Habiganj swamp forest under threat
Picture a forest where foxes and fishing cats prowl in good number, where lizard and snake species thrive, where aquatic birds and waders flock to forage. Imagine a hidden place of semi-submerged trees such as hijol, boruna and koroch growing among innumerable ragged bushes and rambling vines. Such a forest with waters that teem with fish does exist, where rich biodiversity still reigns. Few have heard of Lakshmi Baor, a wetland forest in Baniachong upazila of Habiganj that even locals claim is owned by none. Even fewer have been there.
Only twelve kilometres outside Habiganj town and five from Adarsa Bazar in Baniachong, the 520-acre forest lies submerged under up to eight feet of water from May to October. It is fed by three tiny rivers: the Luhachurra river in the south, the Khorotir river in the north and the Nolai river flowing in the west. To the east is Gangajal Haor.
“The environment of Lakshmi Baor is tranquil. At times all one can hear are birds calling. In winter the area is dry but even then several pond-like water bodies may be found,” says Warish Uddin Khan, chairman of the Uttar Pashchim Baniachong union council.
But the future of this forgotten, unprotected forest is far from secure. It's already suffering from the indiscriminate felling of trees. Local environmentalists are calling for government recognition of Lakshmi Baor as the country's largest boruna forest and its second largest swamp forest after Sylhet's Ratargul.
“The ecology of Lakshmi Baor is almost identical to Ratargul forest in Sylhet,” says one local activist Ikramul Wadud, “but only Ratargul is recognised and protected as a national treasure.”
Currently the forest is under the management of a nine-member committee headed by Jalal Uddin Khan Babul. “Income earned from forest resources is usually spent on education and religious institutions in the area, as well as for the benefit of the needy,” he says.
“Tree-felling is a particular problem in Lakshmi Baor,” says another environmentalist, Tofazzal Sohel. “There are a good number of rare trees in the swamp which actually have little value as timber, but they are still cut down for use as firewood. The trees are not only beautiful but provide crucial habitat for birds. There is no effective management of tree-felling activities, which are only increasing.”
The Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Baniachong, Sandip Kumar Sinha says he is unaware of rampant tree-felling in the area, but that they would take action soon.
“It is very disappointing that the government has neglected this unique forest,” says eminent conservationist Dr Mohammad Ali Reza Khan. “If the forest was properly conserved, it could also sustain a local tourism industry.”