The government is going for a tougher law to clamp down on rampant tree-felling in an effort to conserve forests.
The cabinet yesterday approved in principle the draft of Forest Act (Amendment) 2010, prescribing longer jail terms and heftier fines for illegal logging and other related offences.
When the first forest law was formulated during the British rule, forest was considered a means of collecting duties and levies. But things have changed over the years, observed Mihir Kanti Majumder, environment and forest secretary. “Now we want to preserve forest instead of collecting duties out of it.”
The amendment will raise the jail term for minor offence to three years from the existing six months and fine to Tk 50,000 from Tk 2,000.
For major forest plundering, the punishment is even tougher. The jail term is 10 years and fine Tk 100,000 if somebody denudes a vast tract of land.
Section 26 and section 26 (1) of the proposed amendment say which offences are major and which are minor.
Earlier in 1990, the Forest Act 1927 was amended to raise jail terms and fines for major and minor offences from the ones stipulated in the law enacted 83 years back.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, executive director of the Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (Bela), yesterday told The Daily Star that the forest ministry did not invite views of the forest dwellers while drafting the amendment act.
“The forest laws should always be enacted or amended with the consent of the people who depend on forests and live there. Otherwise, we won't succeed much in our conservation efforts,” she said.
However, the ministry officials believe this amendment would make a huge difference to the government's efforts to protect forests as many sections have been added to it.
The proposed amendment act includes a provision for joint management of forests, which means both the forest department and local communities will benefit from conserving forests.
It also has a new definition of forest, which says all land property owned by the forest department will be treated as forest. Besides, it will not allow the deputy commissioners to lease out any forestland, said the secretary.
The draft law also empowers the divisional forest conservators to evict those encroaching on forestland, sources at the meeting said.
Now that the cabinet has given the go-ahead, the draft will be vetted by the law ministry, the secretary said.
Currently, the forest department owns over 16 percent of the country's total landmass. But the green coverage has come down to 6 percent when preserving 25 percent of the landmass as forest is a standard practice worldwide.
The growing demand for timber and wood has led to sharp shrinkage of forest in the densely-populated country. Besides, a vast portion of forestland has been grabbed by politically influential people and industrialists.
At the cabinet meeting yesterday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said forest resources must be conserved for prosperity and development of the country as well as to maintain ecological balance.
"She also stressed the need for provisions to protect the rights of the indigenous people including those living in the hill tracts," PM's Press Secretary Abul Kalam Azad told reporters after the meeting.
The cabinet also decided to designate mango tree as the national tree of the country. The forest ministry put forward the proposal for a national tree as the country did not have any, he added.
"Mango tree has been nominated as the national tree after discussion on national tress of different countries,” said the press secretary.
At the meeting, the cabinet also endorsed the draft of Legal Practitioners and Bar Council (Amendment) Act, 2010, changing the provision for constituting the enrolment committee of the Bar Council.