St. Martin's Island: Keya forest being destroyed, authorities turn a deaf ear

At a resort on Saint Martin's island, the authorities burned Keya plants so that thier customers can get a better view of the sea. The picture was taken recently.
Prothom Alo

Keya plant (Pandanus tectorius) works as bulwark in the time of natural calamities for Saint Martin’s Island. The coral island was surrounded by around 20 kilometers of Keya forest even five years ago.

Local representatives and environmentalists said the Keya forest has now been reduced to only 8 kilometers. They fear about the future of the remaining portion of the forest.

The only reason behind this deforestation is construction of hotels-resorts and other installations. Keya forest is being incinerated or cut due to construction, resulting in destruction of sand dunes in the beach.

The fallout of this destruction has already become evident. The residents of the island said tidal surges are destroying trees and habitats of the island in the last two years more than anytime else in the past.

Environmentalists and experts blame the negligence of the local administration and the department of environment (DoE) for such destruction of Keya forest. 

Locals said they protested against the destruction of Keya forest, but that did not bring about any fruition. The ‘influential people’ continue to construct infrastructures in the island by ‘managing’  DoE officials and local administration, they alleged.

Firoz Ahmed Khan and Nur Ahmed, two former union parishad chairmen of Saint Martin, told Prothom Alo that the influential people buy the land first and then employ people to incinerate or cut the Keya forest in the land they bought. Later, permanent infrastructures for hotel-resort, restaurant or others are built there. Although the law forbids construction of pucca infrastructures in the island, almost all structures are pucca. DoE sees it all but turns a blind eye. 

Located in northeastern tip of Bangladesh, Saint Martin’s is the only coral island of the country. It is a union of Teknaf upazila under Cox’s Bazar district. The 8-square kilometer island has 9 villages.

Local administration and residents said the first building was constructed on the island in 2004. Now the island is dotted with 138 buildings. Even in 2018, there were only 48 such structures on the island. So, around 90 buildings were constructed on the island in the last four years. At least 30 more buildings are now under-construction in Saint Martin’s.

Local representatives and fishermen said several resorts and restaurants were constructed even inside Keya forest. Tom-tom (a kind of battery-run rickshaw) and motorbikes carrying tourists ply on the beach crashing red crabs, snails and oysters under wheels. The island got inundated during tidal surges in the last two years. The island went completely under water during cyclone Sitrang.

The DoE issued a 14-point guideline for protecting the environment of the ecologically critical island. The guideline includes a bar on the construction of pucca structures. The guideline also prohibits destruction of Keya forest and picking Keya fruits. But these restrictions exist only in papers. The DoE has an office at Golachipa area. The official in charge of the office mostly stays in Cox’s Bazar.

Md Azharul Islam, assistant director of DoE’s Saint Martin’s office told Prothom Alo that he is the lone manpower at the office. Azharul said drives cannot be conducted in the island since he needs to go out on various works.

He said at least a thousand tourists throng the island by big boats from Cox’s Bazar and Chattogram and over half of them stay overnight.  

In a recent visit to the island, it was found that Keya forest had been destroyed in almost every corner of the island with most on South, North and West beaches and Golachipa area.

Local resident Absar Kamal has built a two-storied resort destroying Keya forest  in the South beach. Another cottage is being built nearby. A two-storey building is being built destroying Keya forest in Golachipa area’s West beach, near the environment department’s office.

Absar said he has been constructing the resort on his own land for three months without any obstruction. He did not take any clearance from the environment authorities.

There was a three-kilometer long stretch of Keya forest in the north beach which has now been reduced to only half a kilometer. Yet, a resort is being built destroying the remainder of the forest. There was an 8-kilometer stretch of Keya plant from Uttar para to Dakkhin para of the west beach. Resorts were built, destroying Keya plants of at least six kilometers of the stretch. Same destruction was carried out in the east and south parts of the beach.

In our estimation a total of 12 kilometers of forest has been destroyed. Those who are supposed to preserve the forest keep mum despite knowing everything
Deepak Sharma, president of Cox’s Bazar forest and environment preservation association

Cox’s Bazar forest and environment conservation association’s president Deepak Sharma, upon visiting Saint Martin’s island, said, “In our estimation a total of 12 kilometers of forest have been destroyed. Those who are supposed to conserve the forest keep mum despite knowing everything.”↳

Teknaf upazila nirbahi officer (UNO) Md Kamruzzaman told Prothom Alo he has taken the charge recently and will take action against destruction of  Keya plants after investigating the matter.↳

A study published by two teachers and a student of Dhaka University in 2020 revealed that the coral species in the island have come down from 141 to 40. The tree-covered area has been reduced from 4.5 sq km to 3 sq km. On the other hand, hotels-resorts continue to sprout up due to an increased number of tourists. ↳

Chattogram University’s institute of forestry and environmental sciences’ professor Mohammad Kamal Hossain told Prothom Alo that local administration and DoE’s indifference is to blame for the destruction of Keya forest in Saint Martin’s island. Keya forest protects the island during tidal surge. The island’s ecology would face severe damage with the destruction of the Keya forest.