Different organisa-tions working with forests and the environment have come up with different estimates of Bangladesh's total forest coverage. While the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change estimates that Bangladesh currently has 17 percent forestland, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), it is only 13 percent. There are other organisations that have found our forest coverage to be much lower—less than 10 percent. If Bangladesh now has 13 percent forestland, as found by FAO, we need to almost double our forest coverage in order to increase it to 25 percent, which is needed to have a proper ecological balance.
However, instead of protecting our existing forests and focusing on planned forestation—which we desperately need to do now—what we are doing at the state level is actually leading the way for more deforestation. The recent proposal by the public administration ministry to set up a civil service training academy using 700 acres of forestland in Shuknachhari forest of Cox's Bazar Sadar upazila is one such project, which, if implemented, will greatly harm the area's ecological balance. Shuknachhari forest is a sanctuary for wild animals including the Asian elephant, listed as an endangered species by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). At least 12 species of trees and shrubs, various species of birds, wild monkeys, wild hogs, pythons and other snakes, among other animals, live in the forest.
The forest was declared an ecologically critical area in 1999 by the environment and forest ministry. It is not possible that the public administration ministry is not aware of this. Also, the ministry has made the proposal at a time when forests on more than 6,000 acres in southern Cox's Bazar have been razed following the Rohingya influx. Given these facts, it may seem strange to many as to why the ministry chose this site for setting up the Bangabandhu Civil Service Academy.
However, if we look at how our precious forestland has been destroyed over the years by different government and non-government agencies, all our confusions will be cleared.
The daily Prothom Alo reported last year that whenever any government ministry or agency needs land for any development project or for official use, they first target our forests. According to the environment ministry, in the last 48 years since our independence, a total of 1,68,000 acres of forestland have been leased out to various government and non-government organisations (Prothom Alo, Feb 11, 2019). Also, Global Forest Watch (GFW) and World Resources Institute (WRI)—the two international organisations working with forests—in their joint report in 2018 revealed that 3,32,000 acres of forestland were destroyed in Bangladesh in the last seven years.
According to the ministry of environment and forest, forestland had been used for the construction and development of roads and highways, building rail lines, and also setting up utility lines. Besides, a large portion of land has already been allotted to Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority (BEZA) and different law enforcement agencies. Although it is prohibited by law to build roads through reserve forests, the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) has built roads through the Sal forests in Gazipur and the reserve forests of Teknaf and Bandarban, disregarding the laws (Prothom Alo, January 21, 2018).
Illegal grabbing of forestland by influential quarters has made the situation even worse. The Daily Star reported that several real estate companies had grabbed many parts of our forests in Kuakata, Bandarban, Gazipur and some other districts for developing housing projects and resorts. Only in Gazipur, nearly 24 acres of forestland have been encroached on by 15 resorts, according to a report by The Daily Star. Although the Environment, Forest and Climate Change minister announced earlier this year that the government will recover the illegally grabbed land that originally belonged to the forest department, one wonders how the government would do that since the organisations concerned do not seem to be empowered enough to deal with these issues.
Coming back to the issue of setting up a training academy in Shuknachhari, there is no doubt that we need specialised training institutes for the newly-recruited BCS cadres. But that does not necessarily mean that it has to be set up in an environmentally critical area. The project is still in its preliminary stage and the public administration ministry has not yet applied for the environmental clearance for the project. So it should not be very difficult for the government to find another suitable place for setting up the institute.
We have ample laws strictly prohibiting the use of forestland for such projects. The State Acquisition and Tenancy Act-1950 declared forestland as non-retainable property, while section 17 of the National Land Use Policy-2001 states that protected forestland should be conserved, maintained and expanded. And according to the land ministry, protected forest is non-leasable. In 2018, a land ministry circular requested the deputy commissioners of the districts not to lease out any protected forest given that our forestland is fast decreasing. So if the government itself ignores these laws, it would set a bad example for forest conservation.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPI), a US-based organisation, has published a report in 2018 on the governments' role in protecting the environment—the report placed Bangladesh 179th among 180 countries. It is evident from this ranking that our government is not doing enough to save the environment.
Political interference, pressure from influential quarters and inefficiency of government agencies concerned are the main barriers to protecting our forests. Carrying out the ongoing development works while keeping the environment safe has become another big challenge for the government. Protecting and even increasing our forestland will only be possible if the existing laws are enforced properly. This government has promised in its manifesto that they would work to preserve our forest and the environment. Now it's time for them to keep their promise. By moving away from their plan to build the training academy at an ecologically critical area, they can prove their sincerity in this regard.
Naznin Tithi is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.