A tea estate in Chattogram has continuously been encroaching on one of the oldest and richest reserve forests in the country. Over the years, it has foiled forestation attempts and continuously damaged trees while expanding its territory.
Defying a court order, Halda Tea Valley has been ravaging the Ramgor-Sitakunda forest in Fatikchhari since the district administration leased 1,052-acre land to the estate in 2003 mentioning it as khas land.
The forest department officials say 134 acres of the leased-out land was within the reserve forest, and they sought amendment to the land record that shows it as khas land.
A Chattogram court in June 2017 imposed a status quo on the 845-acre area, which include 134 acres of the forest, following a case filed by the department, they added.
But the tea estate continued cutting trees and expanding its territory while the forest department is unable to take any action until the matter is resolved, in compliance with the court order.
The 845-acre comprises the three plots recorded as forestland in RS (Revisional Survey) in 1927-28.
Before this, these plots were recorded as reserve forest in a Calcutta gazette issued in 1893 by the then Assam-Bengal forest department, as per the documents seen by The Daily Star.
But in the '80s, the plots were recorded as khas land in BS (Bangladesh Survey).
Baktiar Nur Siddiqui, divisional forest officer (north) of Chattogram forest circle, said the forest was recorded mistakenly as khas land, allowing the district administration to lease out the land.
But a reserve forest cannot be leased out until it is declared de-reserved by the president of the country and receives approval of the prime minister, he explained.
Baktiar told The Daily Star that Halda Tea Valley, taking advantage of the forest department's poor manpower, has been encroaching on the forest for over a decade.
Whenever forest staff tried to prevent them, tea estate staff have attacked, threatening forest staff at gunpoint, and vandalised vehicles, the official said.
The forest department has filed 17 cases since 2006 over incidents of encroaching, grabbing, razing forest and attacks on forest department officials by tea estate staff, led by its manager Jahangir Alam.
The cases were filed in 2006, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
He added that the department needs more support from the administration and police to stop such encroachment, given the shortage of manpower.
On January 1 this year, at least three excavators were seen cutting hills at Badurkhil block of the reserve forest which is under the status quo. Subsequently, a team of the Department of Environment (DoE) visited the spot on January 5.
Ferdous Anwar, then deputy director of DoE Chattogram, told The Daily Star that they found preliminary evidence of hill cutting in order to build a road. Ferdous was transferred that month and does not know the current status of the matter.
Harunur Rashid Patan, inspector of DoE Chattogram, said they have not yet submitted a report on the matter.
A forest court sent tea estate manager Jahangir Alam to jail on January 14 this year in connection with a case filed in 2017 for encroaching on the forest and assault. The case is currently under trial and Jahangir obtained bail this month.
Contacted, Md Jana Alam, senior assistant secretary of AC Land and acting UNO of Fatikchhari upazila, told The Daily Star that the land claimed by the forest department was not under the reserve forest.
In a digital survey at Badurkhil point, the reserve forest was found to be 100 metres away from the disputed leased land, the acting UNO claimed.
"As the forest department filed a case seeking amendment to the BS ledger, the court imposed a status quo at Badurkhil. So, both parties have to follow the status quo until the court delivers its verdict," he said.
Baktiar said that the forest department has been complying with the status quo since the court imposed it. But, he says, Halda Tea Valley continued grabbing forest land as forest staff could not prevent them adhering to the court order.
He added that the digital survey was incorrect, as it did not include the Badurkhil point as part of the reserve forest.
Elias Hossain, deputy commissioner of Chattogram district, told The Daily Star that the land is recorded in the name of deputy commissioner in the BS and the court verdict on the land record amendment case will show if the forest department has a valid claim or not.
Asked about forest encroachment by Halda Tea Valley, the DC said the forest department can guard their forest with their own forces. "If they seek any help, we will consider it," he added.
Nader Khan, managing director of Pedrollo Group, which owns Halda Tea Valley, denied the allegations of grabbing forest land, assault on forest staffers, and destroying saplings.
He said the digital survey was conducted in presence of everyone, including forest department officials, and the land they claim to be reserve forest was found to be 100 metres away from the leased land.
"We did not attack anyone or raze any hills within the reserve forest. All we did was within our leased area," he added.
SPATE OF ATTACKS
Tea estate staff first attacked in March 2006 by removing the demarcation pillar and cutting down around 100 trees at Balukhali beat of Ramgor-Sitakunda reserve forest.
Just two weeks later, led by tea estate manager Jahangir Alam, another attack was launched on forest staff at Edilpur beat to expand the estate's territory.
Halda Tea Valley also built a bridge within the reserve forest, destroying trees under social afforestation projects and hill cutting using an excavator at Edilpur block in 2017. Forest staff tried to stop them, but in vain.
In August 2019, forest officials were prevented from planting saplings at Anandapur of the Ramgor-Sitakunda reserve forest by Halda Tea Valley staffers.