St Martin’s being killed by unplanned infrastructure

This photo taken on 26 February 2023 shows a resort on the beach of St Martin’s Island.
Jewel Shil

The jetty of the St Martin’s Island is on the east end of the island. During a visit on 8 February, the construction of the three-storey Atlantic Resort was seen in progress on the west beach of the island, just a little distance from the jetty. Construction of two more three-storey buildings of the resort was completed in November last year

Standing on the Atlantic Resort premises, these correspondents browsed the website of the Department of Environment (DOE) on their mobile phones, where the agency clearly states St Martin’s Island is one of 13 ecological critically areas (CEA) in the country. That means nothing can be done that damages the water, soil, air and living beings of this island and that is why DOE gives no clearance to construct any establishment here. Yet, the Atlantic Resort has been constructed in front of everyone without the DOE’s clearance.

Replying to how has this been possible, Atlantic Resort manager Mohammad Soleman told Prothom Alo there are more than 40 multi-storey (two or three-storey) hotels and resorts on the island and so they have constructed the resort like everyone else.

What Mohammad Soleman claims is not wrong. There are many multi-storeybuildings on St Martin’s Island. There are more than 230 hotels, resorts, cottages and restaurants, either one-storey or multi-storey. At least 130 of these establishments were constructed in last two years and construction of more than 30 resorts and cottages are in progress. However, the DOE said no clearance was issued for building even a single tourism establishment.

Tourists cross the jetty on St Martin’s Island on 26 February 2023. Nearly 5,000 tourists arrive in St Martin’s Island daily by ships from Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar and Chattogram during tourism season.
Jewel Shil

The district and the upazila administrations are responsible for preventing the construction of any illegal establishment on St Martin’s Island and the DOE is responsible for protecting the island as an ecological critically area.

The district administration has an office in Cox’s Bazar and the upazila administration in Teknaf while the DOE runs an office on the island. On top of that, there is a police outpost on the island. Yet, construction materials are brought to the island in front of everyone. Construction progresses, hotel and resort opens, tourists visit, and business booms, yet no one prevents it.

When asked, DOE deputy director of Cox’s Bazar Md Hafizur Rahman told Prothom Alo that whatever happened in the past, not a single establishment would be allowed to build on the island anyone.

People concerned said there had been such remarks on St Martin’s Island in the past, but the construction of establishment could not be prevented.

An extraordinary island

St Martin’s Island, the lone coral island in Bangladesh, is in the north-east Bay of Bengal. The 8 sq-km island is unconnected from the mainland of Bangladesh. According to the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation website, a British land survey team made it a part of the British India in the 1900s and named the island after Saint Martin.

This photo taken on 26 February 2023 shows construction of a three-storied building of the Atlantic Resort progressing on St Martin’s Island. The resort has no clearance from Department of Environment. Yet, construction of two more three-storied building of the resort has been completed in November 2022.
Jewel Shil

According to several studies, there are 1,076 biodiverse living species there, including coral, algae, sea turtles, different mammals and more. The near extinct olive green turtle lays eggs at the Baliari area of this island. However, uncontrolled constructions, visits of huge numbers of tourists and environmental pollution are threatening the island. Nearly 5,000 tourists arrive on St Martin’s Island daily by ships from Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar and Chattogram during tourism season. Waste from hotels and restaurants, discarded plastic bottles and chips packets are thrown here and there, but the biggest concern is the construction of hotels and resorts, destroying the Keya forest.

According to a 2020 study by two teachers and a student of Dhaka University, the number of coral species has come down from 141 to 40 from 1980 to 2018. The coral on the island has decreased from 1.32 sq km to 0.39 sq km and the tree-covered area has been reduced from 4.5 sq km to 3 sq km during this 38 years. On top of that, the country's lone coral island may be depleted of coral by 2045, it said.

The study was published on 9 September 2020 in the international Ocean Science Journal. The authors of the article, ‘Identifying the Coral Degradation of St. Martin’s Island in the Bay of Bengal using Geospatial Technology’, are Kawser Ahmed, a professor at the Department of Oceanography of Dhaka University, Yusuf Gazi, lecturer in the Department of Geology, and Tahrima Jannat, a former student in the Department of Oceanography.

Motor vehicles move on the beach of St Martin’s Island, often killing crabs and shells. The picture was taken on 26 February 2023.
Jewel Shil

As the situation continues to deteriorate, the DOE declared the island an ECA in 1999. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on 4 January this year declared 1,743sqkm of the Bay of Bengal, including St Martin's Island, a marine protected area in light with to the Wildlife Conservation Protection Act. Following the move, Oscar-winning Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio congratulated the government, local communities and non-government organisations.

Prior to announcement, the government issued guidelines on the management of the ecologically critical areas in 2016. The secretary of the environment ministry is the chairman of the ecologically critical area management committee formed under the guidelines. When asked, secretary of the environment ministry Farhina Ahmed told Prothom Alo at her office on 26 February, “We have ordered the Cox’s Bazar district administration and the Cox's Bazar Development Authority (CDA) to evict the establishments being built illegally on St Martin’s Island.” A set of instructions are being prepared restricting tourist movement to protect the island, she added.

On 26 February, an inter-ministerial meeting was held on the draft instructions on St Martin’s Island prepared by the environment ministry. Cox’s Bazar deputy commissioner Muhammad Shaheen Imran attended the meeting. On that day, he told Prothom Alo it is not possible for the district administration to conduct eviction drive against illegal structures and other irregularities on St Martin’s Island regularly. He proposed the DOE must have permanent office and manpower on the island so that they can conduct operation regularly.

While the damage to environment and biodiversity of St Martin’s Island continues to increase, the environment ministry and the district administration are busy blaming each other. Visiting the entire island on 7, 8, 9 and 26 February, it was found that structures are being erected in Baliary area, destroying the Keya forest; there are bright lights illuminating the protected and mother turtles don’t come to lay eggs there because of the noise from the generators and crowds. Even if turtles lay eggs, the dogs eat these up. Easy bikes and motorcycles carrying tourists move on sandy beach. And all these are destroying the island’s biodiversity including snails, shells and red crabs.

The number of stray dogs, which often eat turtle eggs, is on the rise on St Martin’s Island. The picture was taken on 26 February 2023 shows stray dogs roaming on the beach of St Martin’s Island.
Jewel Shil

Speaking to Prothom Alo, environment activist of the island Joynal Abedin said mother turtles come ashore usually in December to lay eggs. Not much turtles were sighted during this season and this was a bad omen.

Land purchase and sale

St Martin’s Island, home to 10,000 people, is a union of Teknaf upazila of Cox’s Bazar. According to the Teknaf’s upazila land office, the area of St Martin union is 1,977 acres, including about 800 acres of homesteads and crop land.

This photo taken on 26 February 2023 shows a name plaque of land owner on St Martin’s Island. Land purchase and sale in St Martin’s Island requires permission from the government. Yet, influential individuals continue to buy the land on the island.
Jewel Shil

Locals said, currently 34 families owns 50 to 60 acres of land while influential people, including leaders of Awami League, BNP and other political parties, bureaucrats, retired officers of various forces, businesspersons, and lawyers took over the remaining land by various means over the past three decades. Some of them purchased the land in the past or some took over it by paying in advance or through lease.

At present, land purchase and sale requires the permission of administration and land cannot be bought for constructing a building. Speaking to Prothom Alo in February, Teknaf assistant commissioner (land) Md Irfanul Haque Chowdhury land is being bought and sold on the island upon the permission of the district administration and the environment department. They have been informed that some people are purchasing land for crops, but are building hotels, resorts and cottages instead. Recently, construction of several structures was stopped and several companies were fined, he added.

This photo taken on 26 February 2023 shows a line of boundary pillar on a land on St Martin’s Island.
Jewel Shil

According to the sources of the St Martin’s Island Hotel Owner Association, local people owns 25 to 30 one or two-storey cottages and resorts on the island and influential individuals outside the island own the remaining 200 or so hotels, resorts and cottages.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, St Martin’s Island Hotel Owner Association president Abdur Rahman said various people have built tourist establishments by purchasing land or taking lease in their names or anonymously. At least 122 more influential individuals have purchased huge land on island and they would build tourist establishments in future, he added.

Construction without clearance

The three-storey Blue Marine Hotel, owned by Nurul Islam Patawary from Chandpur, is 700 yards north of the island’s jetty. There are more than 55 rooms in the hotel with its room rates varying from Tk 4,000 to Tk 16,000. According to sources, Nurul Islam Patawary bought a 41 decimal plot in 1990 and built the hotel on it in 2003. After his death, his son Abu Jafar Patwary runs the hotel.

Replying to a query on building the hotel violating the laws, Abu Jafar Patwary told Prothom Alo, “There were no rules and regulations at that time when we built the hotel. Now, we were being harassed.”

The picture was taken on 26 February 2023 shows waste and plastic bottles laying on the beach of St Martin’s Island.
Jewel Shil

However, the environment department declared St Martin’s Island an ecologically critical area four years before the hotel was built.

The three-storey Fantasy Hotel, owned by Jafar Ahmed from Chandpur, is on the south side of the Blue Marine hotel. Speaking to Prothom Alo, Fantasy Hotel manager Arafatul Islam said the DOE did not give them environmental clearance, but the hotel was constructed abiding by the building code.

Businessperson Mohammad Sarwar from Dhaka built the three-storey Kingshuk Hotel on the west beach of the island after purchasing the land. This, too, havs no environmental clearance. Mohammad Sarwar said to Prothom Alo, the government agencies are constructing big buildings, so why can't businesspersons do so since law is equal for all.

The claim that Mohammad Sarwar has made is not totally false. Several government agencies have built buildings and cottages on the island where officials of those agencies can stay at night. In some cases, these establishments are used commercially. The DOE, however, said the government agencies also took no clearance for their buildings.

Resorts in restricted area

Tourist movement is banned in the three-kilometer area from Golachipa to Diarmatha area of the island because turtles come ashore to lay egg in this area. Yet construction of more than 30 resorts and cottages are progressing in this restricted area. These include Ghodhuly, Dipanniwata, Dipantar, Jothsnaloy, Singshuk, Sayeri, Sandcastle, Surjawasto, Bella Vista, Serenity, Sindabad and others.

More than 100 battery-run easy bikes, also locally known as tomtom, are operated to transport tourists inside the restricted zone of the island. Besides, there are motorcycles and water vehicles. Tourists ride these vehicles in the restricted areas in front of the police. Replying to why police not barring tourist movement, St Martin’s Island police inspector Monirul Islam Bhuyian said the number of the tourist police is 12 in the island and it has not been possible to control everything with such a a small workforce.

Rohingya youths and children work at hotels and resorts of St Martin’s Island and they mostly run easy bikes. Hotels owners allegedly employ Rohingya people because of low wages, which is illegal and also angers the locals.

Speaking to Prohtom Alo, environment organisation Save The Nature (St Martin’s) coordinator and resident of the island Ayatullah said most of the hotel owners, resorts and restaurants employ Rohingyas at low wages and that is why many local youths don't get job. Even if they do, it's for low wages.

Locals live in shanties

There is no brick field on St Martin’s Island. Iron rods, cement and other construction materials arrive by trawler from Teknaf. It requires a permission of the DOE and the district administration to bring construction materials to St Martin’s Island and that could not prevent hotel and resort owners from raising their establishments. On the other hand, locals cannot construct a brick-built house because when they try to do so, the administration prevents them.

Locals live in shanties on St Martin’s Island as they do not get clearance of the Department of Environment and the upazila administration to build a house and bring construction materials to the island. The picture was taken on 26 February 2023.
Jewel Shil

Local public representatives said there are 957 houses on the island – mostly shanties, with fences and roofs made of polythene. Tourists move around these areas on the way to the beach, hampering the privacy of the islanders.

Fisherman Sultan Ahmed, from Purba Para of the island, told Prothom Alo, bamboo, cane, dried grass, Nipa palm leaves and corrugated iron sheets are not sold on the island and it requires a permission of the upazila administration to bring construction materials to the island from Teknaf, which is very difficult for the islanders. “So we live in shanties,” he said.

'They enjoy illegal perks'

There are laws, rules and regulations, guidelines, instructions, administration, DOE and police to protect St Martin’s Island. Yet, the island is getting destroyed in front of everyone. Civil servants receive salaries from the tax payers' money, but the government officials do not do their duties. Raids are conducted sometimes; meagre fines are imposed, but construction of these buildings do not stop.

Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) Cox’s Bazar chapter president Fazlul Quader Chowdhury told Prothom Alo every one in the administration is aware of the illegal hotels and resorts on St Martin’s Island. They allow people building these establishments because they enjoy illegal perks.

Raids are conducted sometimes for eyewash. Political commitment is a must to protect St Martin’s Island and that is not visible, he added.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna