CHT forests: Hidden treasure | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 18, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 18, 2011

CHT forests: Hidden treasure

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Preparation for Jhum cultivation

Forests occupy approximately one-third of Earth's land area and contain about 70% of carbon present in living things. Forests are a unique economic asset. They are the lungs of our planet and they provide for untapped potential of carbon capture and storage through afforestation, reforestation, and enhanced forest conservation, which is also a major component for climate change mitigation. At the same time, forest is the provider of many other ecosystem services such as freshwater enhancement, soil conservation, biodiversity conservation etc. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) considered forests throughout the world as the basis for more than 5000 products, from aromatic oil distilled leaves to herbal medicines, fuel, food, furniture, and clothing. However, total forestlands of Bangladesh are decreasing day by day. As a signatory to CBD, it is mandatory to emphasize on conservation of every forest to enhance sustainable development including massive afforestation programme.
Of the total area of Bangladesh forestlands account for almost 17% which includes classified and unclassified state lands, homestead forests, and tea/rubber gardens. The natural forests are the most important wildlife habitats since most of the flagship and threatened species are found there. There are three types of forests in Bangladesh, i.e. mangrove, mixed evergreen and deciduous forest. The mixed evergreen forests are observed in the hilly areas in the districts of Chittagong, Cox's Bazar, Rangamati, Khagrachari, Bandarban and Sylhet. The total area of the Hill Forest is 670,000 hectare, which accounts for 4.54% of total area of Bangladesh. The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is a distinct region in terms of its ethnic, cultural, and environmental diversity to the rest of Bangladesh. Peoples of CHT (both tribal and non-tribal) are living there maintaining communal harmony from a long time and a vast majority of them are directly or indirectly dependent on forest for their livelihood.
All ecological functions of forests are also economic functions. Forests in the tropics are a particular concern. Most tropical forests are in developing countries that face many challenges like intense pressures on forest and other natural resources, rapidly changing consumption patterns etc. Deforestation in the tropics is continuing at a rate of about 12.5 million hectares per annum, mainly due to the expansion of agriculture. The reality is that the causal factors are complex and varied. They include population increase and the consequent demand for land for food production. Bangladesh has one of the world's lowest forest-to-population ratios ( The area of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is about 13,29,500 hectare, which is approximately one-tenth of the total area of Bangladesh. Among the total area, 3,25,000 ha (about 25% of the total CHT area) is considered as forest area. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study estimates that, on an average, one hectare of tropical forest provides 6,120 USD per year for different ecosystem services. The TEEB study is a major international initiative to draw attention to the global economic benefits of ecosystem and biodiversity particularly in tropical forest. Accordingly, the Total Economic Value (TEV) of the CHT hill forest stands at about 1989.04 million USD. A massive destruction of forest occurred during 1989 to 2003 and an estimated 1,70,000 ha of dense forest, (approximately 50% of total forest area) was lost in CHT that encompasses an estimated loss of 948.64 million USD per year and the destruction rate is ever increasing.
It is mention-worthy that the Kaptai Dam (constructed in 1964) devastated an area of 25,000 hectares of agricultural lands and forests belonging to the hill people, mainly the Chakma, and led to forced relocation of about 100,000 persons, who lost their homes and livelihoods and put multiplier effects on the environment, the economy, and the livelihood of the communities. In many places, the deep green forest became barren. Population growth, unemployment, lack of appropriate planning and its implementation also contributed in deforestation process.
Burning of forest for Jhum cultivation also damages the forest largely. Commercial tree plantations, illegal logging, dam mega-projects, and forced displacement are responsible for the accelerated destruction of those precious ecosystems, which means the destruction of their biodiversity. Rubber, teak, and eucalyptus monocultures for export have provoked negative ecological effects by the substitution of part of the forest, as well as conflicts between local communities belonging to the 13 ethnic groups that inhabit the region and the Forest Department.
The forests in the Chittagong Hill Tracts are predominantly tropical semi-evergreen. The predominant trees are Garjan (Dipterocarpus turbinatus), Chapalish (Artocarpus chapalasha), Telsur (Hopea odorata), Boilam (Anisoptera glabra), Teak (Tectona grandis), Gamar (Gmelina arborea), Mehogani (Swietenia spp), Koroi (Albizzia spp) etc. Bamboos are common here. In some places, bamboo forms pure forest. The commonest bamboo is Muli (Melocanna bambusoides). There were about 75 species of mammals, 100 species of birds, 25 species of reptiles, and 7 species of amphibians. However, wildlife population is decreasing fast due to uncontrolled poaching and increasing deforestation leading to habitat loss.
Bangladesh government declared 19 Protected Areas (PA) and 6 Ecologically Critical Areas (ECA). Among them two areas (Kaptai National Park of 5464 ha and Pablakhali Wildlife Sanctuary of 42087 ha) of CHT was declared as the PA but no provision made for protecting the CHT forest area. Apart from this, National Forest Policy 1994 put emphasis to bring about 20% of the country's land under afforestation by year 2015; but little progress has been made. Even though in the official and the development agencies viewpoint, population pressure is the only cause for forest destruction in Bangladesh, reality shows that unsustainable "development" and infrastructure projects, coupled with poor performance of the authorities regarding forest conservation constitute the most important causes of deforestation and forest degradation in the country.
Environmental economists considered 'economic incentives' as the factor for the greater part of forest loss. Many governments provide financial incentives to convert forestland with many forms of subsidy, explicit and hidden, encourage inefficient logging and agricultural colonisation. In turn, the scale of illegal logging is unknown but is clearly very large relative to designated logging areas. The other form of incentive arises because many of the ecological functions of forests are unmarked, generating the illusion that, because their price is zero, so is their economic value. When conservation competes with conversion, conversion wins because its values have markets, whereas conservation values appear to be low or zero. However, its economic value is substantial because, released as CO2 it causes considerable economic damage via climate change impacts. In turn, economic damage is defined as any loss of human well-being now or in the future.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bangladesh Country Office initiated a programme in 2000 to link people with nature conservation in the hilly areas of southeast Bangladesh. The goal of the programme was to develop a socially acceptable, economically viable and 'biodiversity friendly' development model for a given landscape in which the ethnic people of the CHT can live “in harmony with nature”. In contrast, the Government of Bangladesh does not have plan for aggressive afforestation programme. The government should take necessary steps on priority basis in order to protect the forest. Some measures can be as follow:
* Immediate actions to stop smuggling of timber from the forest;
* Inventing a new method of cultivation to minimize the destruction of forest and biodiversity and to increase the productivity;
* Capacity building of the local people to conserve biodiversity;
* Rehabilitation of Jhumia; and
* Afforestation in barren hills on participatory basis involving marginalized community.
Above all, all programmes should take in a collaborative way so that the outcome might maximize.

The writer is Junior Research Assistant, Unnayan Onneshan. E-mail: azim@unnayan.org

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