More than 700 thousand Rohingya people have taken refuge in Bangladesh since the violence began in Myanmar in August 2017. Fleeing with their lives, they have settled in temporary refugee sites in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Thousands of acres of forest land were transformed into red, barren earth within a few months to make way for numerous crammed, tiny makeshift tents where hundreds of thousands of people are now living under dire conditions. The largest site, Kutupalong-Balukhali, which shelters more than 600 thousand people – the biggest settlement in the world –lies along one of the main migratory routes of critically endangered Asian elephants, who travel between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Unfortunately, this area has seen many incidents involving human-elephant conflict, resulting in 13 deaths since last September 2017.
What happens when people uprooted from their land involuntarily encroach into other animals’ habitats? Is the displacement of humans different from displacement of animals? Do elephant lives matter to a human whose life is at stake? Do we want a future where there is no place for ‘others’, where ‘humanity’ is a word deemed unnecessary? And do we still choose not to see the elephant in the room?
I have collaborated with people from the camp through participatory art over the last few months. I have tried to create something with them, something that they can relate to, a bonding, a connection. We have built elephants with bamboo and used clothes which helped spread the message of co-existence and raise awareness on elephant conservation among the community. In exchange of new clothes, torn clothes were collected from the camps that were turned into patchwork quilts sewn by the community women that were then used to cover the elephants. This was a very different experience for me working with the Rohingya community day after day, getting to know them, making the elephants together and developing a unique friendship in the process. This installation is my attempt to weave art, community practices, migrant experiences, trauma, and hope in a “kantha” which embodies the struggles of the stateless, be it human or animal, all over the world.
I acknowledge the support I have received from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and IUCN for my work.
Art Innovation and resilience in humanitarian and conservation efforts in Cox’s Bazar
Country Representative, IUCN
Kutupalong-Balaukhali camp which now shelters more than 600,000 Rohingya people unfortunately lies along the only international corridor through which the elephants used to migrate between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The situation poses grave consequences for both the Rohingya and Elephants. A number of human-Elephant conflicts have occurred in and around the camp resulting in several human casualties since September 2017, Nearly 40 elephants which is about 15% of the total population of Bangladesh are now trapped in the western side of the Kutupalang- Balukhali camp and face an uncertain future unless any mitigation measures are taken. Asian elephant is a critically endangered species in Bangladesh.
IUCN is working with the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to minimize human- elephant conflict in and around areas sheltering displaced Rohingya and raise awareness about the importance of practicing the environment. We are training more than 500 Rohingya volunteers to prevent elephant attacks and help guard their communities, with the help of new elephant watch towers, to deter elephants to entering the populated areas. We invited Artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin to help us making our training and awareness Rohingya raising sessions more interactive through the language of art. By engaging with bamboos and discarded cloths, he reconnected with the nature, rejuvenated their minds by putting away the fear of elephant as an enemy, and reinstated the fact that we need co-existence with nature and elephants. The people now understand that the land where their shelters have been built was elephant habitat and that the mighty animals are still searching for the lands they roamed, which have now become a massive camp, and the need to treat elephants and others wildlife with respect. We also involved a group of puppeteers to work with the children which brought smiles and laughter while the children learned important lessons about the environment and conservation.
It is always a challenge to communicate complex science and policy in to compelling messages that will inspire people to take actions to conserve biodiversity. In the Kutupalong- Balukhali camp, the language of art helped us to bring positive psychosocial change and find sustainable solutions for both humanitarian and conservation crisis. The installation “The Elephant in the Room” highlights the challenging situation in Cox’s Bazar, as well the stories of change, innovation and resilience of the displaced community. We hope this work will help to draw national and international attention to the plight both of the Rohingya community and elephants, an inspire people to act favorably.