The ecologically critical area of the Sundarbans is becoming an industrial zone with the permission of the Department of Environment and the government has done nothing to stop it so far.
In the last three years, 150 industries of different kinds were set up in the government demarcated ecologically critical area (ECA) within 10 kilometres of the Sundarbans in Bagerhat, Khulna and Satkhira districts.
Powerful people are snapping up lands within the ECA to set up industries posing additional threats to the unique mangrove forest.
The department of environment gave site clearance to some of these industrial plots.
The government declared 10 kilometres from the Sundarbans as Ecologically Critical Area in January last year.
“We gave permissions to three industries within the ECA area, but we did not renew their licenses since then,” said Dr Mallick Anwar Hossain, director of the department of environment at Khulna.
“All industrial units have to take permission from the department of environment to get electricity connections. But all units are not harmful to the Sundarbans,” said Hossain. But those permissions were given before the ECA area was declared.
When asked about the new industrial plots sprouting up in the Mongla area near Rampal, Hossain said, they could not stop people from buying and selling their private land.
However, he said, “The department would discourage people from setting up harmful industries within the ECA zone.”
“But if somebody established a garments industry, there was no point in stopping that even if it was in the ECA zone as that would not hurt the forest,” he said.
But the department would not allow any leather, dyeing, and washing industry.
When asked about some environmentally harmful industries like ship breaking yards there, the director said, their licenses would not be renewed.
Director Hossain said some environmentally harmful industries were in operation in the Mongla export processing zone (EPZ) and the Mongla industrial area. These were set up in 1998 and in 2000 respectively. The industries were set up before the areas were marked as ECA in 2015.
The industries in operation within the ECA zone in Mongla include four cement factories, one soybean oil refinery, one crude oil refinery, four cylinder gas companies, and one cigarette factory in the Mongla EPZ area,” said Hossain.
The government would have to take decisions about these industries, he said.
The ministry of law is currently vetting rules for the ECA area around the Sundarbans. Once the rules are passed, the department would swing into action regarding the polluting industries.
The draft ECA rules prohibit setting up any industry or conduct any activities that pollute the land, air or water and also cause sound pollution.
The Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act of 2010 also prohibits anyone from setting up industries or construct other establishments in the buffer zone, an area within 10 kilometres of the forest.
There are dozens of existing conventions, policies, rules, guidelines, treaties, and protocols that restrict such activities close to the reserve forest, also a UN natural heritage site. Some of these legal barriers have been erected by the present government.
Environment experts think all these activities in the buffer zone of the Sundarbans are posing serious threats to the already vulnerable mangrove forest that acts as a natural barrier against cyclones.
In contravention to its own laws, the government has constructed a silo just a few hundred meters away from the Sundarbans wildlife sanctuary. The Rampal thermal power company site is also under development in the same area.
Soon after, private investors have also started to rush there.
The industrial area stretches from Sapmari in Rampal, where the government is constructing a coal-based power plant, to Jaymunir gol, the last human settlement before the Sundarbans in Mongla, just a few hundred metres away from the forest.
Some of those investors are influential politicians or their kin who manage clearances for industry and are buying land like homesteads, wetland and crop fields. Already over 100 business groups and individuals have bought land in the ECA zone.
“If somebody does not want to sell his or her land, a group of goons would make life difficult,” said a local from the area who did not want to identify himself.
When asked whether the government was doing enough to protect the Sundarbans from land grabbers at the ECA zone, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, a leading environmental attorney and chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers' Association (BELA) said, the Sundarbans was not safe even with the government agencies.
“The government was not doing enough to protect the forest,” she said.
When asked, Anwar Hossain Manju, the minister for environment and forest said, currently the department was not renewing any license and permission for that area.
“It is a matter of government policy whether the government would allow those industries in the ECA zone or not. We are waiting for that decision of the government,” the minister told The Daily Star.