The proposed Wildlife Act : Anomalies persist
The government is formulating a new set of laws for the protection of wildlife in the country styled Wildlife (Protection) Act 2011, which is a follow up to Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) Order, 1973.
A workshop to discuss about the improvement of the existing law was held at the Forest Department on 30th April 2008. We were delighted with the broad participation of various government authorities and interested bodies and friends of the wildlife of Bangladesh. From their numerous inputs, we hoped an effective legislation covering the diverse issues to be forwarded. But ironically we are seeing in the draft that most of the propositions have not been incorporated and the broad participation was, perhaps, an eyewash. A monopolised authority has been structured and very vague and undefined committees have been proposed which can be formed on personal choice of any secretary or minister to rubberstamp a partisan, biased or even erroneous decision.
Forming a suitable and efficient law regarding conservation of wildlife is a challenging task in any country where human pressure is so high. Our perception regarding wildlife is changing so rapidly in recent years. Even a decade ago forest was seen only as government's source of revenue and the wildlife there as game hunting. A century ago forest and its wildlife was seen as a threat and danger to human habitation. Now we see all those as national treasure and their protection as a prime responsibility. These quick turn of ideas creates enormous misunderstanding which may interrupt traditional livelihood of the people who live close to the natural landscape.
Any law carries a philosophy behind it. The Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) Order, 1973 is actually some modification of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 of India. All are a follow up of the British rules for protecting forests. The then philosophy still persists in the proposed act which is going to the parliament for legislation where the sublime agenda of its formulators are, the same as that of its predecessors -- to protect everything from the people for the queen.
The proposed wildlife act is a motivated package to take control of the wildlife by the government in an omnipotent fashion. The proposed act is formulated in a subtle way, where one man's decision can control the mechanism while that one man, the chief of the Forest Department, has been empirically proven powerless in governing and decision making being always a puppet of the forest secretary or the minister who can be politically motivated, in cases maybe with corrupt intention.
A good law must be formulated in such a way that the present and the foreseen practice of manipulation do not make an inroad there and at the same time people's livelihood practices do not get hampered. The proposed seems to have been engineered to allow the opposite. Any wrongdoing can be okayed by the mechanism prescribed bypassing people's right. It can disrupt many law abiding people's daily life who are living in and around wilderness eking out a livelihood.
The goal of the proposed act is obviously protecting wildlife of Bangladesh. But protecting wildlife is a complex matter which incorporates many legal, scientific, technical and social issues. The law not only should focus on the protection of the species but also the habitats of the species which are often shared with the human habitation. We have to understand that wildlife and its habitat are such a treasure which is almost non-retrievable, that means if we lose them once, it is nearly impossible to get them back again.
The biggest flaw of this proposed act is that it is structured in a pyramid style where the Chief Wildlife Warden knows everything and decides everything. Of course he may get advice from the Scientific Committee and the Wildlife Advisory Board. But none of these committees suggest having any member with such powerful and decision making significance that their position and action can be respected by all to save our wildlife.
Wildlife laws are, in fact, for the protection of 'rights' of the wildlife and we have to formulate it in such a way that even if the government one day wished to violate that right, that also becomes impossible. If we look at the structure of the laws of other countries, we see that 'what to do' to protect the wildlife is formulated by a wide range of powerful members from various government and non-government organizations forming a national body. To avoid the personal preference and the political influence, those committee members are mostly institutional heads. We have to be aware that the government itself can try to do something which might threat wildlife or its habitat like mining or military necessity which should be prevented by the law from the beginning.
In most of our wildlife habitats, people live in and around and share the place with wildlife. From hundreds of years people from the small ethnic groups are living in and around the national parks and protected areas in Bangladesh. In the proposed act new rules have been suggested, for the protected areas, on forest harvesting, trespassing and in many cases punishment for violators has been increased. The law did not define how it would deal with the people living inside the national parks and totally ignored the small ethnic groups who are living in and around the protected areas. This deliberate omitting of the important issue will create serious clash of their daily life with the law and the wildlife management will be troublesome for a legitimate government official. Or it may strengthen the evil hand of an ill-motivated one to threaten the members of the small ethnic groups living there. So, how the act will deal with the small ethnic groups and other human settlers living in and close to the protected areas should be clearly defined.
The proposed act also legitimizes the co-management practice in the protected areas. Already we have experiences of some pilot projects of co-management in some protected areas of Bangladesh. So long a co-management area was under close and effective monitoring of the project, on average it was showing some good impact. But as soon as the close monitoring of the project stopped, or the control and association from the central project office loosened, the co-management mechanism was politicized by the local influential body or the local MP. This will seriously hamper the government's own activity of forest management as the local goons will get a legitimate hold of the forest and the wildlife there. To avoid this, a carefully thought out institutionalized (members selected from the local institution heads) co-management structure should be pre-defined in the law.
It is very fortunate that we are living in a very precious biodiversity hotspot of the planet. Despite all our mismanagement and malpractice, our Sundarbans is still sustaining the pride of holding the biggest single natural tiger population in the world. Our Lawachara National Park is one of the finest forests with wide variety of biodiversity still thriving. If all these we can save and develop, we can get much of our golden heritage of wildlife back. So, let us revise the proposed act with a stronger conservation philosophy behind and make laws for the sake of true wellbeing of the wildlife of Bangladesh.
The writer is a wildlife researcher and photographer. firstname.lastname@example.org