Forestland taken for training centre
The government has handed over a part of Jungle Khuniya Palong reserved forest in Cox's Bazar to the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) for building a residential training facility after de-reserving the 20-acre land.
This deals a fresh blow to the fast-depleting forests in the region, home to critically endangered Asian elephants along with other flora and fauna.
BFF will build a technical centre to be funded by Fifa, the governing body of the world's football, on the forestland in Khuniya Palong union of the district's Ramu upazila.
The plan includes two football fields, a medical centre and a four-storey dormitory, among others, according to a top official of the federation.
Forest officials estimated that about 30,000 trees will have to be felled for the construction work.
Sarwar Alam, divisional forest officer of Cox's Bazar Forest Division (south), told The Daily Star that following a gazette notification on the de-reservation, they handed over the forestland to BFF through a ceremony in Khuniya Palong on July 4.
The land was de-reserved in the beginning of June, said sources.
The government has the right to de-reserve any forestland or declare a forest no longer reserved through a gazette, according to Section-27 (1) of Forest Act-1927.
But environmentalists insist this must be done only for national indispensable interest. And state-managed reserved forests should not be used for non-forest purposes.
During a recent visit, this correspondent saw a red flag demarcating the land given to BFF. The Cox's Bazar Forest Division (south) has a 20-year-old plantation within that de-reserved area.
Ayasur Rahman, president of the Co-Management Committee which oversees Himchhari National Park in Cox's Bazar, said the forest is relatively in good condition.
"Elephants roam around in many parts of the forest. If such structures are built, the movement of wildlife will be disturbed. There will be no forest at all in future," he said.
The handover of the forestland comes at a time when the reserved forests in Cox's Bazar have been facing an onslaught with more than 7,000 acres of forest already razed by Rohingya refugees in Ukhiya and Teknaf.
Encroachers across the coastal town sliced away more than 50,000 acres of the total 1,86,457 acres of reserved forests.
Cox's Bazar forests are the abode of Asian elephants -- categorised critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Encroachment, de-reservation, deforestation and leasing out are the key drivers behind the depletion of Cox's Bazar forest areas.
The 4,610-acre Khuniya Palong forest, declared reserved in 1907, is also part of an ecologically critical area (ECA) demarcated by the Department of Environment in 1999 because of its rich biodiversity.
The forest hosts reptiles and mammals including wild boars, binturong, leopard cat, porcupine, macaque, reticulated python with hundreds of tree species including herbs and shrubs.
Bangladesh committed in the COP-26 at UK's Glasgow last year to stop deforestation by 2030. Section-18 (ka) of the Bangladesh constitution made it mandatory that the government will take steps to maintain and conserve environment and biodiversity for the present and future generations.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, told The Daily Star that this is a serious violation of a 2019 High Court ruling which directed the government not to hand overany more forestland of Cox's Bazar to any individual or organisation.
"Nowadays, the government thinks that it can get away without complying with court orders. Where does it get such confidence from?"
She also questioned the BFF's intention to use the forestland when they could have easily got plain land for the training facility.
The noted environmentalist said the provision for de-reserving a forest in the century-old Forest Act should not be applicable now given the scarcity of forest at present.
Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmad, former Chief Conservator of Forest and president of the Institute of Foresters Bangladesh, told The Daily Star that already pressure was mounted on Cox's Bazar forests to accommodate the Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar.
"If everyone is hell-bent on building structures in Cox's Bazar forests, there will be no forest in near future there. The tendency to take Cox's Bazar forestland must be stopped," he said.
Contacted, Abu Nayeem Shohag, general secretary of BFF, said they wanted the land from the government.
"The land was given to BFF as per the government decision. There are no big trees in the part of the forest where the field and building will be built. and the rest of the land will be kept as it is," he said.
He said BFF has sent the land documents to Fifa, which "intends to furnish the centre by the end of 2023".
Asked how the decision to hand over the forestland to BFF is justified, Shahab Uddin, the minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, told this newspaper that they handed over the forestland to the federation on condition that it has to be maintained as it is.
There was no alternative to it and had there been any, they would not have done it, he added. "We will make sure the harm to forestland will be kept at a minimum level."