Around 15,000 trees under the government's social forestry programme have been felled illegally on three erosion-hit chars on the Padma river in the last six months.
A section of forest staff in league with local gangsters cut down the trees and sold those as firewood to brick kilns, said char dwellers.
Had the forest department sold the trees at current market price, it would have fetched at least Tk 30 crore for the government exchequer, said timber traders.
Some 100 villagers who participated in the forestry scheme would also have benefited greatly from the sale, as they were supposed to get 55 percent of the proceeds as per the social forestry rules.
Despite Water Development Board's warning of erosion, Rajshahi forest department in 2002 began afforestation on the chars, which are under Haripur union of Poba upazila.
It planted two lakh siris (raintree), kadam, arjun, acacia, ipil-ipil and bablah saplings over 100 hectares on the three chars--Noboganga, Jazeera and Sonaikandi.
In the last few years, the Padma has devoured most of the first two chars. Parts of Noboganga, where more than 100 trees were chopped down on September 2 alone, and Char Sonaikandi bear signs of extensive denuding.
However, Rajshahi Range Officer M Rabiul Islam claims no trees have been felled. “We are only collecting the trees washed away by the river," he told this correspondent.
Replying to another query, he said they did not sell the trees at auction beforehand because they did not know that erosion would strike. “What if we sold the trees and there were no erosion?"he asked.
Besides, the officer argued, the trees were to mature in 2012.
During a recent visit, this correspondent found trees being felled and sold in presence of nursery attendant Abdur Razzak, who is officially assigned to look after the char forest.
Razzak said his supervisor and forester M Moyen Uddin and range officer M Rabiul Islam are aware of the activities.
Contacted, Moyen Uddin said, "We are giving away the branches to the locals as they are helping us collect the trees and save the trunks for government auction."
He, however, admitted they are doing this without following proper procedures.
Rabiul Islam said they have so far collected only 500 trees for auction this year. Last year, he added, they sold some 2,000 trees at Tk 40,416.
Asked how the trees could sell so cheap, Tk 20 apiece, he said, "We cannot interfere in the auction. Besides, those were sold as firewood."
According to forest department officials, erosion has shrunk the forest to 17 hectares with only 2,000 trees.
WDB Superintendent Engineer M Mahtab Uddin told The Daily Star, "We had warned them of erosion. Since the chars were in the middle of the river, they were sure to wear away."
But the forest department ignored the warning and sought permission from the Deputy Commissioner's Office in Rajshahi.
Additional Deputy Commissioner (revenue) Khondoker Mahbubur Rahman said, "We gave them permission, as we thought short-term forestry programme on the chars, which were lying useless anyway, might help the local people."
Locals say plundering began in 2005 and peaked in 2007-08 when most of the trees had matured.
Haripur union chairman Bazle Rizvi Al-Hasan Manzil said the forest officials never paid heed to his “verbal complaints” against logging.
"None of the 100 beneficiaries [participants in the programme] has ever been paid either," he added.
Felu Mollah, an elderly man from Haripur, alleged, "They [plunderers] do not even allow us to collect firewood for cooking."
Ward councillor Atiqur Rahman Sena said no-one dares stand against them. "They threatened us whenever we tried to raise our voice."
When this correspondent went to Char Sonaikandi, nursery attendant Razzak was sitting inside a tin-shed room, around which were lying logs of over 300 trees. While some people were chopping woods, some were weighing those in a scale.
Nearly 40 maunds of firewood are sold a day at a rate of Tk 80 per maund, locals said.
Johra, who lives in a thatched house behind Razzak's shed, said she sells firewood for her neighbours Yunus and Saral with permission from Razzak.
Pointing at the logs, Razzak said, "These trees were washed away and later collected from the river."
Asked about signs of tree felling in areas that had not yet been affected by erosion, he said, “The thieves took away those trees.”
His shed though was not far from the spot where tree felling was still on. When he was taken there, one Sohel Rana was cutting down trees.
"The river devours a vast stretch of land at a stroke. And that's why we have allowed Rana to fell these trees in advance," Razzak explained.
Refuting the allegation of his involvement in forest plundering, he said, "I am rather putting some money in the government coffers. All who worked before me let these trees get washed away."
Rabiul Islam said, "It's for Razzak that we are still getting something out of this forest."
He also claimed Razzak and Moyen spent Tk 15,000 from their own purse to carry the collected trees to Rajshahi city for auction.
Asked why they would do so, he said they wanted to turn in a good performance so their jobs remained secure.
Razzak and Moyen say they did it as they are “loyal to the government”.