The Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation (BPC) wants 191 acres of reserve forest in Maheshkhali island of Cox's Bazar, but it is ready to pay only Tk 43.6 million for the land where it will make a terminal to store un-refined oil at a cost of Tk 40 billion.
Official documents show, the forest department initially estimated the value at Tk 2.77 billion, but later it refixed the value downwardly -- at Tk 470 million.
However, the BPC says it is willing to pay no more than Tk 13.6 million for the loss of forest resources and Tk 30 million for the loss of biodiversity.
Experts believe such an important forest has more than its monetary value.
Also, they say, estimating the price of loss at Tk 2.77 billion at first and then refixing it at Tk 470 million will send the countrymen a wrong message.
BPC sources said un-refined oil will be transported from the terminal set up at the forest to Eastern Refinery in Chittagong's Anwara, through a 222-kilometre tunnel. The Exim Bank of China is financing the project titled 'Installation of Single Point Mooring with Double Pipeline'.
There are 19 species of mammals, eight species of reptiles, four species of amphibians and 27 species of birds in the forest of 388 square kilometres, according to the forest department. Besides, there are 70 species of different plants and trees. The natural forest boasts the last few pythons and golden deers.
On 12 November, BPC chairman Abu Hena Mohammad Rahmatul Munim, in a letter to the environment and forests ministry, said they have an allotment of Tk 30 million to lease a piece of land.
"We thought we would only have to pay for the lease. We did not take into consideraion the forest resource or the biodiversity cost," said Md Sharif Hasnat, the project director.
Environment and forest minister Anwar Hossain said, "We are not leasing the forest out to a private firm. It is a government entity that will be using it. The prime minister has already okayed the project."
The government had formed a six-member committee to evaluate the cost associated with the project, including experts from the forest department, the Bangladesh Forest Research Institute (BFRI) and Chittagong University's forestry and environmental department.
Their 20-page report said the forest is of 28,286 acres. It is next to the Bay of Bengal and largely a mangrove forest.
Apart from assessing the cost, it warned the authorities of the adverse effects an oil terminal will have on the area's biodiversity.
More people will come to live in this area, which will result in waterlogging, the report said. The ships and the machines at the oil terminal will cause noise while the chemicals will contaminate the sea and the adjacent areas, it added.
The livelihoods of the people living in that island will also be hit hard and they will fall victims to different diseases as a result of the pollution, the report further said.
"If the BPC gets the land at Tk 40 million only, it will set a bad exmaple," said Kamal Ahmed, a member of the committee and a professor at Chittagong University's forestry and environmental department.
In fact, the forest department in February last year had written to the ministry, objecting a lease of the forest. It said as many as 25,000 trees will be cut and as a result of the changes a number of natural disasters may hit the country.
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Bangladesh director Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmed told Prothom Alo, "Our forests are already in danger because of the natural disasters caused by the climate change. If we still go on destroying more forests in the name of different projects, it will create further problems."
He said the BPC should have chosen a different area for this project, even if that meant more expenses.
* This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Quamrul Hassan.