bring much with them while coming to Bangladesh. They collected whatever they needed to build huts from the nearby hills and forest. They collect woods from the forests for daily cooking.
A Prothom Alo correspondent has visited 10 Rohingya camps in Teknaf and Ukhia area where he found many hillocks with no trees.
The Rohingyas were first allowed to build camps on these hillocks. They were then shifted elsewhere.
The correspondent, on his 10-day visit, found firewoods being sold near the camps.
An officer of South Cox's Bazar forest department said, Rohingyas along with the local people are cutting down trees and selling wood in the market.
According to the UNDP report, land has been cleared for camps, roads, toilets and other facilities for the Rohingyas, causing soil erosion, forest destruction and clogging of small drains. Rohingyas are forbidden to roam outside the camps but they do not obey. They poach wild animals illegally instead.
Country representative of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmad told Prothom Alo, the major concern is the ruin of habitats for the wild animal, elephants for instance.
Ishtiaq said, "Rohingya camps have blacked the paths of the elephants. The situation will worsen in the days ahead".
Bangladesh can utilise the UNDP's assessment report as standard evidence, he added.
There are signboards written 'Beware of Elephants' from Cox's Bazar to Teknaf. The forest departments and IUCN jointly put those signboards. The Rohingya camps are located within the hundred yards of the signboards. A 250-bed hospital has been recently built on the path. Several Rohingyas were even killed by attacking elephants.
However, the UNDP has expressed their concerns about elephants in many parts of the report. It says, the elephants in the Asia regions are in danger.
There are several specific recommendations in the report suggesting various programmes like arranging alternate fuel for both Rohingyas and the locals, fencing around the camps to prevent elephant attacks and undertaking forestry programmes in the areas where trees have been cut down.
The UNDP said, shifting Rohingyas to bigger camps in Kutungpal and Balukhali might be realistic one in terms of management, but it is sensitive in terms of nature.
* This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Saimul Huda and Farjana Liakat