Activists are warning that food insecurity in southeastern Bangladesh may worsen over the next decade as a result of unfettered deforestation.
Abdul Mannan of the local NGO, Society for Health Extension & Development, works with communities in Cox’s Bazar District where, by the group’s estimate, some 400,000 depend on the forest to survive.
"The southeastern sub-districts of Ukhia and Teknaf are, in comparison, far poorer than other parts of the country," he told IRIN. "And the people here have no alternative income sources to the forest."
Mannan’s organization provides loans and training to encourage people to find new income sources, such as poultry farming or cattle rearing. But he said his group is able to reach less than 10 percent of the affected communities. By his organization’s tally, among the most affected by deforestation are some 100,000 Bangladeshis who rank among the country’s poorest, about 2,000 indigenous hill tribe people, and close to 300,000 ethnic Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar.
Burmese law considers the Rohingya – officially referred to as Muslims – stateless, while Bangladesh views all but some 30,000 as illegal migrants.
"From this 10,000 hectare forest, people manage to extract as much as US$20 million income a year. But the extraction rate is far too high, and the population pressure is too great now," said Mannan.
"It is not enough income, and it is disappearing fast. I have asked local woodcutters [loggers] how much they would have to walk to work in the past, and it was about 1-2km. Now it is 9-10km. So looking 10 years down the line, they will have to walk 20km, 30km to find wood. If things continue to go this way, then these people’s livelihoods will disappear."
The $20 million figure sounds lucrative, but is still not enough to support the numbers depending on that cash, said Fariduddin Ahmed, the executive director of Arannayk Foundation, a conservation group based in the capital, Dhaka.
In 2010, the country had an estimated 1,442,000 hectares of forest, 52,000 hectares less than two decades earlier. While official data for forests in the country’s southeast are unavailable, NGOs and residents say forest loss here has been more dramatic.
Both Ahmed and local Rohingya estimate loggers earn less than $2 a day, which they use to feed often sizeable families. While population control has been successful in much of Bangladesh, the southeast remains an exception, said Ahmed. Over the past three decades the population growth rate nationwide dropped from almost 7 percent to 1.2 percent in 2011.
"In the southeast part of Bangladesh you will see an interesting situation – here the local and tribal people have many children… And these people, to feed their families, most of them have no option but to go to the forest, cut the wood, and sell it," said Ahmed.
"The Rohingya migration is a big part of the pressure – the more people come, the greater the pressure on the forest. They have no source of work, so they all go to the jungle and cut the wood, all the while hiding and trying not to get caught," he added.
Timber, used for cooking, is sold in local markets, but Rohingya often resort to black markets or selling through intermediaries.
Abdul Gohor, a Rohingya who has been in Bangladesh for over 20 years, said resentment is on the rise. "They [locals] say we are being fed by the UN, why should we use up their resources?" Rohingya refugees in two government camps receive food rations from the World Food Program.
In 2012 the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that 12.6 percent of under-five children in two government camps for Rohingya refugees are afflicted by wasting (too low weight for height), of whom almost 1 percent are severely malnourished. Some six out of 10 children in the camps are stunted (too short for their age) – a sign of too few nutrients and a harbinger of brain damage, development delays and a broken immune system that no longer fights off fatal infections.
It is even worse in makeshift unofficial refugee sites in Kutupalong, one of two official government camps, where international media has reported an acute malnutrition rate of up to 27 percent.
"Everyone here cuts wood to live," said Abu Jamal, a Rohingya refugee living in Leda camp, a makeshift gathering on the outskirts of the official Nayapara refugee camp. "Many times you can’t finish the job because Bengalis will come and beat us and take our wood away."
(IRIN is a service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)