Rozina Islam | Update: 21:06, Jan 21, 2018

Different government and private organisations have recently applied for allotment of 16,000 acres of forest land for building offices, industries and other infrastructures, officials concerned said.

The government has already allotted a total of 167,689 acres of forest land for such purposes that have brought down the national forest area to below optimum rate.

In such a context, the environment and forest ministry has sought opinion of the prime minister’s office on whether to give allotment to various entities in the name of development.

“We can’t senselessly allot arable and forest land to whoever wants it. We have sought the prime minister’s opinion in this regard,” said Anwar Hossain, water resources minister, who was earlier in charge of the environment and forest ministry.

The environment and forest ministry sent a letter dated 27 December to the principal secretary to the prime minister’s office where a meeting is scheduled to be held on Monday.

The ministry wants to raise the national forest area to 20 per cent from 17.62 per cent of the total land area in order to meet the UN development goals, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to the letter.

Use of forest land for development purposes such as bulding roads, and setting up electricity and gas transmission lines is increasing, despite legal restriction, the forest ministry said.

It requested the prime minister’s office not to allow encroachment on forest land in the name of implementing development projects.

In case the govenment has to use forest land for meeting the emergency needs of the state, the ministry recommended allotting equal amount of land in favour of the forest department to make up for the loss of forest area.

In recent times, the government allotted 4,835 acres of forest land to make camps for Rohingya people who fled Myanmar’s persecution and have taken shelter in Cox’s Bazar.

Convenor of Bangladesh Citizen Platform for SDGs, Debapriya Bhattacharya told Prothom Alo that if the forest land is allotted to others, it would not be able to mitigate effects of climate change on agriculture.

He pointed out that the forest land decreased alarmingly in the past 15 years. “Expansion of forest area is essential to achieve SDGs,” Debapriya added.

Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) is constructing headquarters for its battalion-54 on 60 acres of reserved forest in Baghaihat, Rangamati, without any permission, chief forest conservator Safiul Alam Chowdhury said in a 17 December 2017 letter to the forest ministry secretary.

However, the BGB applied for 39.95 acres of land for construction of the headquarters of 54 BGB battalion.

Defending the BGB’s position, home minister Asaduzzaman Khan said, “Land was sought for various purposes including setting up of BOP (border outpost). We’ve formulated a policy in this regard and the forest department should take steps as per the policy.”

On 18 August last year, BGB authorities sought allotment of forest land in Dipuchhara, Dhupshil, and Uttar Lakkachhara of Babuchhara in the hill tracts for setting up border outposts. Request was made for allotment of five acres of land in Naikhongchhari, Bandarban, to set up border outpost.

The textiles directorate has recently requested the forest department to allot five acres of land for setting up Capasia Textiles Engineering College, in Gazipur. There are Gozari trees on the proposed land.

On 5 May 2017, Coast Guard applied for one acre of land for carrying its different activities.

The forest ministry said the local government engineering department, union parishads and Palli Bidyut Samity have constructed roads and sewerage lines at different places by destroying Shaalban (Shaal forest), ignoring the ban on the construction of roads through the reserved forest.

In a letter to the local government division, the environment and forest ministry pointed out that forest officers were presented as opponents of the local people during construction of roads through the forest.

The ministry cited a recent case in Gazipur where the LGED was conducting Gosinga-Rajabari road, different roads at Kachighata and Kaliakoir. The ministry also regretted that it is difficult for the department to tackle such situation with scarce manpower.

The LGED has constructed Teknaf-Shaplapur road in Cox’s Bazar by felling trees and cutting hills in the reserved forest area. Cases were filed against upazila engineers and contractors but to no avail.

The LGED also constructed roads in the reserved forest in Bandarban.

Former chief forest conservator Younus Ali told Prothom Alo that such situation is often created since there are no land management mechanism and policy. Still, he insisted that the ministry has to be “very strict”.

Bangladesh representative of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Ishtiak Uddin Ahmed noted that the forest land does not merely mean some trees.

“Wildlife and bio-diversity are its essential components,” he said adding that development projects could be implemented elsewhere to save forest and environment.

*This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.