KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh – A 60-year-old Rohingya woman set off Tuesday morning for an hours-long journey to collect firewood in a forest near the refugee camp where she lives only to return in the evening to prepare the solitary meal of the day.
The need for cooking fuel has forced many Rohingyas in camps in Bangladesh to gather wood from local forests despite the risks it entails for them and the environment.
Several people can be seen carrying loads of wood on their backs at the Kutupalong camp, near the western border of Myanmar, the country from where the refugees fled.
They have made their way back to the camp after hours of walking through nearby forests to collect wood to cook the little food they have thanks to humanitarian aid but which is of no use without the fuel to cook it.
Firewood is not available here like it is at other distribution centers of the camp which forces people to get it directly from the forest.
However, such trips to the forest, which could be several kilometers long, are not without their perils.
According to surveys done by the United Nations, what people fear most during such trips is attacks by animals including elephants, who roam the area.
A local government official in agricultural affairs, Abutajer Mahmud, attests to the constant felling of trees in this part of the Cox’s Bazar district.
Although some people have received more energy-efficient stoves that use less fuel (most of them are homemade) they are “still not enough,” says Mahmud.
Firewood represents the main source of fuel for nine out of ten of these refugee households.
The scarcity of firewood, its high price in the market and the latest mass arrivals of members of the Rohingya Muslim minority have complicated the purchase of the product and given rise to deforestation.
Around 655,000 Rohingyas have arrived in Bangladesh since Aug. 25, when the Myanmar army launched a campaign, described by human rights organizations as “ethnic cleansing,” in response to attacks by a local insurgent group.
For this extremely vulnerable community that Myanmar refuses to recognize as citizens, the Bangladeshi government has earmarked more than 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) in Kutupalong and has ordered the resettlement of those occupying certain lands.
The empty spaces, now bare of vegetation and with soil in a degraded state, reflect another of the consequences of this crisis: its high environmental costs.
It is estimated that every day a forest area equivalent to five football fields is lost in that part of Bangladesh, susceptible to climate change and whose forests are a resource to be protected.
However, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization coordinator of emergencies, Peter Agnew, says the fuel problem must be resolved before reforestation is undertaken.
Agnew explains that energy was not included in the distribution plan of any of the agencies involved in the humanitarian response which is why the UN is trying to coordinate all the agencies interested in providing fuel or efficient stoves.
For the time being, alternatives to firewood are being sought, such as liquefied petroleum gas, kerosene or a fuel obtained from rice, though each its own limitations.