The hills and their human predators
If we had to pick only one example of how money speaks louder than the law of the land, many would probably pick the practice of hill cutting in Bangladesh. As per the Environment Conservation (Amendment) Act 2010, hill cutting is a cognisable offence, and no government, semi-government or autonomous organisation is allowed to cut or raze hills without permission from the authorities concerned. And yet, hills across the country keep being axed down while state officials and law enforcers, in cahoots with the criminals, turn a blind eye.
As a report by this newspaper has revealed, influential individuals are cutting down hills in various areas of Moulvibazar's Barlekha upazila, and neither raids nor fines by the relevant authorities seem to be able to stop them. As such, claims by the Department of Environment (DoE) that they have "zero tolerance towards hill cutting" have, in fact, zero ground to stand on.
The soil that is excavated from hills is trucked away and sold for use by brick kilns or real estate developers. It is often used for road construction purposes or to fill up low-lying lands. But are these developmental activities really worth the environmental and human costs incurred by the rampant cutting of hills? As experts have stated, such indiscriminate hill cutting is one of the biggest culprits responsible for landslides in hilly areas, thus putting at risk the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of people living there. At any given time, any of these violated hills could fall on top of homes situated near them.
As locals have told this daily, influentials still continue to cut hills. Police or land office officials reportedly "meet" them sometimes, but leave with money. Culprits often receive news of planned raids beforehand and halt any hill-cutting activity, but continue as soon as the threat passes. As per our report, despite there being ample information on who are behind such illegal operations, when confronted for answers, these owners of hills or contractors or police sub-inspectors get away by shifting the blame onto one another. Some local government officials are also aware of the sheer illegality and corruption involved in hill cutting, but seldom come forward to speak against the culprits.
We agree with the residents of these hilly areas that the local administration must be stricter in dealing with influentials who are cutting down hills. And the local political leadership must support any attempt at saving hills. This is important both for the sake of the environment and the safety of those whose lives and livelihoods depend on hills. The need for "development" is not a sufficient excuse for mindlessly cutting down hills. The DoE and the government must do better to protect the country's environment and protect people's lives from an impending climate disaster.