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Issue #1551      13 June 2012

Domestic solution for thousands of climate-displaced Bangladeshis

Much of the world knows little about Bangladesh other than threatened coups, George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, the annual monsoonal floods and perhaps, the Grameen Bank, changing lives one microcredit loan at a time. But it should also be known that this country’s grassroots groups, like the Association for Climate Refugees and Young Power in Social Action, among others, are quickly becoming the vanguard leaders in solving the growing challenge of re-homing Bangladeshis affected by climate displacement.

Backed by seed funding from Switzerland and Sweden, a local network of Bangladeshi civil society organisations including Association for Climate Refugees and Young Power in Social Action have focused efforts on acquiring viable land for resettlement as a key means of solving climate displacement caused by sea-level rise, tropical cyclones, riverbank erosion and flooding across the country. Under the rallying cry of “new land for lost land, new homes for lost homes”, this people-led movement is one of the world’s first efforts to fix what climatic events have destroyed.

These efforts, though only at a embryonic stage, are in stark contrast to the efforts of many international agencies, NGOs and commentators who are content to describe and debate the parameters of the climate displacement crisis, but are far less willing or able to propose – let alone implement – actual, concrete solutions for people displaced by climatic events.

This resistance may in part be due to the notorious difficulty in proving the precise links between climate change, natural hazards and displacement. However, in Bangladesh this need not be an excuse for inaction. It is well documented that the regular natural hazards that besiege the country have led to considerable displacement. It is also well documented that all of these natural hazards are expected to increase in both frequency and severity as a result of climate change leading to the almost inevitable displacement of many millions more across the country.

In January 2012, the people-led “new land” initiative acquired the latest in a series of pledged land parcels that will be used to provide climate-displaced communities with a new start. To date, more than 3,500 acres of private land have been pledged to help solve the nation’s displacement crisis. All of the land offered to date has been given free of charge by Bangladeshi citizens concerned by the plight of the climate displaced and convinced that their contribution can make a difference to many lives. The land pledged so far will allow more than 16,000 climate displaced people the opportunity to move from vulnerable and exposed coastal and river basin areas to more than 20 sheltered and safe land plots across the country.

In recent weeks, the donation of a 52 acre plot in Fuluar Char was confirmed and the process of transforming legal title to climate displaced communities was begun. The next step is for this initiative to turn this plot of land into a community land trust, to ensure that the site remains in ownership of climate displaced persons in perpetuity. Construction has begun at the site with houses, water wells and latrines; the first steps towards a genuine and durable solution for the many climate affected individuals and families across the country.

The government of Bangladesh, rather than focusing on domestic solutions, is looking outward and is increasingly demanding that the countries responsible for climate change have an obligation to accept climate-displaced people as “climate refugees”. But this approach is premature and could backfire as potential host countries, already too reluctant to accept refugees fleeing conflicts and human rights abuses, feel forced into a reactive, defensive posture leading to closed borders.

Climate-vulnerable countries must focus their engagement on how the international community can assist with domestic solutions and only rely on international resettlement solutions when domestic ones are no longer tenable.

Community-led efforts to acquire new land to fix climate displacement like those in Bangladesh demonstrate that domestic solutions are not only possible but that they may also be more likely to be rights-based, effective and durable.

Early successes like these should be studied as one viable way to protect the housing, land and property rights of climate displaced people across the globe. Waiting until 2020 for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to stop global warming by limiting global carbon emissions is not good enough for the millions already living in displaced misery because of climate change.

For the moment at least, taking guidance from people’s efforts in Bangladesh as climate carnage increasingly takes hold may be the best form of inspiration for solving the emerging crisis of climate displacement the world over.

New Internationalist  

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