Forest-hostile projects deforesting Madhupur
The Department of Forest is apparently depleting the Madhupur Sal Forest through implementation of different donor-funded afforestation projects, which mainly plant exotic trees of commercial value.
The majority of the donor-funded projects in the past or the projects the government and development partners plan to implement shortly are about planting alien species of wood trees or constructing infrastructures inside the national park area of the forest.
Instead of reviving the natural forest, the forest department shows its keenness to plant alien species like acacia, rubber, mahogany and eucalyptus in Madhupur as per the condition of the projects.
Talking with local people and analysing different studies on Madhupur, it has been learned that unresolved land tenancy disputes created antagonistic relations between the forest department and the inhabitants.
These unresolved disputes are also contributing to deforestation for years.
The indigenous people allege the foresters have been destroying the forest by implementing different "harmful" projects, while the officials term the locals "illegal" loggers.
"The indigenous people were accused of illegal logging. But the Department of Forest has cleared vast patches of forest over the years to implement those tree plantation projects," said Ajay A Mree, an indigenous leader living in Madhupur.
TREE FELLING NEVER STOPPED
Though land settlement and illegal logging are the major problems of Madhupur forest, the government never took any effective measures to rehabilitate the forest dwellers and properly manage the natural forest.
Without addressing the major issues, the forest department started different wood plantation projects with a fund of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in participation of local people.
As the indigenous Garos were unwilling to take part, the department encouraged the Bangla-speaking people to resettle in the forestland.
All projects and sub-projects namely agro-forestry, woodlots, institutional planting, strip planting, social forestry, national park project and eco-park ultimately resulted in destruction of the natural forest, resettlement and loan burden on the government.
In 1987-1988 the government took a major land use decision about the Madhupur forest converting a vast patch of forestland into a rubber garden.
Many such programmes were later taken there and in each and every case exotic species were introduced in more and more areas.
The forest officials were even allegedly involved in clearing natural species just to plant alien acacia so that they can show expenses on papers and sell the logged trees of the natural forest.
Analysing satellite pictures for his doctoral thesis, Dr Tawhidul Islam of Jahangirnagar University said illegal loggers could not clear the forest so perfectly as they only cut the big trees of timber value.
"But this patch of forest seems to have been cleared using measurement scales inside the natural forest. Such destruction is not possible without cooperation of the forest officials," he observed.
The images show all the trees, small and big, were removed to implement the donor-funded projects, he added.
“The same incidents happened again and again and the authorities pinned the blame on us over the years," says an indigenous leader from Madhupur requesting anonymity.
Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Shah-E-Alam who joined the office just one and a half years ago denied the allegations.
"No natural forests have been destroyed for any projects. The natural forest remains as usual. Some indigenous people are felling trees and the law enforcers are unable to arrest them," he says.
Terming social forestry very successful, the DFO said now almost 10 percent or exactly 5,040.48 acres of the entire Madhupur forest has been brought under this project, in which mainly the Bangla-speaking people are the stakeholders.
Under this project, the forest department planted acacia trees considering their commercial value and a hefty output in every 10 years.
Once the timeframe is over and the woods are sold, 10 percent of that money will be kept as "Tree Farming Fund", while the rest will be divided among the government and the stakeholders equally.
"The indigenous people don't want to join us as they want the land rights," Alam said.
Over the years, gross allegations were raised against the foresters that they were interested in the project as it helped them make quick bucks in many ways.
In the projects, plantation cost of an acacia is shown Tk 11-14, sources say. The Tangail forest division officials say one tree costs them exactly Tk 11.25.
But the locals say the cost should not be more than Tk 1-2 as the stakeholders take part in the plantation and no labour cost is required.
The forest officials are so keen on social forestry that they are implementing this project even inside the National Park areas including Bhutia, Peergachha, Jolui, Telki, Gachhabari and Gaira.
A CASE STUDY
The forest officials are always desperate to implement recommendations of the consultants of donor-funded projects because of monetary gain. At times they even evict the stakeholders for not planting the recommended exotic species.
During a visit to Madhupur in September 2003, this correspondent found some indigenous families at the forest office of Aronkhola range who got eviction notice from the department.
Madhupur foresters issued the notice to the residents of Kamarchala village of Aronkhola forest range and also asked them to fell the fruit trees as they had wanted to plant acacias there to implement an ADB-funded project.
"The forest officials have asked us to cut down all our fruit trees that we depend on for our livelihood and pull down our houses," Nani Mohon Koch of Kamarchala, a retired naek of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), was quoted in the report published in The Daily Star on September 20, 2003.
"Thrice they came to cut down our trees. But we did not let them by placing ourselves between their chainsaws and our trees," said Gouribala Koch from the same village as quoted in that report.
"The forest beat officer has been threatening to evict us. He also asked for money from me. If people protest, they are accused of stealing logs. Now we do not know what to do," said Shafiqul Islam, a farmer of Kamarchala.
Mohammad Amir Hossain, range officer of the Aronkhola forest beat, however disputed the allegations.
He said the villagers are partners in the social forestry project of the 1993 phase and the trees on their land were sold as per contract.
"That is why foresters went to cut down the trees. But we don't want to knock down their houses," he added.
According to forest officials, the villagers were allocated the land in 1993 under the project to plant acacia trees for rapid afforestation. But instead, they planted different fruit trees and bamboos. The foresters told them to cut down the trees or face lawsuit.
"The villagers were supposed to plant only acacias under the contract under which they were allocated the land. But they violated the contract and planted bamboos, jackfruit, banana and mango trees. That is why the notice was issued," said the then DFO Abu Hanif Patowari of Tangail forest beat when asked about the eviction notice.
He however gave assurance that the Koch people will not be evicted.
RECENT NATURE SURVEY AND IMPORTANCE OF BIODIVERSITY
A survey by the Joyenshahi Adivasi Organisation and Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (BELA) suggests that only 57 out of 195 species of medicinal flora still exist in this forest.
But this forest ecosystem still supplies 70 percent of raw materials for the country's herbal medicines.
Local indigenous people collect 27 kinds of tubers for food and medicinal purpose from the forest in the monsoon.
Besides, the natural forest of Madhupur has sal trees as the predominant species accounting for about 70 percent of the forest species.
Notable amongst the other native species are Ajuli, Amlaki, Bazna, Chakra, Chambal, Gadila, Haldu, Jogini, Kaika, Koroi, Palash, Jarul, and Sonalu with many other medicinal plants and fruit trees.
Experts say the alien species might have short-term commercial value but those play no role in protecting the natural forest or bringing back and regenerating the same with native species.
The Indian Pitta is exclusively found in the sal forest and nowhere else. It is a summer migrant and comes to the sal forest to breed and raise its young.
The existence of this near-extinct bird is dependent on the existence of the sal forest.