Loggers have been wiping out hundreds of acres of forest in Hathazari upazila of Chattogram, within a three-kilometre radius of the Forest Department office. The felled logs are then smuggled through the department's checkpoints, largely without any obstruction.
For months, loggers have been clearing forestland at Udaliya in Mondakini of Hathazari -- which the Forest Department claims does not fall under its jurisdiction.
On January 6, this correspondent visited the forestland of Udaliya adjacent to Monai Tripura Para -- where villagers said the loggers constructed a road to facilitate transportation of the logs but the front part of the forest was left intact so that no one could grasp what was going on inside.
Going around two hundred yards into the forest, this correspondent saw two large hills -- once blanketed by trees, shrubs and bushes -- completely denuded. The trail of trees felled is evident from the numerous trunks strewn across the hills.
But as per the law, for trees to be felled even in private forests require permission, inspection, and inventory from the Forest Department. In this case, the department could not provide any documents to prove they issued permission for cutting trees in Udaliya.
According to the Forest Resources Transportation (control) Act, 2011, a permit dubbed the "free licence" obtained from the divisional forest officer (DFO) concerned is required before sourcing forest resources.
The procedure is to fill up a form with which a document of land ownership -- a tracing copy of the land -- must be submitted to the DFO to obtain permission for felling trees. Then, the DFO forwards it to his range office under which the land falls.
The range officer inspects the land, marks the trees, prepares a log list and then sends it back to the DFO. Finally, the DFO issues a permission letter for the intended trees to be felled.
The free licence is supposed to indicate all these -- the source of the trees, the tracing copy of the land, and the species and size of trees cut.
But the documents seized from loggers by Hathazari upazila administration show the spot of sourcing trees to be in the Chattogram Hill Tracts while the transporter said the trees were felled from Udaliya forest in Hathazari. The trees felled include species such as Teak, Akasmoni, Arjun, and Gamari.
Udaliya forestland is disputed -- while locals say Udaliya has always been protected forest, the Forest Department claims the area comprises private forestland as well.
MINIMAL CHECKS BY FOREST DEPT
The 11-mile-area checkpoint under Chattogram Divisional Forest Office (north) largely allow the smuggled logs to pass through unobstructed. The loggers also carry false papers with them, said a local administration official.
Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Hathazari Ruhul Amin told The Daily Star, "If anyone is involved in timber trading, he must have a free licence issued by the forest department as well as a transport pass to carry the timber.
"But every day, around 20 to 25 log-laden vehicles come from Udaliya. When we seized these, they showed papers which later turned out to be false as they admitted to felling the trees from Udaliya," he said.
The Hathazari UNO said he seized around 700 cubic feet of logs in October and 1,500 cubic feet of Arjun, Teak and other species from the forest in December last year.
Contacted on January 5, Ismail Hossen, range officer of Hathazari upazila under the Divisional Forest Office (north), declined to speak to The Daily Star over the phone.
"I want to talk to you but not over the phone, in a direct meeting," he said.
When pressed on how the logs passed through their stations, he remained silent and then repeated his previous words.
Top boss of the division, Mozammel Haque Shah Chowdhury, divisional forest officer (north), denied that there is any deforestation happening in Udaliya. "We don't know about it," he said.
"It is impossible that 20 to 25 truckloads of logs are being transported from the forest [every day]. The forest would not exist, if the logging spree you mentioned was true."
Though he denied the illegal logging, he said they seize the goods when they encounter any illegal transporting of trees. He also said they were talking with Rab to launch a drive against loggers.
When asked about false papers being shown at the Forest Department's checkpoints, he claimed there was no such thing as was being mentioned by this correspondent.