Reserve forest defiled, defying court order
A tea company is digging a lake in the middle of a reserve forest in Fatikchhari, Chattogram, in what environmentalists say is a crime that's causing irreparable damage to the environment.
Also, by felling hundreds of trees in the Ramgarh-Sitakunda reserved forest, the company, Halda Valley, is violating a court order to maintain status quo on the land.
On December 29, 2022, the Forest Department sued four employees of Halda at the Forest Court in Chattogram.
The complaint said Halda authorities were digging the land for the man-made lake on 135 acres of land in the Badurkhil area of the reserve forest in violation of a status quo order, according to the case statement.
The status quo order prevents parties involved in affecting change until the matter at hand is resolved.
A man-made lake of 600 feet in length and 60 feet in width has been excavated, the complaint added.
During a visit to the area in December, this correspondent found an excavator by the side of the lake and large piles of logs on the banks.
A mid-level employee of the company, who requested to be unnamed for fear of losing his job, said the area was covered by a lush green forest. He said he often saw wild cats, foxes and many other animals in the place.
"None of them can be seen there anymore. I felt bad for them. I hope they fled when they started using the heavy machinery to clear the area," he said.
Mozammel Hoque Shah Chowdhury, divisional forest officer (Chattogram north), said the company was ruthlessly encroaching on the forest lands and obstructing reforestation efforts by the department.
The 72-square kilometre Ramgarh-Sitakunda reserve forest is one of the oldest and richest protected forests in the country. It is home to 25 species of mammals, 123 species of birds, eight species of reptiles and 25 species of trees, according to data from the Forest Department.
Disputes between the Forest Department and Halda began in 2003 when the Chattogram district administration leased out 1,052 acres of land to the company, mentioning it on documents as khas land.
The Forest Department officials say 134 acres of the leased-out land belonged to the reserved forest. They filed a case with a Chattogram court, seeking an amendment to the land record, saying that the land was mistakenly recorded as khas in the Bangladesh Survey (BS).
In June 2016, a court issued a status quo order on the disputed property.
According to data from the Forest Department, the land in question was recorded as forest in the Revisional Survey 1927-28.
The Calcutta gazette issued in 1893 by the then Assam-Bengal Forest Department also recorded it as forestland, said the documents.
But in the 1980s,the plots were mistakenly recorded as khas land in the BS, they said.
Mozammel said the district administration could lease out the land because it was wrongly listed as khas land. A reserve forest cannot be leased out unless the president changes its status of being reserved.
"We have taken legal steps and filed cases to protect the forest," he said, "Now Halda Valley is ignoring the court order and destroying the wildlife habitat."
Since 2006, the department has filed at least 21 cases accusing Halda employees of encroachment, land grabbing, felling trees and assaulting Forest Department officials, according to court documents.
To protect biodiversity, the Cabinet on October 31, 2022, approved a proposal to extend the ban on cutting trees in the country's reserved and natural forests to 2030.
Contacted, Halda Valley Managing Director Nader Khan said, "We have the legal aspects in mind. I don't think there was anything inappropriate about digging the land."
He avoided giving a direct answer when he was reminded about the status quo order, and simply said, "I have enough documents."
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, said, "Digging the land of a reserved forest is a crime. I believe the Forest Department should try harder to stop this."
Mohammad Kamal Hossain, former professor of the Institute of Forestry and Environmental Science at Chittagong University, said, "The government shouldn't have leased out the property. The Forest Department won't be able to save these historic woodlands if the administration doesn't play an active role."
Chattogram Deputy Commissioner Abul Bashar Mohammed Fakhruzzaman said whether or not the Forest Department has a legitimate claim on the land will depend on the court decision.
When his attention was drawn to the ongoing excavation on the land, Fakhruzzaman said, "We have allocated the land to Halda Valley to plant tea sapling. Digging for a lake is illegal. I will look into the matter and take necessary action."
In a report submitted to a parliamentary body in February 2021, the Forest Department said over 1.60 lakh individuals and organisations grabbed 2.57 lakh acres of forestland across the country. Of the total grabbed land, 1.38 lakh acres of reserve forests were occupied by 88,215 individuals and organisations.