Bringing Permaculture to Refugee Camps

by Ruth Harvey   

Featured image: Camp 6, Ukhiya, Bangladesh   

Over the past five years, I have become acquainted with the harsh reality of refugee camps and settlements, through visiting and working in various facilities in Nauru, Greece, Italy and Bangladesh. I was dismayed to see how powerless, depressed and aimless residents of the settlements were, and how their survival often depended on competing with each other to meet their basic needs. 

In this uncertain transition, these people struggle to manage a fragmented new community of uprooted families and individuals. Their lives interrupted, they are in survival mode, indifferent to their new environment.

Refugee camps are not designed for people care, let alone land care. They are built hastily to meet immediate needs and functions (water, food and shelter), and often in military style rows of tents in Roman grid pattern, as in the massive camps in Northern Africa and in Lebanon.

For camp residents and local communities, they are negative places – often overcrowded, in degraded environments, and dependent on controlled services. Built on powerlessness and disconnection, with poor infrastructure and sanitation, accumulated rubbish and open drains, camps can degenerate into shanty towns or squalid slums with internal conflicts. Flow-on effects include the spread of infectious diseases, fear and distrust.

Camps are managed from the top down; rarely are residents consulted. Ideally, they would make decisions together and share work and roles. Functional communities take time to grow, and refugee settlements are at the mercy of the political will of governments and camp managers. Non Government Organisations, International Non Government Organisations, and charities attempt to support and address different aspects of life in camps, but community development is usually constrained by a host country’s resistance to integration, after all “they are just passing through”.

In 2016 at the European Permaculture Convergence in Italy, I met with a group of permaculturists with the same concerns. Together we envisioned the value of building community through growing food and integrated camp design. We were convinced that with the right inputs, camps could become communities of cooperative, relatively self-reliant neighbourhoods, and inhabitants equipped with increased social and agricultural skills and knowledge. 

We decided to develop and write up this vision, and work towards a new model for refugee settlements.

Permaculture for refugees: linking refuge with education and land regeneration

In 2019, Permaculture for Refugees (P4R), a small group of permaculture educators, acted on our shared vision to bring permaculture design and understanding into refugee camps.

A project, led by Rowe Morrow, was designed to learn first-hand the challenges and possible value of permaculture in camps, and to add to our bank of experience. Together we undertook to run Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) courses: to teach permaculture principles and strategies, from harvesting water and waste recycling to alternative economies and group decision-making. These invaluable skills and knowledge are applicable anywhere: in the camp, at home should they return, or to support their integration into host communities.

Permaculture introduces a holistic perspective that includes how to read and understand the landscape and microclimates, capture water and nutrients, and ultimately improve productivity. Based upon a practical and philosophical framework for regenerative farming practices, permaculture design involves systems thinking, working with nature, valuing diversity, margins, skill sharing and small slow solutions. Permaculture relies on deep observation and lateral thinking, applying a key principle: the problem is the solution (i.e. look at it from another angle).

Permaculture methods facilitate and empower people with practical and positive connections to the land. It introduces design principles and strategies which provide immediate solutions for short-term survival, while also being framed for ongoing land rehabilitation, and fostering social cooperation.

In practical terms this means, refugees learn to:

  • analyse their sites
  • use zones to locate energy, resources, access and to reduce work 
  • plan for shade and shelter, water harvesting and recycling, waste management 
  • identify the needs of the group and audit their own skill sets 
  • run regular meetings and low-tech workshops
  • create community spaces, and create an internal economy.

The learning process has constructive and creative group activities and always includes fun and celebration. Planting gardens, putting roots down and growing food help anchor people and bring them into the present. Spending time learning eases the insecurity of displacement and an uncertain future. 

The project, funded by Quakers in Australia, was an experiment to test whether teaching in camps was possible and whether the benefits we hoped for were there. P4R ran five Permaculture Design Certificate courses in camps and settlements in Bangladesh, Turkey and Greece over five months.

The first courses: for Bangladeshi villagers and Rohingya refugees

Refugee camps in Bangladesh have been growing since 2017 when the Rohingya people were expelled from Myanmar, and 700,000 refugees fled to Bangladesh. 

The “Rohingya refugee crisis is among the largest, fastest movements of people in recent history. The Rohingya, a mostly-Muslim minority ethnic group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, are escaping what the United Nations has described as genocidal violence that follows decades of persecution and human rights abuses.”

Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh is the world’s largest refugee camp. With the sudden inundation of hundreds of thousands of refugees, 8,000 acres of forested area, formerly the home-ground and migration route for Asian elephants, were cut for building materials and firewood. Today over a million Rohingya refugees live there, in overcrowded camps on degraded hillsides and river flats. They are traumatised and trapped in a kind of purposeless limbo.

Kutupalong refugee camp housing
Preparing bamboo for building

The influx of refugees and establishment of camps have been a mixed blessing for the locals and poor farmers: straining natural resources, decimating forest and rivers for building materials, but also bringing infrastructure, new markets and funds through humanitarian agencies. We realised a need to work with both local farmers and refugees in the camps.

Bangladesh Association for Sustainable Development (BASD), directed by Boniface Gomes, worked with us through the slow and complicated process of obtaining permissions and visas. Finally, we were able to run two courses in two locations south of Cox’s Bazar:

  1. Ukhiya, a small rural village of local Bangladeshi villagers
  2. Camp 19, walking distance from the village, with Rohingya refugees.

Both local villagers and camp refugees had farming backgrounds. The villagers had been introduced to polycropping by BASD, and wanted to learn more to increase their yields.

Polycropping increases yields

With limited food sources and no work, the refugees had already started vegetable gardens to add fresh and diverse food to their diets. For both groups, the challenges of establishing small-scale food production had proved to be difficult – with very little available land, poor soil, few resources, almost no infrastructure, and seasonal flooding. 

No one had really seen good soil. Soil in this part of the world is yellow clay. Building soil with organic matter was foreign to them, existing practices included burning and burying compostable materials. 

Most had a good understanding of water movement and management, evident in their effective traditional irrigation using channels and using berms.

Yellow clay soil typical of Ukhiya, Bangladesh
  1. Ukhiya village 
Village compound
Local madrasa (religious school)

Classes were held in the open air with a tarpaulin roof next to a construction site; this meant intrusive noise and dust, trees being felled around us, and shrinking classroom space. In spite of this, the farmers (mostly veiled women accompanied by young children) responded well to their first formal educational experience, and new sustainable practices and permaculture thinking. They were pleased to be reconnected to some traditional practices, and excited when asked to recall rainforest trees and vines, and their multiple uses.

Morning circle
Women drawing their homes
Working collaboratively on design elements and zones
  1. Rohingya Camp 19

The second course was marked by an avid appetite for new relevant learning. 

The course in the camp was surprisingly well received. Very enthusiastic participants, mostly young men, already bonded through community orientation and a natural affinity for the land. This provided a strong basis for learning new knowledge and practices, which they applied to the camp environment – to read the land sensitively, create connections, manage water and green their living environment.

The Rohingya refugees were particularly taken with zone 4. They could name all their trees and the multiple uses from the harvest products. They were not only excited to list all they knew i.e. ethnobotany, but they wanted to plant back the forests that had had to be destroyed for them to live when they came to Bangladesh. Traditionally, it was important when one old Rohingya man showed us the way they taught children a song and dance for planting grain correctly. The local village farmers had learned interplanting and intercropping from BASD and were proud to show us around.

It was compelling to see how quickly Rohingya had adapted to dense living conditions and meagre rations. They readily absorbed the course for new perspectives and hope for their tough lives and unpredictable futures.

Teaching contours

Both courses benefited the trainee Bengali teachers from BASD who were also exposed to a broader view of permaculture and dynamic class culture.

BASD teacher summarising the lesson in song

For me, it was an unforgettable experience of a crowded and degraded landscape, contrasted with the generous vitality and dedication of BASD, and the resilience and aptitude for learning permaculture in these groups, and the clear difference permaculture could make to their daily lives. The whole experience was challenging and informative and absolutely worthwhile.

The Rohingyas were so ready to learn

Propagation lesson: garlic

The beginnings of greening the camp
Greening and cooling the camp with gourd vines

Amir’s story

I am Amir Ali (35 years), living in Cox’s Bazar Rohingya Camp 19 since August, 2017. Before starting this Camp life, I was growing up in a very respected family in Myanmar with parents, 7 brothers and 8 sisters. Although our family was large… we were living happily, there was no tension for food, clothing and necessities.

I worked a few years in Malaysia before coming to Bangladesh, so our family was very happy and respected. When we came to Bangladesh, all family members could not come at one time, they came at different times and enrolled in 3 different camps and locations in Cox’s Bazar.

In 2018, luckily I was listed by BASD Staff for Permaculture Followup project. Then me and another 25 Refugees received 14 days PDC by Rosemary Morrow. In the training session I was very attentive and keen to learn more and more, so I was named as a creative man. Then I was selected as a Community Volunteer of BASD in Camp 19. I tried to educate the refugee youths, men and women wholeheartedly all that I learned from the PDC and Rosemary. I also started a small Permaculture garden near my home, beside the tent.

As a Community Volunteer (CV), I guided 15 other CVs in Camp 19. These CVs were working among 1,500 families in that Camp and helping them with permaculture gardening, waste management, composting, planting home based medicinal plants in pots or hanging containers. Gradually Camp 19 transformed into a mini Permaculture Farm. I feel and understand that the PDC changed my life and lifestyle, and gave me an aim and destination in my life.

I began educating my neighbour families after the PDC, which I never did at Myanmar. I was thinking of developing a little bigger permaculture garden. I was searching for land among the neighbouring Bengali families. I got a lease of 120 decimal lands from a family. I then invited 5 refugee youths who got PDC and jointly started gardening. We are now cultivating many varieties of seasonal vegetables around the year. We are eating vegetables from the garden, distributing to the communities and selling the surplus in the market. Many are coming now to visit our garden for learning and visiting. We are really very happy to be proudly producing, it gives us happiness and peace in our mind, it gives us respect in society. We wish to teach more Refugee youths, men and women, and include children in our Camp and other Camps in the future. Thanks for the great assistance and cooperation from BASD and education from Rosemary didi, Ruth didi and Jed bhai.   

Transcribed by Boniface S. Gomes, BASD

Amir in class
Amir in his garden
Improvised materials to teach zoning
Patterns and sectors lesson
More improvised teaching materials


Every participant from both courses had to teach 20-25 other people after the course. Within a short time the results of the teaching were evident throughout the camp neighbourhoods and nearby villages. BASD carried out conscientious monitoring of the results. They were able to report 1500 refugees were practicing permaculture techniques and strategies for growing food, in the tiny and formerly unfavourable spaces in the camp.   

Presenting the final design

Through our project we learned about many things:

Teachers learned about the value of teaching actively and with appropriate materials, to focus on visual and actual rather than words which could be lost in translation.

Hosts learned how to best support the teachers and activate communities through dynamic teaching methods. They also deepened their understanding of ecology, diversity and wholistic permaculture strategies.

Refugees learned how to optimise their situation, to design to need, to manage water, and build soil. They experienced the permaculture ethics of people care, earth care and fair share, and it brought them purpose and hope.

P4R continues to disseminate permaculture knowledge widely, and to not only teach displaced people but to develop the model where those taught can teach others in camps and local organisations. P4R has run courses in Italy, Bulgaria, India, Philippines and Malaysia, and now are more than ever convinced that this learning helps refugees regain self-reliance, dignity, well-being, and overall resilience.

Imece, in Turkey 


The world has changed with Covid 19 and international travel is on hold. Face-to-face teaching has stopped and teaching online is being developed widely as an alternative. Refugees in camps are all the more isolated, and with even greater need for accurate useful information.  

We are very disappointed to stop work. We were on the brink of offering permaculture teacher training to the first refugees, and also had more PDCs scheduled.

We are, however, motivated to continue teaching with new and experimental media, because the results are so valuable for regeneration of lives, communities and the land.

Online teaching does add a further challenge for P4R teachers who rely so much on the dynamic energy of groups for cohesion of the class culture, as well as ongoing connections between people and the land. Peer teaching and ease of interpreting are lost through computer learning.

Online video and materials that are economical in their use of data, and apps, like Whatsapp, are increasingly being used by refugees.

Apart from online mentoring where internet is available, P4R is turning its focus to creating hard copy materials, such as posters and infographics, which can be utilised freely by local NGOs in camps where there is no internet and computer facilities.    

Homebased green vegetable crop