Cox’s Bazar – When a poor, rural farming community finds itself in the middle of the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world – doubling its population in just a few months – it’s not just the new arrivals who need support as food prices soar and infrastructure is overloaded.
Now a farming initiative, backed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and IOM, the UN Migration Agency and funded by the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), is bringing new opportunities and improving nutrition for families living on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
“I used to plough my land with a spade. This will make it much easier,” said Ayesha Begum, trying out the controls of a new mechanical power tiller. “I can grow more produce and sell some at market and use some myself. It will bring a little profit, but if people can buy things from me at a good price and live better, that will make me happy,” added the 35-year-old small-scale farmer.
Ayesha’s machine is one of dozens being given to 24 community agricultural associations in the Teknaf and Ukhiya sub-districts of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, as part of a USD 3 million programme to support agricultural livelihoods and forestry in the area.
As well as power tillers, farmers involved in the project are receiving seeds to produce high-nutrient vegetables, such as spinach and amaranth. They are also receiving high-efficiency water pumps and organic fertilizer to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals. Through the programme, 500 local farming families will be supported to improve their livelihoods and provide nutritious food to the Rohingya refugee community, where people are largely reliant on food rations and malnutrition is rife.
In the past six months, almost 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled violence in Myanmar. Since the influx began, local residents in the Cox’s Bazar area have struggled with significant challenges from overstretched infrastructure to major hikes in food prices. In August last year, bitter gourds cost around 30 Bangladesh taka (BDT) or USD 0.36 per kilogram and are now around BDT 50 (USD 0.60), according to local residents.
Vast swathes of formerly protected forest have been cleared as Rohingya refugees sought land on which to put up shelters and cut firewood for cooking. What was once home to plants and wildlife, including endangered Asian elephants, is now a makeshift city built on barren slopes. Locals, who formerly relied on the forests for additional food and income sources, can no longer do so.
“Not just agriculture, but education, health, and community infrastructure… are under tremendous pressure because of the influx,” said Mohammad Abul Kalam, Commissioner of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission in Cox’s Bazar. “Thanks to IOM and FAO, this [project] is aimed at compensating some of the losses suffered by farmers in Ukhiya and Teknaf,” he added.
“The initiative has three main aims: to provide high quality, nutritious food; increase income for local farmers; and improve the quality of life for everyone in this area. This is part of a five-year project with the agriculture and forestry departments, which will also include regeneration of the local forest,” said to Peter Agnew, FAO’s Emergency Response Coordinator in Cox’s Bazar.
“The goal is to enable local farmers to produce enough nutritious fruit and vegetables to be able to allow the World Food Programme to reduce its reliance on bringing food in from outside the region to feed the refugees,” said Agnew.
“The host community here in Cox’s Bazar has extended a very generous welcome to the refugees in their time of need. However, there is no doubt that the sudden and rapid arrival of almost 700,000 people in the past six months have added further pressure on the local population and infrastructure,” said Manuel Pereira, IOM Emergency Coordinator in Cox’s Bazar.
“Supporting host communities with projects such as this bring multiple benefits and forge positive interactions between them and the refugees. It allows local farmers to improve their livelihoods while developing sustainable ways to meet the vital nutritional needs of the refugee population,” he added.
Innovative local farmers such as Ayesha are already foreseeing additional benefits. She runs a small grocery store at her farm. “When people come to my store I think they will be interested in organic products. I will teach them about it,” said Ayesha.
She is also quick to dismiss gender stereotypes about women’s roles in agriculture: “No-one is born knowing things. We all just have to learn them when we’re growing up and it makes no difference if you’re male or female.”
For more information, please contact Manuel Pereira, IOM Bangladesh, Tel: +8801885946996, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org