09/08/2018, 06.23
BANGLADESH – MYANMAR
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Caritas helping Rohingya to stop deforestation in Cox's Bazar

by Sumon Corraya

Refugees have been taking wood from local forests to build shelters and use as firewood.  In the Ukhia and Teknaf camps, about 2,250 tonnes are burnt every day. Five thousand acres of forest have now become barren. Since June, Caritas volunteers have handed out plants, vegetable seeds and various kinds of seedlings. The International Criminal Court wants to put Myanmar on trial.

Cox's Bazaar (AsiaNews) – Caritas Bangladesh plans to replace trees cut down to build shelters for Rohingya with different types of grasses, vegetables and seedlings to save the hill region from deforestation

About a million Rohingya fled Rakhine State and the violence of the Myanmar military and found refuge on the hills around Cox's Bazar, on the other side of the border. Local and international relief organisations have provided them with plastic material to build shelters.

At the beginning however, many refugees went into nearby forests to get wood. This has led to the clearing of the forested hillsides. A case in point is that of the Rohingya families living in the refugee camps of Ukhia and Teknaf who burn about 2,250 tons of firewood every day just for cooking. According to Coast Trust, a local NGO, "at this rate, the local forests could disappear by 2019".

A year ago, Ukhya and Teknaf were green hills, but following the arrival of the Rohingya, five thousand acres of land was cleared. Areas previously inhabited by wild elephants are now barren. The luxuriant, green and hilly landscape quickly turned into flattened expanses of red earth, covered with tarp tents as far as the eye can see.

Since last June, the main charity organisation of the Catholic Church has been working on some remedies. "We are working in Cox's Bazar to prevent a natural disaster,” said James Gomes, regional director of Caritas Chattogram, speaking to AsiaNews.

“Local authorities have told us to save the environment where the Rohingya live. For this reason, we are planting different types of grasses, vegetables and plants". The volunteers will also take care of their maintenance.

"We have also launched another environmental protection project: we are distributing cooking gas cylinders to refugees so that they do not cut down trees anymore," Gomes added.

“At Cox's Bazar, five thousand acres of forest have already been destroyed,” said environmentalist Dipok Shorma. Refugees “continue to remove clumps of earth for their homes. All this must stop now.”

Caritas volunteers handed out seedlings to 15,000 families with another 27,000 to follow. In all, more than 5 million seedlings have been planted in the hills and another three million are coming: guava, lemon, mango, mahogany trees.

Caritas has also distributed seeds for vegetables and home gardening. James Gomes hopes that "within a year we will see very positive results from our efforts".

Whilst the humanitarian emergency in Bangladesh continues, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague ruled that it has jurisdiction over the alleged Rohingya deportation case and that the latter constitutes a possible crime against humanity. The court’s decision paves the way for the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to examine whether there is sufficient evidence to file charges against Myanmar.

Although Myanmar is not a member state of the ICC, Bangladesh is. For this reason, deportation to its side of the border is sufficient to confer the jurisdiction of the case to the ICC.

According to experts, following this ruling, the prosecutor "has no choice but to file a request" to open a preliminary inquiry. Myanmar denies committing atrocities against the Rohingya, claiming instead that its soldiers carried out justifiable actions against Islamist militants.

Myanmar authorities have so far stated that they do not intend to cooperate with the ICC. However, hey are prepared to repatriate refugees, as agreed with Bangladesh. For their part, the Rohingya do not trust the government and their return does not seem imminent.

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