Though forests are meant to be conserved, they are being allocated for constructing highways, rail lines, government offices and even for drilling gas wells. For any development project, forestland seems to be readily available.
Over the years, the government has allocated 1.60 lakh acres of forestland to various government and non-government agencies for infrastructure construction, according to forest department records.
In addition, district administrations have leased out around 50,000 acres of forest, and vested quarters have grabbed 2.87 lakh acres of forestland across the country.
This means Bangladesh has lost around five lakh acres of forestland or 10 percent of forests since the independence.
The country's forestland is decreasing day by day though green campaigners have been demanding increased forest coverage and protection of natural forests.
Even now, demands for land from natural forests, including the Sundarbans, to implement development projects of various government agencies are pending at the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
Though the forest department raised objections about allocation of their land to other departments, the government overlooks it most of the time, said its officials.
When asked, Amir Hossain Chowdhury, the acting chief conservator of forest (CCF), said the shutdown has been in place since he got the responsibility of the office.
"So, I cannot exactly say how much land different government and non-government organisations are demanding from the forest department at the moment," the acting CCF said.
"What I can say is the new forest policy the government drafted last year states no forestland should be used for non-forest purposes."
The Daily Star obtained forest department records showing the department had to give away more than 1.60 lakh acres of forestland to various government and non-government agencies for setting up offices and other establishments.
Around 43,095 acres of natural forests were handed over to the Bangladesh Forest Industries Development Corporation (BFIDC), which planted rubber trees there, destroying natural forests.
Several law-enforcement agencies and security forces have been allocated the lion's share of forestland -- around 93,924 acres, according to the documents.
Other land recipients include Bangladesh Railway, Bangladeshi Betar, Bangladesh Scouts, Bangladesh Girls Guides Association, Roads and Highways Department, Talimabad satellite earth station, Bangladesh Medicinal Plant Research Centre, Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council, Central Jail, Gazipur municipality, Moulvibazar municipality, Bangladesh Water Development Board, Bangladesh National Herbarium, Bangladesh National Zoo, Rashidpur gas field, Sylhet gas field, Power Development Board, Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited, Bangladesh Forest Research Institute, Department of Fisheries, Bangladesh Oceanographic Research Institute, Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority, Mongla Port Authority, Buddhist Cultural Academy, Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation, and Petrobangla.
Of non-government recipients, two private primary schools in Bandarban and several landless farmers were given land in Cox's Bazar.
In Gazipur, the forestland recipients include a garments manufacturing company, which was given 1.96 acres.
As per these forest department records, these lands were given to the government and non-government organisations as of June 12, 2019.
Even after this date, 160-acre land was given to Bangladesh Railway to construct rail lines in Cox's Bazar.
According to the forest department website, the country has a total of 45.36 lakh acres of forestland in 35 districts.
Of this total forestland, 2.87 lakh acres were grabbed by various influential locals, organisations, and politically vested quarters.
"Most of this grabbed forest lands have become human settlements and industries. The forest department is battling cases in court about some of these lands," said an official, who wished to be anonymous.
Though the forest department is officially in possession of 42.86 lakh acres of land as per the Cadastral Survey (CS), which ended in 1940, a good portion of this land has been recorded as "khas land" in the Bangladesh Survey (BS) record.
Interestingly, the forest department is yet to know the exact quantity of land recorded as "khas land" during the Bangladesh Survey.
This has proved problematic as district administrations have often leased out forest lands, showing these as "khas land". In this way, around 50,000 acres of land have been leased out to various persons and organisations over the years by DC offices.
A land ministry official explained that the forest department was given all the land declared forest lands in the CS record. But during the Revisional Survey (RS) and Bangladesh Survey, many plots were recorded as "khas land".
As per existing land law, all "khas land" belongs to the land ministry. But the local deputy commissioner is the custodian of the land as tax collector and is able to lease out this "khas land".
Though any forestland is not eligible for leasing, DCs and land ministry officials often show it as "khas land" under the State Acquisition and Tenancy Act 1960 and lease it out, said a forest department official from the Dhaka division.
"We have written to district administrations to let us know how much forestland they have leased out, but they do not give us the data," he said. For example, the forest department does not have this data for Rangamati, Moulvibazar, Chittagong, and Mymensingh districts.
FOREST CONSERVATION GOALS
One of the Sustainable Development Goals, which Bangladesh is bound to meet as a member of the United Nations, is the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of ecosystems on land such as forests -- a major indicator of which is forest area in proportion to total land area in a country.
This year, observing the World Environment Day -- the theme for which is "Time for Nature" -- environmentalists are calling for the country's natural resources to be given a chance by saving natural forests and biodiversity.
Environmentalists said government plans in this regard need to be improved drastically as ensuring biodiversity cannot be achieved only by planting trees.
"Post-coronavirus development has to be nature-centric," said Raquibul Amin, country representative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Bangladesh.
Sharif Jamil, secretary of the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (Bapa), who has been fighting to stop commercial activities in and around the Sundarbans, said, forests cannot be created only by planting trees.
Even if the forest department gets back these parceled out lands, it is impractical to think that the land can be defined as natural forests, he said, given that its biodiversity has been destroyed and cannot be recovered.
"The government has to change its mindset and protect natural forests. It is essential to gather knowledge from the people who live nearby forests and engage them in the protection effort."