By: Kaamil Ahmed, Mongabay

Looking out from the high-ground in the middle of Kutupalong, in Cox’s Bazar on the coast of Bangladesh near the Myanmar, two sights fill the eyes: Myanmar’s green hills silhouetted in the east and dehydrated, denuded mounds pocked by the blue-black tarpaulin sheets of makeshift shelters everywhere else.

That jarring contrast in Bangladesh’s landscape is new. It’s an indirect consequence of brutal military operations in Myanmar that forced 650,000 Rohingya refugees into the country, the majority since August 2017. Most of their journeys have involved witnessing horrendous atrocities, flight from burning villages, and then stumbling through forests or battling monsoon-charged waters in search of safety.

Along the way they pitched camp wherever they found space and turned to the local forest for everything from shelter to fuel. Satellite images show a clear difference in forest cover between October 2016 and November 2017 that looks similar to the aftermath of clear cutting. They continue to rely on the forest in Bangladesh.

As the refugees have poured in through various points along the border, the Bangladeshi military tried to round them up around the existing Kutupalong and Balukhali settlements – in such numbers that they merged into the world’s largest refugee camp.

The weight and rate of that influx has created an additional environmental crisis in Bangladesh’s sensitive border district, stripping away 1,650 hectares of forest land, according to numbers from an internal Bangladesh forestry department report shared with Mongabay. Crucial groundwater supplies have also been depleted and contaminated, according to the World Health Organization.

It is a crisis borne of chaos that has not only tipped a delicate balance on Bangladesh’s water-scarce and cyclone-prone southeastern tip but also accentuates the humanitarian challenges for both refugees and an overwhelmed local population.

There are now almost 1 million refugees, including those from previous influxes, living in an area hit by cyclones in each of the previous three years and where, in the worst parts, refugees say they have to live on two pots of water a day.

“It was like a jungle, all of this. There were trees and fruit plantations,” said Rehana Begum, a local Bangladeshi whose home now lies in the middle of the mega-camp. “Now there are so many homes here but they only appeared over the last two or three months.”

Those homes are simply tarpaulin sheets fastened to bamboo poles and pinned into patches of earth the refugees hacked from the hills.  From inside the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp, the lines of those tents and hills they cling to are impossible to see past – a sea of dust and plastic that repeats into the horizon, scarcely a tree in sight. Satellite imagery provides a startling overview of those 1.5 square miles (4 square kilometers): from August 2017 onward, Kutupalong’s brown mass creeps steadily outward, eating farther into the government Teknaf Game Reserve that surrounds it until it joins with the smaller Balukhali camp to the south.

“From the late seventies, whenever the Rohingya people came to Bangladesh, they settled down in Teknaf and Ukhia areas and basically in forest land, as there is no [other] available space in those areas,” said Ali Kabir, the Bangladeshi forestry department’s officer for Cox’s Bazaar South, the district the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp falls under.

A group of Rohingya men take a break on the long route home from collecting firewood from Bangladeshi forests. Photo by Kaamil Ahmed/Mongabay.

While the Muslim minority from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state have previously fled to Bangladesh in the tens of thousands after operations by the Burmese military in 1978, 1991 and with increasing frequency over the past 10 years, the most recent influx, and corresponding changes, has been far more intense.

“They are cutting down the hills, they’re chopping all the trees, herbs, shrubs then erecting their shelters. As a result, the topography of that area has been greatly damaged,” Kabir said.

The view by satellite also shows a not-quite-browned but visibly thinning ring of green around the camps, especially to the west.

Increasing needs

It is from the west that every day, all day, a constant stream of Rohingya men, as well as some women and children, are found wading through puddles, bowed under the loads of firewood each has to go hunting for several times a week. Eight hundred tonnes of fuel wood are now needed daily, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The sheer weight of that demand created by the refugees in just the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp’s surroundings – and more spread through other camps –  has forced the forests to rapidly recede. That doesn’t include the thousands of babies who will be born in coming months.

The camp’s overwhelming brownness does gradually give way to more greenery on foot-beaten paths that lead away from it, but mile upon mile of vestigial tree stumps and scythed-down shrubbery offer no more than a hint of how far the forest has retreated. What had been a 6-mile round trip when the newest Rohingya refugees first arrived has doubled into 12 miles with entire days spent walking and cutting trees.

A Rohingya boy chopping wood from tree stump he freed from soil near Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp on Bangladesh. Photo by Kaamil Ahmed/Mongabay.

The route winds on and on, offering no shade from the Bangladeshi dry season’s unfiltered sun. Everywhere there is either someone carrying loads or sat down by the side on one of the numerous breaks they have to take. Barefoot, both men and women wrap themselves in simple pieces of cloth, known as lungis, paired with a vest or blouse and no protection from the elements. Few carry water and some even drink from muddied puddles created a few days earlier by unexpected rains.

“I don’t know how to count the miles I’m walking but I start very early in the morning and get to the forest by about 10 o’clock,” said Ayub Ali, who fled Maungdaw township in Myanmar in September. He spends an hour hacking away at the trees with his machete, the universal tool of Rohingya and Bangladeshi villagers, before ambling his way home, resting regularly by leaning against a stack of branches taller than himself.

Now in his 60s, Ali has never before had to actually collect wood but now makes the arduous journey two or three times a week. Few of the refugees recall ever having to do such work in Myanmar, where they would simply buy wood or gas from local suppliers.

With the search for firewood becoming more strenuous and many worried about what they will do when the impending cyclone season adds extra challenges and strains, some Rohingya appear to be stockpiling the treasured commodity. While most houses have branches drying out on their roofs, some have stacks taking up whole corners of their homes.

Around 1,000 football fields worth of timber would be needed to supply the refugees for a single year, according to Graham Eastmond, who co-ordinates the shelter sector for the international humanitarian response.

A Rohingya boy chopping wood from tree stump he freed from soil near Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp on Bangladesh as another walks past with a load of wood. Photo by Kaamil Ahmed/Mongabay.

Many out collecting firewood are children, some with adults but others sent along with siblings and friends by parents who also have to make sure they are in the camps to collect their aid supplies – which usually offer no alternative fuel for cooking on.

Not everyone is able to walk the whole way, especially some of the youngest children. Instead, they can be found along the route, or even in the camp itself, hacking at the ground to free left behind tree stumps or pulling at wiry roots – a task almost as tedious as the longer journey because of how little fuel they can scavenge.

A lot of that fuel also poses health risks for the refugees as it produces more smoke that becomes trapped in their confined living spaces.

“When they’re cooking green fuel, they’re going to get sicker a lot faster; eye infections, respiratory infections,” said an environmental consultant involved in the emergency response, who could not be named as he was not cleared to speak to media. “It’s just really unhealthy to be cooking green wood and its worse for the forest too because if you’re cooking green wood, it means you’re cooking on the last of it.”