Fire for fish
Abrupt rusty patches here and there in the otherwise vast green forest look like deep burn wounds from the sky.
Forest officials say those patches of black are the places where locals set fire in the Chandpai range in the East Sundarbans.
Recently, the environment and forest ministry took a group of journalists for a trip by a chopper over the forest to have a bird's eye view to determine how much of the forest was burned in the recent spate of fire.
It was not possible to have an exact measure from the sky, but officials say at least 13 acres of the forest got burned down in four incidents of fire in four different areas in Nangli in the last one month. Locals say some 20 acres have been affected.
Admin and forest officials claim locals have set fire to the forest at least 21 times in the Chandpai range.
Asked, Environment and Forest Minister Anwar Hossain Manju told journalists that the fire destroyed only a few acres of land out of around 6,000 sq km of the forest in the Bangladesh part.
He claimed the forest department was able to control the fire quickly and that they were taking action against the culprits.
Already, the forest department has filed three cases against 10 locals.
The mastermind is Shajahan, a local Awami League leader from Rayenda. He is notorious for hunting wild animals in the Sundarbans, locals said.
About the motive of setting fire, forest officials said their investigation found it was meant to catch fish easily.
Locals said the bank of the Bhola river in Dhansagor area is a little higher than the forest land. So once the high-tide water enters the forest, it does not recede easily. Some fish species like catfish and snake fish come in that water for spawning. Fishermen set fire to the forest so they can pull nets and catch those fish easily.
Slowly, the fishermen are clearing some areas of the forest this way, locals added.
Mohammed Atul Mandal, Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Shorankhola, gave a similar version.
He added things were getting worse in the area every year.
“But this year, they have been setting fire intentionally to avenge the filing of cases by forest officials over some fire incidents,” he said.
Fishing inside the forest is prohibited under the Forest Act of 1927, but it continues unabated.
On top of that, the forest fires are affecting the biodiversity of the Sundarbans, an investigation by the UNO office found.
Species like mammals, amphibians and birds have reduced significantly due to the razing of the forest. Locals even razed the nypa along the bank of the river in such a way that no new plant is growing there.
The probe report also mentions some locals are poaching endangered animal species, including deer, tigers and crocodiles.