In February 2019 Permafund team member, Jed Walker, travelled to South East Bangladesh, to join Rowe Morrow and Ruth Harvey for their second PDC (the first was for local residents). Quaker Service Australia, working with the Bangladesh Association for Sustainable Development (BASD), financially supported the courses. Jed joined the course at Camp 19 in Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp, hastily built in the jungle where elephants recently roamed.
BASD, longtime advocates of permaculture in Bangladesh, provided generous and comprehensive hospitality, logistics, camp liaison and translation services for the Australian visitors.
Driven from Myanmar and fleeing for their lives into Bangladesh about 1 million Muslim Rohingya have found themselves living in limbo in Cox’s Bazaar, now one of the largest refugee camps in the world.
Before fleeing Myanmar, the Rohingya were farming, living in villages or ethnic ghettos (internment camps) in the towns. The Bangladeshi government have welcomed the refugees, but the arrangement is temporary. There are still reports of violence occurring for those who try to return to Myanmar.
The bamboo and tarp classroom was located on the edge of the camp, overlooking rice paddies and brick works belching smoke. Among the 21 PDC trainees about half were young men plus some young women, older women and male farmers.
During the course Ruth, Jed & Rowe were also mentoring BASD staff to teach the course themselves and thence train the Rohingya students to teach other camp residents. The plan is for 15 of the class graduates to educate a further 100 families in permaculture.
“The class went well as the Bangladesh dialect in the nearby Chittagong region is similar to the Rohingya language. This helped a lot with translation. All students were remarkably positive considering their recent past.” said Jed.
At one stage the oldest man sang a lament about the loss of his land and people. Jed felt the older people had a sadness over them while the younger ones were as bright and cheery as elsewhere, maybe more so.
The teaching team heavily contextualised the course toward local conditions and knowledge. Working among very experienced farmers and forest dwellers the teachers stopped counting when their list of uses of various trees exceeded 50 (most groups run out at around 20).
Some students did a design for the teaching site which already included gardens and a food forest but also bare ground with no topsoil and little water management. Other students did a plan for about a hectare of the camp itself. There is really no room for on the ground gardening around the average camp hut so the strategies for growing food included making gardens in whatever was at hand – sacks, pots, boxes, water bottles or whatever plus hanging gardens were made from coconuts, gourds and plastic bottles filled with plants to hang from eaves.
Jed had brought a bag of mung beans and introduced the idea of eating fresh bean sprouts. The adults were sceptical at first but followed the lead of their adventurous children.
Pumpkin vines were grown on roofs to also give shade. Average maximum temperatures there are within 3 degrees of 30 Celsius all year, with very high humidity in summer.
The housing was Incredibly dense as it’s for a million people in few square kilometres. More than 120,000 babies had been added to the camp’s population in the past year, Jed was told.
“Despite the challenging conditions in the camps with overcrowding and scarce resources, residents in the camps maintain their houses and shops with pride and signs of resilience are evident everywhere” said Jed.
Most huts are plastic with a lattice of bamboo, vulnerable in monsoon rains and cyclone conditions. There are no gutters, so catching rainwater is not practical. The groundwater, delivered by hand pumps, contains iron at toxic levels.
The course included disaster management with cyclones being the main concern reported by the group. They were reluctant to even speak of the circumstances surrounding their flight from Myanmar. “The students enjoyed having something else to think about and asked the old man to stop singing his sad songs” said Jed.
Despite the bleak conditions in the camp the PDC class itself lifted the spirits, with students soaking up the knowledge and making plans for every nook and cranny of the camp. Camp 19 has 50,000 people and there are plans being hatched to exponentially peer-educate every one of them.
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