Urban Farming: Supporting Rohingya Refugees’ Self-Sufficiency in Camps

Urban farming, including composting, food preservation, and waste management, has the potential to improve the lives of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh camps. The Richardson Center for Global Engagement is helping Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar with an innovative program that uses creative partnerships between business owners, social entrepreneurs, UN agencies, and NGOs, to facilitate the development and deployment of urban farming skills with the goal of making daily life in the camps healthier and more sustainable. With the establishment of best practices in this area, Rohingya refugees can become more self-sufficient, generate income, diversify their diets, and improve their health.

In August 2017, Rohingya poured over the border from their homeland in Myanmar to Bangladesh, fleeing a brutal campaign of violence perpetrated by the Myanmar military. Within just a few months, more than 750,000 Rohingya arrived in cramped and chaotic camps in Cox’s Bazar, one of Bangladesh’s poorest districts. Barred from working legally in Bangladesh and with their movement restricted, Rohingya are still almost entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance provided by Bangladesh and the international community.

While most Rohingya would like to return home to Myanmar, Myanmar has not done anything to suggest that it can provide the Rohingya with safety or guarantee their fundamental rights; with 80% of refugees around the world displaced for at least five years and 20% displaced for 20 years or more, Rohingya are likely to remain in Bangladesh longer than they want. Moreover, the international community is unlikely to continue to fund the humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar to the tune of nearly US$1 billion per year.

It is critical, therefore, to develop a response that is more sustainable, more responsive to Rohingya needs, and which enables Rohingya to better provide for themselves and generate income.

Among one of the most persistent concerns is the lack of livelihood opportunities available to Rohingya and the impact this has on their ability to meet basic health needs and to ensure a diverse diet and adequate levels of nutrition. While farming is an obvious solution to addressing these challenges, especially because many Rohingya were farmers in Myanmar, the space available in the camps is extremely limited and not suitable to traditional farming methods. UN agencies and NGOs are pilot testing canopy farming projects which draw on urban farming techniques, but often do not have the technical expertise necessary to implement in a sustainable and effective manner.

Urban Farming Comes to Refugee Camps

So in December 2019, as part of a delegation of business leaders and social entrepreneurs exploring opportunities to bring positive and sustainable impact to the Rohingya through innovative yet pragmatic solutions, The Richardson Center gathered participants with expertise in urban farming, including composting, waste management, and food preservation.

When visiting composting, canopy farming, and waste management project sites in Cox’s Bazar, it quickly became clear that even small tweaks to these programs could create an ecosystem that improves the effectiveness and sustainability of these efforts, generating income for Rohingya that will enable better health outcomes and a more diverse diet.

Establishing simple waste management and composting systems, for example, will help to improve yields from canopy farming, while basic food preservation techniques will enable Rohingya to maintain a more diverse and nutritious diet through the dry season.

Working in collaboration with UN agencies and NGOs, The Richardson Center is now facilitating the development of simple guides that feature best practices in urban and canopy farming, composting and waste management, food preservation and recycling. Though initially produced in English and disseminated through the UN agencies and NGOs that have the best reach to scale these initiatives, these guides could eventually be translated into the Rohingya language and Burmese and accompanied by video tutorials.

Steve Ross
Senior Advisor and Program Director
Richardson Center for Global Engagement