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    Volume 6 Issue 16 | April 27, 2007 |

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Will it Save Lawachara?

Durdana Ghias

A road through the forest.

Forest cover in Bangladesh has been fast disappearing over the last thirty years. Today the forests in sanctuaries and national parks, collectively known as Protected Areas, are critically threatened. At this rate of degradation the rich biodiversity and rare species of plants and animals will be lost forever. According to experts if this trend continues then within a few years Bangladesh's Protected Areas will be gone for good or permanently altered.

Lawachara National Park, situated on 1,250 hectare area in Kamalganj of Moulvibazar, is one of the remnants of greens left in this country forests that lives with a rich biodiversity. The forestation of the area that started in 1925 has now taken the form of a natural forest. People of Khasia and Tipra origins live in the surrounding areas.

A few years ago, this forest was on the verge of extinction; poachers and timber thieves were doing their best to make this verdant patch denuded of its arboreal features. The Forest Department's Nishorgo programme to create new protected areas aims to check this pilferage of natural beauties and to conserve the unique biodiversity of the area.

Nishorgo Support Project (NSP) is a programme of the Government of Bangladesh that receives financial and technical support for protected areas management from

The verdant green of Lawachara.

USAID and Asian Development Bank. It is a five-year project that started in 2003. It is a comprehensive effort to improve the management of the country's protected areas such as safari parks, wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and game reserves.

The project aims at slowing down the loss of biodiversity collaborating with local communities and improving income and livelihoods of people living in and around the Protected Areas and promoting eco-tourism.

There is no doubt about the richness of Lawachara's biodiversity and the need for it to be protected. There are 167 species of flora and fauna in Lawachara along with 4 species of amphibians, 6 species of reptiles, 246 species of birds and 20 species of mammals. Hoolock Gibbons, a rare species of primate, and hornbills are also found here.

The project is working at five initial pilot sites -- the Lawachara National Park, the Rema-Kalenga Wildlife Sanctuary and Satchuri Reserve Forest (proposed as a new wildlife sanctuary), the Teknaf Game Reserve and the Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary.

Alternative income generating activities.

Felling trees is forbidden in the protected areas. The project aims at developing a sense of governance among local people so that when the project ends they can take over all the responsibilities themselves.

According to the project officials, pilferage has decreased significantly after the project started. There are around 40 members in the patrol team some of whom were tree-fellers before this project started. Some entry fee is taken from the tourists and fifty percent of the money is saved at the fund of patrol guards' committee.

“In 1980 there were few marginal forests in the country and encroachment was very high. We started this project from the northern part of the country. We can't give them direct benefits by cutting down the tree but we can help them by introducing eco-tourism, employing tour guides and selling souvenirs," said Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmed, project director of NSP.

There are 12 tour guides who are students and working part time.

Wild flower.

“Sometimes we get good coverage from the electronic media and see a rise in the number of visitors. I feel good that I can work with such a project and earn some money,” says Abdul Burhan, a tourist guide studying in a college.

Shyamol Deb Barma, a senior tourist guide says he has been working at the site from the very first when Nishorgo started in 2003. “We are aborigines growing up in this area so we know the routes”, declares Barma. “I helped in finding out the trails, tree counts and forming the patrolling group. People are not aware of the presence of guides here otherwise we could receive more visitors.”

But the condition of the patrol guards is not up to the mark as they are working for a meagre remuneration, admit the officials. Many of the guards who used to fell trees before are now working sincerely after a successful awareness campaign by Nishorgo.

“We save Tk 250 each and now our savings amount to Tk one lakh with which we are planning to do small business after the Nishorgo project is over,” says Ahad, a patrol guard.

Poisonous mushroom.

One of the biggest challenges was to communicate with the ultra-conservative Khasia women and involve them in alternative income-generating activities and make them understand the importance of saving the forest. Just two years ago it was quite unthinkable. Now the committee has savings of Tk 24,000.

Reshmi Puti, a Khasia woman weaving shawls under one of these alternative income generating activities, says that she is doing this work so that she can save some money for her children. But some officials admit that the alternative income generating activity is not totally successful.

There is some dissatisfaction among environmentalists, moreover, about the gas pipeline through the Lawachara forest laid by Unocoal in 2005.

Philip Gain, an environmentalist who worked in a report on the blast at the gas well at Magurchhara, says, "It was very risky installing a gas pipeline through the forest especially after what we witnessed at Magurchhara in 1997. Fire can break out anytime destroying the forest. Lawachara is a small patch of woodland it was possible to construct the pipeline on the outskirts of the forest."

The forest floor covered with falling leaves.

When asked about the pipeline, the project director of NSP, says that he is not the concerned person to talk about the gas pipeline through the forest. "This is the first time any reporter asked me about the gas pipeline. Yes I know about it. Personally I think it was not wise to let the pipeline go through the forest, as it is very risky. There is a possibility of a fire breakout. But officially we never discussed it and as far as I know there is no plan in Nishorgo to deal with this gas pipeline issue," says a forest officer working with the Forest Department and Nishorgo project seeking anonymity.

At the grassroots level the overall success of NSP seems quite tangible. In future the project is expected to make a greater impact in preserving the forests of Bangladesh. We can only hope that the government also addresses the issue of the gas pipeline.

Photos: Durdana Ghias

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