The Lawachhara National Park in Moulvibazar faces further shrinkage as the Bangladesh Railway wants to cut down more than 25,000 trees to ensure safety of train passengers.
The railway authorities' appeal came following disruptions in train services in the last two years, caused by fallen trees on the railway lines that run through the forest.
They have sought permission from the forest department in this regard.
However, environmentalists noted that the biodiversity of the reserve forest must be protected and suggested moving the lines from the forest area, instead of cutting down the trees, to ensure passengers' safety.
According to Wildlife Management and Nature Conservation Department, a letter signed by Bangladesh Railway's Divisional Engineer-II Arman Hossain was sent to the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) (wildlife) on April 9. The letter said that during storms and rain, trees fall on the 5km line of the Dhaka-Sylhet rail route that goes through the forest.
The letter referred to the last year's April 21 storm which caused around 35 trees to fall on the train lines, disrupting communication.
It also cited another storm on April 7 this year when some trees collapsed and fell on the Dhaka-bound Upaban Express at Magurchhara of the forest.
The headlights of the Upaban Express broke in the incident, the letter mentioned.
Citing these incidents, the railway authorities urged the forest department to cut trees within 50 feet on both sides of the line.
They also made a similar attempt with a 9km rail line of the Rashidpur-Satgaon route that goes through the forest as well.
The railway department in the letter said that if the trees were not felled, steps would be taken under section 128 of the Railways Act, 1890, in case another accident happened.
In reply to the railway department's letter, Mihir Kumar Deb, DFO, Department of Wildlife Management and Nature Conservation, on May 12 focused on the biodiversity of the Lawachhara Forest, home to 167 species of trees, 246 species of birds, 20 rare and endangered species of animals.
“After surveying the area, we found that there are about 25,000 trees aged between five and 100 years, within 50 feet of the 5km line. Many different species of animals and birds live there,” Mihir said.
“If we cut down the trees, the biodiversity and the environment of the forest will be under serious threat,” he had mentioned in the letter.
Receiving the reply, railway officials again sent a letter on May 18 to the forest department, saying that if the forest department did not cut the trees within the next seven days, the railway authorities would take actions according to the Railway Act.
The railway department has not taken any attempt to cut down the trees yet, but environmentalist expressed concern over felling of trees and illegal logging of the forest.
“I would be surprised if there are 25,000 trees in the entire Lawachhara forest. So the railway's demand for cutting down these many trees cannot be accepted at all,” said Sharif Jamil, joint secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (Bapa).
Terming Lawachhara a precious asset of the country, Sharif said, “We should protect it through legal measures and proper management.” Laws are there but those are not being properly implemented, he said.
“Railway should divert the route to plain land which would in fact make the service faster,” he said, adding that Dhaka-Sylhet highway passed through the forest but later a by-pass was built outside the forest area.
Regarding falling of trees during storm, Sharif, mentioning newspaper reports, said the trees were probably sawed off at the trunk beforehand. As a result, they could not withstand the storm and fell on the rail lines.
“No public transportation is allowed through declared reserve forests in most countries,” he said. Special rules regarding speed and sound are enforced at the places where such transportation is allowed, he added.
Confirming the railway department's letter, Arman Hossain, divisional engineer of Bangladesh Railway, said rail service is being hampered because of collapsing trees.
He said the forest department was asked to cut trees on both sides of the rail line to ensure passengers' safety.
DFO Mihir, however, said, “There will always be some risks for rail tracks going through the forest.”
“To avoid the risk, the lines should be moved outside the forest area,” he suggested.
“Cutting such a large number of trees would threaten the biodiversity of the forest,” he added.
Contacted, Environment and Forests Minister Anwar Hossain Manju said both the forest and railway departments would not take any action until the matter is resolved at ministerial level.
“I have not formally received any report on the matter and I am guessing the railway minister too has not been formally informed about it yet,” he said.
The minister said he assumes no ministry would take any steps regarding this without taking the matter to the cabinet.