Forest in peril

Publish: 10:07 PM, March 4, 2024 | Update: 10:07 PM, March 4, 2024

Pinky Akter : Bangladesh is losing its forestland faster driven by encroachment, deforestation and plundering of forest resources despite the country’s global commitment to end deforestation by 2030.

Another blow is being added to the already endangered forestland across the country is the development trespassing the greeneries. Various development projects have gobbled up a big chunk of the depleted forestland.

The flood control embankment development work at Kuakata of Patuakhali started on July 19, 2017 is such example for which thousands of large trees were felled from the protected forest threatening the biodiversity of the forest ecosystem. Now, locally influential people are now taking over the land cleared from the forest.

As a result, the green belt of the sea-lined coast which used to be a natural barrier against cyclone and tidal surge has suffered long-term damage. The original plan of the government has collapsed. The coastal people are now blaming the Forest Department for not being able to save the natural shield.

Former UP member Dulal Sikder, a resident of Mombipara in Kuakata, which is adjacent to the forest, said the trees along the coastal belt served as protection against the natural calamities saving the lives, livestock, homestead and crops. Now everything is exposed to natural catastrophe.

“Though we were assured that trees would be saved from the development work, we saw the clearing of trees at the end. We have informed the forest department, water development board and district administration about this matter, but in vain”, he said.

He alleges that forest department officials are responsible for deforestation.

Hemayet Fakir, a local and also a beneficiary of the forest said hundreds of acres of forest land have been destroyed while renovating the dam.

Kuakata Municipality Panel Mayor Shahid Dewan said that the sub-contractors have committed massive irregularities in the embankment renovation. Sand was collected by cutting down trees from forest.  Sand is used more than soil. In the middle of the night, the sand is lifted from the slope of the dam and only soil is coated on top through the dam. Locals stopped this work and complained to the municipal mayor. Later, the work was resumed with the intervention of the Executive Engineer of Paubo.

Denying the allegations, Patuakhali Coastal Forest Division’s Mohipur Range Officer Abul Kalam said that despite the manpower crisis, they are trying hard to protect the forest. 18 cases have been filed against forest offenders. They could not play an effective role in forest protection due to lack of administrative support.

However, after reporting the matter to the higher authorities, they have visited several times. Executive Engineer of Paubo Kalapara Circle Rakib Hossain said, there were several complaints in the construction of coastal flood control dam. Work is ongoing to resolve them. However, there is a provision to use 25 percent sand in the embankment. Regarding the use of forest soil in the dam, he said that soil has been bought and used in the dam. The water development board official said that it is not for them to know where the sub-contractors got the soil from.

Kalapara upazila executive officer Jahangir Hossain said that the forest department should be more alert to protect the forest. When he learnt this type of complain, the executive magistrate sent and some dump trucks and vehicles were seized. Some people involved in cutting forest land have been sentenced in mobile courts. However, on the question of ownership of forest land, he said, how they became the owner of forest land is being investigated.

Meanwhile, the Haringhata protected mangrove forest in Padma area of Patharghata upazila of Barguna, 15 families have cut trees and built new homesteads. Fish enclosures and agricultural land have been constructed.

Locals complain that influential land and forest robbers are doing these things with the connivance of some officials of the forest department.

Before that, in 2013, 35 families cut down the trees of that part of the forest and took possession of about 9 acres of land and started living there. That number has now grown to over a hundred. At that time, 12 cases were filed against the encroachers by the forest department, but no effective action has been taken regarding the eviction till date. At this opportunity, the families continued their occupation activities.

The Forest Department claims that due to lack of manpower, it is not possible to keep track all the time. The forest department has also said that when action was taken against the encroachers, they harassed the forest workers in various ways and filed false cases. When asked about bribing the forest department, Patharghata Haringhata beat officer Abdul Hai said, “It is completely false and baseless.” However, he said that quick action will be taken against the encroachers.

Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Md. Safiqul Islam said that the newly occupied land of the forest department has been recovered and a case has been filed against them under the Forest Act due to deforestation. This official also said that if any forest department officials are involved, legal action will be taken against them after investigation.

Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Affairs Saber Hossain Chowdhury said that 15.58 percent of the total area of the country has forest land. The amount of forest land controlled by the Forest Department is 10.74 percent. In order to increase the amount of forest land in the country, significant steps have been taken to recover the encroached forest land. Legal measures are being taken against forest land encroachment.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), around 1.4 percent of deforestation occurred worldwide during 2000-2015. In Bangladesh it is 2.6 percent. 2 thousand 600 hectares of forest are deforested in the country every year. According to the latest information of the Forest Department, the total forest area in the country is 46 lakh 46 thousand 700 acres. 1 lakh 60 thousand 566 people have encroached upon the forest land all over the country. They have 2 lakh 57 thousand 158 acres of forest land in their possession. Protected forest land has not been spared from the clutches of encroachment. Out of the total encroachers, 88 thousand 215 people are encroaching on reserved forest land. They have 1 lakh 38 thousand 613.06 acres of protected forest land under their control.

In the science journal Science of the Total Environment, its research report entitled ‘The Status and Future of Protected Forests in South Asia’ states that in 2011, almost all countries in the world, including Bangladesh, set targets for protected forests according to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Among these countries, South Asian countries are lagging behind in achieving the target. Among the countries in the region, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Maldives have less than 5 percent of protected forest.

Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), said that the forest department itself is involved in many processes of encroachment. She raised a question that how can two and a half lakh acres of forest land becomes vacant before the eyes of the forest department. How do so many industries run in the forest?