INTERNATIONAL Day of Forests is observed every March 21 to create awareness among people of the importance of forests and their vital role in poverty eradication, environmental sustainability and food security. The 2020 observances of International Day of Forests will focus on ‘Forests and Biodiversity’. A sustainable management of forests is at the heart of unlocking challenges of the conflict-affected developing and developed countries for the benefit of current and future generations. Biodiversity serves as a source of income for countries around the world. The people of Bangladesh depend on biodiversity for their day-to-day sustenance as well as the overall livelihood security. Through agriculture, forestry, livestock and fisheries, biodiversity provides food, fibre, medicine, timber and also contributes significantly to national economies and employment of the huge population. The values of goods and services that biodiversity directly or indirectly provides are intensifying the relationship between the role of biodiversity in environmental sustainability, poverty reduction and sustainable development.
Biodiversity benefits people through more than just its contribution to material welfare and livelihoods. Biodiversity is essential for sustainable socio-economic development. It also produces goods and services for the most fundamental needs — clean air, fresh water and shelter. It also provides people with recreational, psychological, emotional and spiritual enjoyment. Our food comes directly or indirectly from plants. Plants supply over 90 per cent of the food consumed by humans. Fruit, nuts, mushrooms, honey, spices and other foods that humans and wildlife consume originate from natural ecosystems. Most houses, furniture and even many clothes are made from natural products, including wood, oils, resins, waxes, gums, and fibres. The cocoons of silk worms are the basis of the valuable silk-making industry. Biodiversity contributes to security, resiliency, social relations, health and freedom of choices and actions.
Globally 4.5 billion people still use plants as their primary source of medicine. Close to 30 per cent of all pharmaceuticals on the market today were developed from plants and animals. Antibiotics such as penicillin are extracted from fungi. Wild yams have chemicals with anti-inflammatory properties. Ovarian and breast cancer treatments have been developed from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. Many plant species contain chemicals that are used to make painkillers, blood pressure boosters and drugs for malaria and leukaemia. Most plants have yet to be tested for their potential medicinal properties. Natural marine products have potential as pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, agricultural chemicals, and biomedical research. The ethical and religious beliefs of cultures around the world include respect for and protection of nature.
The total area of Bangladesh is 14,757 million hectares, of which 1,204,000 hectares are natural forests and 237,000 hectares are forest plantations. Though small in size, Bangladesh is a biodiversity-rich country. Bangladesh is situated between the Indo-Himalayas and Indo-Chinese sub-regions with distinct physiographic characteristics, variations in hydrological and climatological conditions, and differences in the soil properties contribute to developing diverse forms of ecosystems with rich flora and fauna. The people of the country have traditionally used and conserved biodiversity generation after generation. Maintaining the sustainable use of these rich biodiversity is very important for a huge population of the country. But much of the government forest lands do not have satisfactory tree cover and only 84,00,000 hectares (about 5.8 per cent) of the state forest land has good forest cover. Bangladesh forests support a rich biodiversity but the quantitative data is scarce except for a few sites. Biodiversity conservation is of immense importance, under present state of habitat destruction and species depletion. Moreover, the database that we so far have is very poor or inadequate. In addition, we do not have regular monitoring mechanisms or programmes for biodiversity assessment that will show the trend of changes in the status of biodiversity.
Bangladesh has a rich biological heritage. It has about 3,600 species of algae, 40–50 species of lichens, 290 bryophytes, 200 pteridophytes, 5 gymnosperms and about 3,761 angiosperms mostly in forest ecosystems. However, the estimation of the total flora seems higher than the figures. Similarly Bangladesh supports 113 species of mammals, 628 species of birds, 126 species of reptiles, 22 species of amphibians, 708 species of freshwater and marine fishes, 400 species of molluscs, about 70 species of bees. The aquatic faunal diversity is represented by variety of sponges (9), corals (32), crabs (39), lobsters (4), molluscs (459), echinoderms (45) and other invertebrates. The vertebrate species being 260 species of freshwater fish including 11 exotic, 475 species of marine fishes, 25 species of amphibians, 27 species of turtles and tortoises, 2 species of crocodiles, 1 species of gharial, 77 species of snakes and 90 species of mammals. Although about 5,000 species of angiosperms and 1,597 species of fauna are believed to be available in the country, findings show that the population of a number of species is becoming threatened.
Biodiversity is depleting from all natural habitats of Bangladesh. Biodiversity loss continues because the current policies and economic systems do not incorporate biodiversity safeguard mechanism effectively in either the political or the market systems, and many safeguard policies are not fully implemented in the country. There are many forces responsible for forest degradation, collectively and individually. The trends of these forces are very complex. The major causes of forest degradation in Bangladesh are agricultural expansion, over-extraction of wood and non-wood resources, infrastructure development, population growth, deforestation, settlement, urbanisation and inappropriate management practices. Forest degradation in Bangladesh is in a sorry state and their major causes are diverse and complex. The loss of forest cover in Bangladesh still remains at an estimated figure and their exact size and location are not conclusively determined. These estimates indicate that damage affects one eighth of the country’s land area. The different estimates of deforestation reported in various sources are not consistent. In the absence of survey and demarcation of areas classified as forests, it is not possible to improve the information base. However, estimation is that about half of the land area controlled by the forest department lacks tree covers. Conflict over policies is one of the important and major causes of deforestation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Clear felling followed by monoculture of teak, introduction of exotics in plantation forestry; allotment of land for rubber plantation; upland settlement programmes, loosely coordinated and integrated development programmes have caused significant deforestation. These have also been an important cause of biodiversity loss. Lack of integrity among some government officials, political and community leaders have influenced policies and local level decision making processes which ultimately added to the underlying causes of deforestation. Another major threat to native biological diversity is now acknowledged by scientists and governments to be biological invasions caused by alien invasive species. In Bangladesh, the introduction of alien invasive species of flora and fauna was deliberate primarily in order to increase productivity to support the needs of a huge population. The deliberate preferences of fast growing high yielding cultivars eroded some of the native species and the genetic resources abruptly. More than 300 exotic plant species are supposed to either wildly growing or cultivated as an economic crop in Bangladesh.
Article 18A of the constitution ensures ‘protection and improvement of environment and biodiversity’. It states that the state will endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to preserve and safeguard the natural resources, biodiversity, wetlands, forests and wildlife for the present and the future generations. In addition, Bangladesh has obligations to fulfil the commitments of the international agreements for the conservation of the natural resources. The government is committed to conserve its natural resources through a series of international treaties, conventions and also by its constitution. These have been reflected through the documents approved by the government and the parliament, and the commitments made by the prime minister in various international forums.
Bangladesh has signed the five major conventions and agreements related to biodiversity conservation — the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, Ramsar and the World Heritage Centre. As a signatory to these conventions, the government has undertaken various initiatives to conserve the biodiversity in both ecosystem and species level. Again as a CBD-COP the country is bound to adopt the Ecosystem Approach to conserve biodiversity. Red Data Book of Fauna is published; however the Red Data Book of Flora is yet to be finalised with the SUFAL project of Bangladesh Forest Department.
Some significant initiatives have been taken by different government agencies including the forest department, department of environment, public institutions, universities, development partners, and national and international NGOs with an aim to conserving the natural resources. The Aichi Biodiversity Targets came into effect in 2011 and set 20 targets to be achieved by 2020. Bangladesh has developed the Biodiversity Act 2017, but needs miles to go to protect the forest biodiversity from complex drivers responsible for the loss of forest biodiversity in the country.
Dr Mohammed Kamal Hossain is a professor at the Institute of Forestry and Environmental Sciences, University of Chittagong.
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