“Is the Forest Department to be a landlord without any responsibilities?”
Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association's (BELA) chief executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan talks to Sushmita S Preetha of The Daily Star about the deplorable state of our forests, weaknesses in the proposed amendment to the Forest Act 1927, and the consistent failure to reconcile livelihoods and conservation in forest landscapes of Bangladesh.
Forests should constitute at least 25 percent of the total land area in order to maintain the ecological balance in a country, but we are nowhere close to the desired target. How would you evaluate the current state of our forests?
In a poverty-ridden country like Bangladesh, forests play a critical role in providing livelihood opportunities to the people. They are essential in protecting us from natural disasters, which, we fear, will only increase over the years due to climate change. But if we look at the state of our forests, we can't help but be disappointed. In 1971, 16 percent of our total land consisted of forests; now it has declined to 6 percent. Our forests have been destroyed at a rapid rate for a number of reasons – including, inadequate, vague and colonial laws, failure to include forest-dependent communities in the management of forests, difficulties in demarcating the forest boundaries, corruption and irregularities of the Forest Department, etc. Meanwhile, currently, in the name of social forestry, what is being done is plantation of various types of foreign trees that do little to protect the environment. Natural forests are being encroached and being replaced by artificially planted forests.
What are the limitations of existing forest-related laws?
What we need to protect and conserve our forestry are a relevant and strong legal structure and effective implementation of the laws and policies. No new law has been enacted in the last 90 years. Although the Forest Act, enacted in 1927 during British rule, is controversial and ineffective for the most part, there hasn't been much change in the law over the years. Since the main objective of the 1927 law was taxation and regulation of movement of forest produce, it is no wonder that it is not possible to conserve forests through this law. The two amendments made thus far have done little to help with conservation, but rather has accelerated the process of deforestation. In the new proposed amendment to the Forest Act, the words "conservation" and "sustainable use" has been added, but there's no definition of either of the two concepts.
All administrative laws of the country have a separate section demarcating the powers and functions of the relevant department. The Forest Act is the only piece of law which doesn't contain any section on the Forest Department. As such, the department has never really had any defined responsibility of protecting forests. Is the Forest Department to be a landlord without any responsibilities?
Environmental activists, including you, have staunchly criticised the new proposed amendment to the Forest Act, 1927 and stated that it would make the Forest Department into a "neo-emperor of the forest". What are your main objections?
If the amendment was such that its main objective was to protect and conserve the forest, then we would have no problems. But the amendments proposed would mainly increase the powers of the forest department. And environmental activists and forest dependent communities more or less concur that these powers will make the forest department more arbitrary. For instance, one of the changes made has been in regards to the process of declaration of a reserve forest. Under the 1927 law, it was stated that if the government wants to declare a reserve forest, it must notify everyone of its intention through a gazette notification. It would then issue a notice under Section 6 and an inquiry would take place as to the rights of the people over the forest. Under the existing law, it was the DC who would inform the relevant stakeholders. The people could approach the DC and say, 'Look, I have claims over the forest, I cultivate my paddy here, or graze my cows here, or depend on the forest produce'. The DC would settle the complaints and claims before finalising the process. Previously, there was no timeline to complete this. But now, as per the amendment, you only get 6 to 18 months to put forward your claims, and if you don't do it, your claims will be forfeited. When the Forest Department issues a gazette notification, they don't exactly widely publicise it or display it on-site (at least it hasn't so far). So now, very secretively, it can declare land, on which many have depended for decades, even generations, as reserve forest. On paper, the department will show it has followed due process, but in reality it will not do so. This will only lead to conflict between the forest department and the communities which depend on the forest. There is also confusion as to whether this provision would be retrospective or prospective. For instance, can the government now say that land declared as reserve forest in 2000, for instance—but on which due process has not been completed—is now a reserve forest, since 18 months is over?
The other issue we have is that the amendment increases the punishment from 6 months to 2 years. But the people who really destroy the forests never get punishment. For instance, an industry grabbed a whole forest in Gazipur, but there will be no punishment for them. It is sad that there have been no amendments thus far to bring these industries to book.
The proposed amendment, then, would curtail the rights of forest-dependent communities and particularly affect the indigenous communities. Is there a way of conserving the forests that is compatible with protecting the lives and livelihoods of the people?
Many people, particularly those from indigenous communities, rely on forests for their lives and livelihoods. However, as per the Forestry Policy, the government is terming them as "encroachers" saying that these "tribal communities" grab land as per their will. This proposed amendment reflects the same sentiment towards communities which are dependent on forests. Rather than term the big industries as encroachers, you are terming the local communities as encroachers. Now whenever there is a conflict, the Forest Department can say, "Your land right is not established," and file a case against you as an encroacher.
If the government wanted to ensure participation of local people, then it would implement Section 28 of the said law, which states that if a government declares a forest as a reserve forest, it can leave the management of the forest to the forest dependent community. The power that resides with the Forest Department would then reside with the community. The government could issue a rule as to how the community would manage the forest. Unfortunately, it's been 87 years, yet no initiative has been taken to institute a rule to ensure community participation. Instead, the government has introduced the concept of 'co-management', and in its name, what the government is essentially doing now is putting its own people in the committee and making a plan as to how many foreign trees to plant in the locality, further destroying the environment.
According to the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992, signatory countries should "respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge, innovations and practices [Article 8(j)]". In line with this, many countries have made changes to their laws to make them more relevant and people-oriented. It is high time we do so through our law.