Over 4.58 lakh acres of the country’s forestlands, as mentioned in the cadastral survey, have disappeared over the past 70 years due to the development of government projects or the occupation by more than 1,00,000 individuals and businesses.
Forest department officials said that the agency had to hand over 1.60 lakh acres of forestlands to agencies like the Roads and Highways Department, railway department, Armed Forces Division, Rapid Action Battalion and Border Guard Bangladesh, and for developing numerous infrastructures.
District administrations and the Land Reforms Board have leased out an estimated 11,000 acres of forestlands to big businesses for developing farms, factories, housing and other enterprises in Savar, Gazipur, Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar, they said.
Over 1,00,000 occupiers grabbed an estimated 2.87 lakh acres of forestlands for agricultural activities and to develop factories, resorts, recreation parks, picnic spots, film cities, schools and others, they said.
The occupiers include, they said, businesspeople, politicians, former bureaucrats, showbiz stars and tens of thousands of landless people and ethnic minority groups.
But, the department has no data about the forestlands that have been transformed into roads by the local government bodies.
Its officials do not even know the number of cases pending with various courts over forestland grabbing.
They do not have any account either on how many valuable trees are illegally felled each year.
‘We are collecting the names of grabbers and the number of cases pending with courts,’ Chief Conservator of Forests Conservation and Extension Md Amir Hosain Chowdhury told New Age on November 18.
But he said that the forest department had nothing to do to reclaim 1.6 lakh acres of forestlands converted into roads, railways and infrastructures of different government agencies.
A total of 46.47 lakh acres of forestlands, including the newly developed forests, Amir claimed, exist in the country.
On January 2, 2020 the High Court observed that any notified forest area, no matter whether declared reserved forest or not, could not be allotted or leased for any purpose that would damage the country’s forest.
The court also declared illegal a lease agreement under which the deputy commissioner of Chattogram on March 21, 2019 leased out to BBC Steel 7.1 acres of notified forest area at Uttar Salimpur in Sitakunda.
Saber Hossain Chowdhury, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on the environment, forest and climate change ministry, questioned the integrity and sincerity of government officials in protecting forests.
‘Forest officials did not take actions as they could do while land ministry and district administration officials helped the grabbers prepare documents to claim forestlands as their properties or leased out forestlands for developing different structures,’ Saber said.
Government officials also failed to realise the importance of conserving forests while initiating development projects, he commented.
In 2018 the Anti-Corruption Commission found the involvement of Gazipur district administration officials in helping develop Shilpi Kunja Picnic Spot, Shohag Palli Resort Zone, Rangamati Water Front, Aranyak Bungalow Bari, ACI Bungalow Bari, Mamataj Picnic Spot and Nuhash Polli on illegally occupied forestlands.
ACC officials said that their investigations against the officials as well as the individuals and businesses concerned were under process.
Joint forces during the army-backed caretaker government arrested seven forest department officials with a huge amount of illicit money for helping forestland grabbers or illegal timber traders.
Greens blamed successive governments for undertaking road, railway and other projects in forest areas, which also encouraged individuals to develop settlements and other establishments near the government projects.
The disappearance of the forests, they said, resulted in the disappearance of the habitats of many endangered animals and contributed to climate change and increased the average temperature.
‘Many valuable trees and endangered animals are at risks of disappearing and the ecosystems around forests have been seriously hampered,’ said Chittagong University forestry department professor Mohammmed Kamal Hossain.
Trees like bailam, civit, bashpata and segun, he said, are quickly disappearing while 31 wildlife species have become extinct across the country in the past 100 years and 390 of the country’s 1,610 such species are currently endangered.
He said that many mammals, reptiles and birds — leopard, clouded leopard, Asian elephant, hoolock gibbon, long-tailed macaque, smooth-coated otter, Phayre’s leaf monkey, Asiatic black bear, Malayan sun bear and pink-headed duck and others — might disappear soon unless their habitats were protected.
Ideally a country’s forest coverage should be at least 20 per cent of its total land while Bangladesh has only 10 per cent, Bangladesh Paribesh Andolan general secretary Sharif Jamil said.
‘The forest department, however, claims the coverage to be over 22 per cent. Officials of the department manipulate data as they are involved with grabbers and illegal timber traders,’ he alleged.
Forest department officials said that the highest area of forestlands disappeared in Cox’s Bazar.
Over 59,471 acres of forestlands have been converted into shrimp projects, salt factories, shipbreaking factories, Rohingya refugee camps, and roads and infrastructures of many agencies, they said.
Most of these lands were leased out by the district administration while 46,000 occupiers, mostly landless people, took the rest, they said.
An estimated 39,000 acres of forestlands in Tangail have disappeared, of which a vast area has been converted into agricultural land by both Bengali and Garo communities, forest department officials said, adding that they also had to hand over forestlands of the district to various agencies.
Over 29,000 acres of forestlands in Sylhet, 28,000 acres in Chattogram and 15,000 acres in Rangamati have been lost to cultivation, government infrastructures, businesses through leases, and to illegal occupiers, they said.
Most of the 12,000 acres of forestlands in Dhaka and Gazipur have been grabbed by big businesses and influential individuals who have developed mills, factories, poultry farms, housing projects, resorts, picnic spots and shooting spots on the lands, forest department officials said.
They said that Ha-Meem Denim Limited, Titas Spinning and Denim Company Limited, Packline Bangladesh Ltd, Givenchy Denims, Auto Spinning Mill Limited, Hamid Spinning Mill Limited, Shamsuddin Spinning Mill Limited, Rahmat Textiles, Amber Cotton Mills and hundreds of other garment factories and spinning mills have been developed in Gazpur on occupied forestlands.
Several hundred poultry farms and allied concerns, including Paragon Poultry Limited, Majkat Poultry Limited, National Feed Limited and Modern Feed Limited, are on the list of occupiers, forest department officials said.
They said that manufacturers like Nitol Tata Private Limited, Nestle Bangladesh Limited, RAK Ceramics(Bangladesh) Limited, Artisan Ceramics Limited, Partex Holding Limited, Gordon Steel Mills Limited, TS Transformer Limited, Macdonalds Bangladesh Limited, Aristo Pharma, Macdonald Bangladesh limited and others also grabbed forestlands in Gazipur.
Some of the alleged grabbers admitted that they built boundary walls around their properties on forestlands while many claimed that they purchased the lands for developing their structures.
Ha-Meem Denim’s administration director Abdul Wadud said that some forestlands remained inside their boundary wall but they did not develop any structures on those.
RAK Ceramics human resource manager Md Abdul Mannan, Dulal Brothers managing director Md Abdul Jabbar and Packline Bangladesh Ltd managing director Md Taufiqur Rahman claimed that they developed their factories on the lands they purchased.
Artisan Ceramics human resource manager Swati Sadat refused to comment.
Nitol Motors Limited chairman Abdul Matlub, Nestle Bangladesh Limited corporate affairs director Naquib Khan and Partex Holding Limited managing director Showkat Aziz Russell could not be contacted for their version despite different attempts.
Other officials of those concerns refused to comment without their permission.
Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association executive director Syeda Rizwana Hasan, who lodged several cases challenging the leases of forestlands to the businesses, said that the conversion of forestlands into structures and enterprises must stop immediately.
‘Officials allow projects on forestland as they are not committed to protecting forests,’ Rizwana said, demanding transparency in the forest department and the land ministry.
Parliamentarian Saber Hossain Chowdhury said that the standing committees on the environment and forest ministry and the planning ministry already made recommendations discouraging development of projects on forestlands.
In case of undertaking any project, the committees asked the owners to specify whether any forestland would be acquired or not, he said.
‘We also recommended making lists of the grabbers and taking measures for reclaiming the illegally occupied forestlands according to the cadastral survey. We also recommended that performances of the forest department-appointed lawyers be evaluated,’ said Saber.
Planning minister MA Mannan could not be reached for his comment as he was suffering from COVID-19 while land secretary Md Maksudur Rahman Patwary claimed that there was no scope for the land ministry officials to help prepare forged documents.
‘We will look into the matter if the environment ministry can show any specific case,’ he said.
Environment, forest and climate change minister Md Shahab Uddin expressed determination to reclaim the illegally occupied forestlands from the grabbers and control further illegal occupations.
‘We asked land ministry officials and district administration officials for taking measures to protect the forestlands,’ he said.
Initiating projects on forestlands would be discouraged, said the minister, adding that projects were undertaken to expand the forest coverage to 25 per cent of the country’s total area by 2030.
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