RHD eyes 174 acres of reserve forest

reserve forest

The Roads and Highways Department is seeking 174 acres to widen a road through the Ramgarh-Sitakunda Reserve Forest in Chattogram amid concerns of damage to the environment and violation of rules.

One of the oldest and richest reserve forests in the country, the Ramgarh-Sitakunda Reserve Forest 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.

If the 174 acres is leased out to the RHD thousands of trees would be cut down and irreparable damage would be done to the wildlife, said forest officials.

The RHD sent a letter to the divisional forest officer of Chattogram North Forest Division on October 14 last year, seeking the lease in order to widen the 38km Baraiyerhat-Hiako-Ramgarh road.

Mozammel Hoque Shah Chowdhury, divisional forest officer of Chattogram North Forest Division, said the land can only be leased out when it is declared de-reserved by the president.

He added that the road was built decades ago by ignoring the rules and there were allegations that it was already used by locals to steal trees and poach animals.

Mozammel said he had told the RHD to request the prime minister for permission to take up the lease.

The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) approved the Tk 848 crore project in August 2020 to widen the road from 5.5 metres to 7.3 metres.

The project doesn't have permission from the environment ministry and no assessment of its environmental impact was done, officials said.

Pintu Chakma, executive engineer of RHD in Chattogram, said, "We took the initiative to widen the road at the recommendation of high-level officials of the government. Goods will be shipped between India and Bangladesh using this road.

"We hope that we will get the forest department's clearance."

Deforesting the 174 acres will violate the Forest Act-1927, National Land Use Policy, National Forest Policy and a Cabinet Division circular from 2015, experts said.

In 2018, a land ministry circular requested the deputy commissioners not to lease out any protected and reserved forests.

Besides, Bangladesh committed at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties last year to stop deforestation by 2030.

Section-18 (ka) of the Bangladesh constitution says the government will take steps to maintain and conserve the environment and biodiversity for the present and future generations.

Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, said, "The road through the forest is already a threat to the forest and wildlife. If the road is widened, forestry crimes will increase."

Mohammad Kamal Hossain, former professor of the Institute of Forestry and Environmental Science at Chittagong University, said, "Development is necessary, but it shouldn't come at the expense of our forests and wildlife. Development is possible while protecting the forests. We need proper plans made by forest scientists and construction engineers."

Forest officials in Chattogram said widening the road would surely lead to illegal settlement in the reserve forest.

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 forest across the country.

Of the total grabbed land, 1.38 lakh acres of reserved forests were occupied by 88, 215 individuals and organisations.