For over a thousand years Saint Martin’s island has existed in the Bay of Bengal, some 38 km off the coast of Teknaf. In 1999 the government of Bangladesh declared this as an Environmentally Critical Area (ECA), barring any sort of activity that may harm the water, air or soil of the island.
But no one is following the rules.
Teknaf upazila is about 80 km from Cox’s Bazar. From there it takes about three or four hours by trawler or ship to reach Saint Martin’s Island. And then the crass commerciality begins.
As you step onto the island, a cycle van will offer you a ride to a hotel for an exorbitant fare. The hotel too is overpriced, though the service leaves much to be wanted.
And wherever you go on the island, there is trash strewn around everywhere – plastic bottles, polythene bags and more.
A stench pervades all over this island, 4 km in length and about two km in breadth. This lone coral island of the country also runs rife with stray dogs. And the pollution is overpowering.
The ministry for forests, environment and climate change last December called for an inter-ministerial meeting to discuss what can be done to save Saint Martin. It was decided that less tourists would be allowed access to the island and no one would be permitted to spend the night here. Certain times during the year would be fixed for tourists. But none of these plans have worked out and the island teems with tourists.
Secretary of the forest, environment and climate change ministry, Abdullah Al Mohsin Chowdhury, speaking to Prothom Alo in June, said that they have held several inter-ministerial meetings regarding the island and within a couple of months they will hold a final meeting with the principal secretary of the prime minister’s office.
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There are 68 varieties of coral on the island, according to the latest survey of the department of environment, carried out last year. The island is also home to a variety of crabs, moss, snails, shells and clams.
There are over 100 types of birds and five species of dolphins. Sometimes whales are sighted too. The island is covered with coconut trees.
Professor of biology at Jahangirnagar University, Munirul H Khan, is carrying out research on Saint Martin’s island. He told Prothom Alo that in Bangladesh, the grey heron can only been found on this island, that too only on the southern part where there is live coral.
Professor Munirul said that whatever little resources there are left on this island are on the verge of extinction due to unplanned tourism. The coral is being damaged by the frequent coming and going of ships. The coral walls are covered in polythene, plastic and other trash and are dying.
Tourists have recently started going all over the island on bikes and motorbikes, taking pollution to the remote ends of Saint Martin, he added.
Our last visit to the island was in December where we saw a little living coral on its Chhera Isle. The older inhabitants said that there is hardly any coral on the island anymore.
Professor Munirul also said that sea turtles would lay their eggs where jetties have now been constructed. The turtles now lay their eggs here and there, but these too are devoured by the stray dogs. Even people gather the eggs and so turtles no longer come there like before.
An international journal in 2016 stated that Saint Martin’s Island had 141 types of coral back in 1980, according to researchers. The four researchers, from Bangladesh, said that in 2016 there were only 41 types of coal left.
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Excessive coral collection and fishing had depleted the varieties of coral. Many of the hotels have decorated their entrances and walls with large chunks of coral.
Fishing is the main source of income for many of the islanders. Turtles are caught in their nets too.
There is a lack of clean drinking water on the island. That too is creating a crisis.
Professor of biology at Chittagong University, Manzurul Kibria, speaking to Prothom Alo, said that that there was no groundwater source on the island. The groundwater was being depleted to meet the demands of the tourists and the inhabitants of the island.
State minister for civil aviation and tourism Md Mahbub Ali told Prothom Alo that the hoteliers on the island had no idea about ecotourism. The government wants to evict such establishments and set up tourism facilities in specified areas.
At the inter-ministerial meeting held last December, several short, mid and long term recommendations were made. It was said that tourists would be barred from visiting the Saint Martin’s Chhera isle. No more than two ships would be allowed to arrive per day and there would be a ban on cycles and motor cycles.
Random disposal of plastic and polythene would also be restricted. No more land would be sold on the island and no more constructions would be permitted.
It was also said that no tourists would be allowed on the island for at least three years. After that, they would only be allowed during the day.
Only if such stringent measures were taken, would the coral island survive along with its rare animal life. Two officials of the environment department said, however, no action had been taken in this regard whatsoever.
* This report appeared in the print version of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir