Sonadia, its warm sands surrounded with the glistening blue sea, was an amazing sight. The tall feathery jhau trees simply enhanced the beauty of this island off the coast of Cox’s Bazar. That was back in December.
Things are changing. Speed boats and trawlers in large numbers make their way to the island from Cox’s Bazar and in the near future it is likely to be teeming with tourists and others. The boatmen tell the passengers, “Enjoy Sonadia while you can, it won’t be this way much longer.”
Just a decade ago, Sonadia had 13 varieties of aerial root trees and 158 varieties of other trees. The air around the island is still filled with the calls of seagulls and a host of migratory birds. The green turtle on the verge of extinction is still visible here.
The island is a long 10,000 acre stretch of land. The plan to build a deep seaport here, with Chinese assistance, has been shelved, for the time being at least. According to official documents, the government has given the Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority (BEZA) a long-term lease of the island for a token payment of Tk 1001. BEZA acquired the entire island last year on condition of building up a luxury tourism spot here.
BEZA initially plans to set up an ecotourism park on 30 per cent of this island which is under Kutubjom union of Maheskhali. The remaining part of the land will be protected and kept green. India’s Mahedra Group has been involved in the project and the design for a 500 acre stretch has been finalised.
The government’s Institute of Water Modelling (IWM) has prepared a feasibility study for this economic zone. BEZA’s plans include an embankment along the coast. The island is around 1.5 metres to 4.5 metres above sea level. Any infrastructure to be constructed on the island will have to be at least 6 metres above sea level. The entire project will require a capital of around Tk 15 billion (Tk 1500 crore).
A part of the ecotourism park has stretched out to Maheskhali as well. The government’s Centre for Environmental and Geographical Information Services (CEGIS) recently carried out a study of the environmental and social impact of the project activities. The study said that BEZA has allocated 500 acres of land for hotels, motels and a golf course and 551 acres for other infrastructure. The project includes 10 hotels and motels, two golf courses, two tennis courts, a children’s park, a mosque, a museum, a community centre, pearl cultivation and more. A solar power plant will be set up on 10 acres of land.
Read More: Development frenzy hits Maheskhali hard
Environmentalists say, excessive numbers of tourists will be harmful to the environment and the animal life. BEZA will bring 500 deer and 500 monkeys to the island which will threaten the environmental and ecological balance of the place.
Sonadia is prone to cyclones and the CEGIS study states that this will have to be a protected tourism for the safety of the environment, the ecology and for the tourists too. There is no need to set up hotels here. It is more important to have an environmental management plan.
Speaking about the frenzy of development work in the area, Ashiq Ullah Rafiq, member of parliament for Cox’s Bazar-2, which encompasses Maheskhali, Sonadia and Kutubdia, told Prothom Alo that the development should benefit the local people. They cannot be evicted without any rehabilitation plan in place. It had been said that the local people would be employed in these projects, but many of them are not being given jobs on the excuse that they do not have the required skills. The member of parliament also said that care should be taken that the environment is not destroyed by these projects.
Forests, wild life threatened
Bain, kewra and keya are the main aerial root trees of Sonadia island. It is also replete with boroi and coconut trees. There may still be forests on the island in the future, but planned ones. As it is, much of the forests have been depleted for livelihood and greed.
Visiting the Purbapara landing stage on the island last December, we saw planks of wood made from the felled trees along with sacks of shutki (dried fish) being loaded onto boats. There were ‘black’ shrimps along with bhetki fish, large shrimps and crabs all being taken to Cox’s Bazar.
As we proceeded further into the island, the jhau tree growth became sparser and until they disappeared. Salt cultivation and fish farms covered the expanse and dried fish hung from frames.
The CEGIS study said that once the economic zone, that is the tourism project, comes into effect, salt production will fall by about 8000 metric tonnes. Fish production will fall too.
In 2004, the government declared a large part of the island to be an environmentally critical area (ECA) and also a reserved forest. But after BEZA took over, this is no longer under the forest department.
Read More: 'Kutubdia biodiversity in danger'
A Sonadia island biodiversity protection team is on the island as part of a project of the environment department. Speaking over mobile phone to this correspondent in July, the team’s leader Md Giasuddin said, trees had be felled on this island before too, but this has increased significantly since BEA acquired the land. The forest department no longer monitors the area and BEZA does nothing about it.
Union parishad chairman and ruling party leader Mosharraf Hossain told Prothom Alo, people have been living here from before as it was a reserved forest and they would tend to it. But people now, for the sake of livelihood, are cutting down trees, cultivating salt, crops and fish.
The chairman said that after BEZA took over, the people have verbally been asked to leave. It has been heard that a huge tourism resort will be set up here for wealthy people from home and abroad. Huge vessels will come here and the local people will not be allowed to enter without permission.
The CEGIS study says that 47 per cent of Sonadia island still comprises aerial root trees, though 26 per cent of these forests have been destroyed over the past two decades. The study maintains that this island is one of the main water expanses of biodiversity in the country. It has three varieties of birds which are near extinction as well as dolphins and the rare olive-green turtle.
Tourism and threats
Initially BEZA had planned on setting up a luxury housing project on the island along with an international standard university. However, now tourism is the main aim. BEZA is also setting up tourism centres at the estuary of the river Naf and at the end of Cox’s Bazar’s marine drive.
Executive chairman of BEZA, Paban Chowdhury, speaking to Prothom Alo, said, “We will make arrangements so the people of Bangladesh won’t have to go on vacations abroad. The planned tourism centres like tourism parks in Sonadia, Sabrang and Naf will also draw in foreign tourists.”
“The project is being implemented with full care so that the area’s environment and biodiversity is not damaged,” Paban Chowdhury assured. The CEGIS study has said that environment management planning in accordance to the law is compulsory. Unless this is ensured, the island will face irreparable damage.
CEGIS has recommended controlled tourism. They insist that Sonadia is an environmentally critical area (ECA) and influx of tourists will threaten the migratory and other birds. The turtles will also not be able to lay eggs on the beach.
Then there is the threat of cyclones and tidal waves. CEGIS firmly says that tourists must not be allowed to spend the night on the island. There should be no hotels there, only facilities for day-time tourists. The tourists should be restricted to a few areas and should be accompanied by trained guides.
Two studies of the government said that a large number of tourists will mean more noise of ships and trawlers. This will threaten birds and dolphins. Trash will also pile up, walkways will mean further depletion of the forests and the embankments will also be damaged.
Cambridge University in the UK has a taskforce to protect the spoonbill bird. They say there are 22 to 25 such spoonbills on Sonadia. There are only 400 of these birds the world over.
Akram Hossain, an inhabitant of the island, said, there are not many people on this island and so the turtles can easily lay their eggs here. In winter, thousands of birds flock here. All these birds and animals will flee the area when the tourists arrive.
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) resident director in Bangladesh, Rakibul Amin, told Prothom Alo that Bangladesh has no experience in running such a tourism project in an environmentally important and sensitive spot like Sonadia. As it is, unrestricted tourism has damaged Saint Martin's and Cox’s Bazar. It should be ensured that this does not happen in Sonadia.
*This report appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir