1st Permaculture For Refugees Design Course

January 26-February 10, 2019
Funding: Quaker Service Australia



Bangladesh is hosting 770,000 refugees from Myanmar who were expelled by their government and army. They have been living in southern Bangladesh around the Cox’s Bazar area for the last 18 months.

The impacts on the local people have been varied. At first there was compassion and support, then some resentment that the land was being destroyed by the refugee’s needs for firewood for cooking and warmth. Some Bangladeshi had harvested forest products as a source of livelihood.

Once the initial shock and arrival stage was passed but still requiring housing etc, refugees received considerable handouts in terms of food, buckets, water, nets and although the locals sound somewhat resentful when we talk to them, they are very aware that benefits are great for them. There is much building and other economic activity among local villages with blue UN tarps, buckets, school bags and there is even a market for selling UN and other handouts.

There is a new prosperity among formerly quiet bypassed villages. People are busy supplying materials for bamboo housing and preparing sites as people move from tents to bamboo and tarpaulin houses. People come from Dhaka to buy goods and take them back and sell them. Local roads are destroyed due to the volume of traffic and size of vehicles. Jobs have been created as builders, drivers, small businesses and so on. Chaos describes it well.

However this first period of ‘relief’ is coming to a close. Many NGO agencies are present from local to international. The Bangladesh government response has been to tighten up on all bureaucracy in terms of forms, documents, funds and activities. Many are moving into a ‘development’ phase as they realize that the Rohinga will be in Bangladesh for a long time. We hear that the Bangladesh government doesn’t want Rohinga learning Bangla language nor that the refugees receive any education. It was a long and fraught struggle to get our papers and approval to be in the country, to teach local people and to get permission to access the camps. Right up until two days before the second course it was not certain we would have permission. This is unusual and I have not met such difficulties anywhere else. As it is, the three of us, foreign trainers will probably only be allowed in for five days each – making trust and continuity very difficult.

Our Partner organization BASD

Bangladesh Association for Sustainable Development (BASD) is our local partner who also works with TEAR Australia and several other NGOs. They have a fine reputation for implementing, reporting and delivering successful projects. We have found them competent, helpful and wanting to learn.

The project design is for two courses:

  1. The host community Permaculture Design Course (PDC) consists of local farmers and also four BASD staff members who will be carrying the work forward at the end of the course. Local farmers are mainly young married women. The balance is strongly in favour of women. We began with 25 students and finished with 21. They will be monitored for the next six months.
  2. The refugee PDC is in Camp 19.

Place and content

Host Community PDC was held in a village. A tarp was put up with open sides, and a tarp placed on the floor. We had a white board, paper pens and views of ricefields and vegetable growing.

 It took time to accustom the class to learner centred methods, participation, energisers and active learning. They enjoyed the demonstrations and practicals.

The co
urse was strong in

  • Pest Management
  • Soils assessment
  • Plants and uses
  • Forests, their establishment and products
  • Design skills – site analysis and design
  • Kitchen gardens
  • Waste management
  • Food Forests
  • Ethical money
  • Ethics of permaculture
  • Disaster mitigation

More difficult to cover were: Invisible structures such as interest, right to land.

The challenges to holding the course were numerous:

  • We had to leave at 7.00 am and have breakfast on site because of the chaotic, noisy and difficult traffic and condition of the roads.
  • The classroom site was given by a widow whose old home was being demolished and also most of the trees on site. The noise and dust were considerable and distracting.
  • The mechanical harrow of the rice fields was extremely loud and made talking difficult.
  • The women’s children all came to visit and about 1/3 of the class had children under three years old with all that entails.
  • Women were constrained from being playful, noisy or moving very much as someone might tell the Mullah or their husbands.
  • Women came and went from the class due to responsibilities such as a person dying and they had to visit, or wash the body, or go to the doctor as they were pregnant, and so on.
  • About 25% of women were illiterate and we had to make sure they had access to all materials and knowledge.
  • For two days there was a Moslem mission with every mosque having visiting Mullahs who had very loud microphones and who shouted all day or read the Koran at full volume. It was tiring for the teachers.
  • Ruth Harvey, co-teacher, and I both were very ill for the first week with a gastric flu that entailed coughing all night and also vomiting.
  • The local water is very high in iron and tasted terrible and results in stomach problems. We don’t know how the locals manage or what their health status is, drinking it. We reverted to plastic bottled water.

The other issues are not worth mentioning.


We changed interpreters after week one when one became ill and that was good and seamless. We valued them both.

Nextdoor were fields of interplanted and inter-cropped vegetables which were beautifully grown. We had nothing to teach them about this work.

Altogether, although the ‘host’ community was village people and not those we anticipated from camp managers, to NGOs, the results will be long lasting. One young man teacher had already begun to redesign his Madrassa school/ Others are abandoning pesticides and moving to organic methods of farming and many want to replant trees and forests.


It was difficult but worthwhile and good connections were made with BASD and their staff.

The impact will be significant on the village and other villages that the students came from.

Good health, decent water and less noise and dust would have been very welcome.

It was more a course in survival of teachers….

Rowe Morrow
Cox’s Bazar
February 8, 2019
Permaculture for Refugees

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