Illegal loggers of Rema-Kalinga forest in Moulvibazar now prefer saplings to large trees since the former are easier to smuggle out.Photo: STAR
In the first light of day, they stream out of the forest, one by one. They push their bicycles hard over muddy tracks, the tyres flatten under illegal loads. Each bicycle carries firewood tied to the handlebar and on the carrier at the back. Slowly the men walk towards Chunarughat.
This is a new threat that the unique forest of Rema-Kalinga is facing every day, diminishing the future of this semi-evergreen forest of more than 12,000 acres, the largest of its kind in Bangladesh.
This forest, about 14 kilometres long and two and a half kilometres wide, at Moulvibazar, has been ravaged in different ways. Illegal loggers chopped off its tall trees. Walk through the forest in any direction, and you will see obvious signs of theft -- big stumps lie bare -- but sometimes also covered with branches and leaves to hide the crime.
Then came the skin thieves -- they peeled the skins off Hargoza trees and sold them as ingredients for mosquito repellent in Chunarughat. The trees ultimately died.
They came and caught the hill mynas and parakeets to sell them on illegal markets in Kataban of the capital.
And now they are back again. This time their main target are smaller trees, saplings included, too young to be used as timber but good as firewood.
As we walked through the forest, we saw the signs of wholesale razing of trees all around. In a span of two days, we heard sounds of trees being felled by thieves thrice. Plants with trunks four to six inches in diameters had been chopped down.
A truly mindless affair, but not to those who did it. As the forest department had upped its vigil on illegal loggers, the marauders adopted a new strategy. They found out that it takes little time, effort, and a far smaller party to chop down small plants.
But the effect is devastating. The forest is losing its regeneration capacity. As young plants are mowed down, so is the future of the forest. This is a frightening prospect for a natural forest so huge and valuable for biodiversity.
A TOUGH TASK
The firewood collectors march in from all directions, from villages around the forest. Kalinga village, just beside the forest, is inhabited by settlers coming mainly from Noakhali, and a number of them are naturally attracted to the vast wealth that just lies in the forest. It is alleged that relatives of some of the headmen of this village are also involved in the illegal logging.
Other villages are inhabited mainly by Sylhetis who are also staking their claim on the trees. It is thought that these villagers are responsible for 80 percent of the illegal logging in Kalinga.
Stopping them is difficult but not impossible. For them, working as labourers may fetch about Tk 150 a day. But if they can slip into the forest and come out safely, a bicycle load of firewood brings them Tk 400 to Tk 500, which is two to three days' income as a labourer, without the hassle.
And they have strong backing from local politicians. Only last month, the forest department decided that enough is enough. With the help of locals, the department captured about 30 bicycles and their owners while they were smuggling firewood from the forest.
But then pressure from the local politicians started mounting, and finally the forest department had to let the thieves go with the bicycles. Now they are back in old business.
Kalinga is a remote place and the access road is really intractable. Even a four-wheeler would bog down in places during monsoon. There is not much to do in this place other than growing crops on land given by the forest department. Not much job opportunities either. But the population is growing at least at the national rate. A few shops -- two restaurants, a few pharmacies, and general stores -- line the village square. If there is no crop in the fields, jobs just fizzle out. And then the eyes turn to the forest -- the easiest way to eke out an earning.
No matter how much the forest department fends them off, they enter the forest any way and do their job. Filing cases against the thieves proved counterproductive. As cases are filed, the thieves have to appoint lawyers, and appear at hearings. That requires money, and once again trees are the only source of free money. More trees are chopped down to foot the legal bills. And the vicious circle goes on.
Nishorgo, an USAID project, had initiated a forest management programme involving the locals. It had formed patrol teams involving 100 villagers. It had offered some of the team members training and funds to start small businesses.
For example, Abdul Haque got training to become a nurseryman, and started his own business. He sells saplings to the forest department, and also to other villagers.
Abdus Sahid got Tk 5,000 from Nishorgo, and bought a cow. Now he has three cows.
Nishorgo had also held sessions with villagers to raise their awareness about the importance of the forest. After the Nishorgo project was over, another project IPAC (Integrated Protected Area Co-management) started.
Under IPAC the forest department and a group of locals patrol through the forest regularly at different times, and keep a check on illegal logging. Sometimes, when presence of illegal loggers is reported, they rush immediately no matter what hour of the day or night.
Face-offs with the thieves also occur often. Only last month, a few members of the patrol team came face to face with a gang of thieves who had cut up a huge tree into three pieces, and were trying to smuggle those out through a stream.
The patrol team challenged the thieves who first abandoned a piece of log and ran inside the forest. A few minutes later, they regrouped and came back with machetes and sticks. They attacked the patrol team, seriously injuring at least two of the members.
This incident, just one of many, shows how weak these patrol teams are against the thugs. They were promised some sort of uniforms, to give them an official air. They have not got those yet. They were supposed to get identity cards, which also did not come. The team members now feel they could exert a lot more power on the thieves, only if they had those two promises fulfilled.
Such patrol teams are essential, and the only way to save this magnificent forest is through people's participation, foresters say. The forest department is stretched thin to guard this huge swath of wilderness. The department has only 32 staff to look after more than 12,000 acres of forest, an impossible task by any count. It has 200 village volunteers who guard the forest in return for forest land on which they grow crops.
But using volunteers in exchange for land is proving costly, as the villagers are pushing for more and more land, squeezing the forest coverage. Once they get a piece of land, they keep on expanding it illegally, encroaching on more forest land.
GIVING JOB IS WHAT MATTERS
It is now apparent that the only way to save the forest is to provide employment to the local people. IPAC has its impact, limited though it may be. But that model of providing employment to the local people in exchange for guarding the forest, needs to be duplicated many times over.
"If you cannot ensure jobs for the people, you will not be able to save this forest even by engaging the army," a forester said. "The population pressure must be taken off the forest. At the same time guarding must be stricter."
But until that is done, the men with cycles will keep entering the forest. Every day!