Today, Sunday, is the International Day of Forests. The United Nations proclaimed 21 March the International Day of Forests in 2012. The theme for this year is "Forest restoration: a path to recovery and well-being”. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, from 2021-2030, will begin on 5 June with an aim to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. Let’s look at the condition of forests in Bangladesh.
The rate of decline in forests in Bangladesh is higher than that of the global decline. According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, nearly 1.4 per cent of forests have been destroyed in the world in 2000-2015 while the figure was 2.6 per cent in Bangladesh. Some 2,600 hectares of forestland vanish annually in the country. Protected forests are not being spared either.
The international known reserved forest of the country, Sundarbans, has witnessed a decline in its both area and density. A decade-long research on the forest area and density of the Sundarbans, carried out by the NGO Unnayan Onneshon, revealed the number of trees in the forest has declined significantly in the last two decade (2000-20). Its density has also dropped. Fallow land is increasing as the forest is being destroyed. The area of forest has nearly halved. In 1776, the total forest area in the Bangladesh part was 17,000 sq km. According records of 2016, the area of entire forestland in Bangladesh is 6,467 sq km. If a reserved forest faces such a consequence, then one can only imagine the condition of the unprotected forests!
Grabbing forestland on the rise
The country’s total forest area is 4,646,700 acres. Powerful people have been grabbing a major portion of forestland. According to a recent report of the Standing Committee on Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change, 160,566 influential people and organisations have encroached 257,158 acres of forestland to build houses, factories and cultivate crops.
According to a report of the forest department, 88,215 people have grabbed 138,613.6 acres of protected forest. Some 172 people have set up permanent establishments and industries occupying 820 acres of reserved forest. Some 3,329 people have grabbed 4,914 acres of forest to set up markets, shops, educational institutions, cottages, farms and resorts. Some 58,407 people have built houses and 26,307 run agricultural and gardening work on forestland. Hill excavation continues in various places of the country though the Environment Conservation (Amendment) Act prohibits to hill and hillock excavation or acquisition for individual, government or semi‑government purposes. As a result, hilly forests and the environment are being destroyed and biodiversity is being lost.
Uncontrolled extraction of forest resources
Both forest resources and biodiversity face damage because of excessive and uncontrolled extraction of resources without considering the forest biodiversity, reservation and reproduction. Certain quarters are involved in this out of greed and and for profit since forest resources have high demand and prices in the market. For example, the quantity of costly trees, honey and large fish has decreased in the Sundarbans over the last two decades (2000-20). Unnayan Onneshon conducted the research in Khulna’s Koyra upazila using geographic information system with the participation of the forest people. It also covered forest resources – tree, honey and large fishes – in a 40 km long and 30 k wide area.
The woodcutters of Sundarbans are known as Bauwali. According to their accounts, tree logging has increased in various places of Sundarbans in last two decades. Uncontrolled logging results in the decline in the number of costly trees despite the ban. Fisher-folk say the quantity of fish has declined. Mawal (honey collectors) also say honey and beeswax collection has declined in the various places over the last two decades.
Forest-dependent people said the quantity of costly trees, honey, and fish has been decreasing because of excessively and illegal extraction of resources without a thought for conservation or reproduction. Though orders were issued by the government to stop catching crabs, but uncontrolled mother crab fishing continued in various rivers and canals in the Sundarbans during the breeding season of January-February this year. Mother crabs lay millions of eggs in these two months. Thousands of fishermen live on fishing crabs in coastal area. Crab export brings in about USD20 million annually.
Local know-how in sustainable extraction
Forest people follow certain methods and rules to extract forest resources. For example, Sundarbans’ mawals extract honey from beehives in April-June. They keep a certain portion (about two-thirds) of a beehive for bee reproduction and do not use any metal equipment in order to protect bee larvae. Dried leaves are used to create smoke so less number of bees die in fire. So the beehive can be used again.
Certain rules are also followed to collect nipa palm, known as golpata. Golpata is not collected from the same place for repeatedly in a year. No golpata is cut when new leaves grow from June to September. Golpata is cut after it grows about 9 feet. No young plant is cut. While gathering the leaves, the forest people are careful to avoid damage to the central part of the plant and the leaves there. Unlike the forest people, outsiders don’t have this traditional knowledge. Outsiders exploit forest resources in an unrestrained manner since their sole aim is to make profit.
Covid-19, climate change, forest conservation and restoration
Forests and forestland have been declining globally because of growing pressure of population, industrialisation, expansion of agriculture and urbanisation. Polar ice caps have started melting as a result of rise in global warming. Global low-lying coastal areas are at risk of inundation. Low-lying coastal areas in Bangladesh are at the most risk of flooding with seawater. Salinity is increasing in the water and soil of the coastal regions. Melting of polar ice caps is releasing new microbes in our surrounding environment. As a result, new contagious disease like Covid-19 may be unleashed. There is no alternative to the increase, conservation and recovery of forestland to face global warming and climate change. Forest is the source of fresh air, nutritious food, clean drinking water and recreation. Plants contribute 25 per cent of the raw materials for pharmaceuticals in developed countries and more than 80 per cent in developing countries. So, saving forests is very essential for a healthy living.
Other than natural forests, trees have increased in various places of the country. However, most of this is because of plantation at an individual level in villages, commercial fruit cultivation and social afforestation. Plantation in newly rising coastal char land (sandbars) also contributes a little to afforestation. A positive change has appeared in the government’s tree plantation programme, but further expansion of plantation is necessary. However, what is most necessary is to emphasise conservation of natural forest areas and take effective measures.
Updating laws and enforcing properly
Forest destroyers and grabbers are have impunity due to political and economic power. Industrial and ‘development’ activities are on the rise in the protected areas, defying the laws. Conserving and recovering forests is not possible unless laws are updated and implemented properly.
Updating and enforcing of forest law is necessary. Public opinion has been sought on the draft of the Forest Act 2019. The coalition of environmental organisations, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and its Bangladesh national committee have submitted a set of opinions and proposals.
Inclusion of traditional knowledge and sustainable customary methods of the forest-dependent people in institutional forest management is necessary to preserve and protect forests. Protection of forest and forestland will be enhances if the practice of local knowledge and sustainable traditional methods of the forest-dependent people increases. Participation of people from different strata and forest-dependent people in forest management is essential. Considering different international laws is also crucial.
Renaissance to survive
Humans is responsible for destroying nature and they also can restore nature. A renaissance is necessary to recover forestland through cooperation and inter-dependency by building an links between humans and nature. Broad thinking is necessary. Each tree is a real friend to nature. There are examples of changing development plans to save a tree in many countries in the world. Plantation and restoration projects on small scale may have a big impact on the environment. Saving the lifeline of forests is essential for the physical and mental well-being of people, reducing air pollution, environment cooling and increasing the qualitative quantity of various benefits from forest.
Firstly, forest conservation can create decent and environment-friendly living. More than 860 billion (86,000 crore) jobs come from forests globally. If forest conservation and protection can be done through proper management, sustainable and environment-friendly production will be ensured and new employment will be created.
Secondly, involvement and empowerment of local people is necessary to conserve and restore forests. Co-management activities will have to be strengthened with the participation of the forest-dependent people. Only then will local people come forward to save the forest and it biodiversity and will refrain from carrying out activities that harm the forest.
Thirdly, more co-management projects will have to be taken up with combined effort among the government, the private sector and the local people to protect biodiversity of the ecology as in projects taken up by IUCN in Tanguar haor, Cox’s Bazar and Nijhum Dip. Reducing risk to the ecology of entire country is possible by taking combined initiatives. Protecting forest and it biodiversity is, in fact, essential for the sake of our existence. People will survive, if forests survive. There is no alternative to forest conservation and protection for a balanced environment and a healthy, good life.
* Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir is a professor at the Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka and chairperson of Unnayan Onneshon. He is the vice chairperson of IUCN Asia Regional Members Committee and chairperson of IUCN Bangladesh - National Committee. He can be reached at [email protected]
*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna