Hli Ching Marma, a temporary resident on the Sita Pahar, said they have no ownership of these gardens inside the forest. Powerful businessmen from the city and other places have leased these lands and made the gardens. At one time rubber trees used to occupy most of the forest. But now the majority of the land has timber trees and fruit orchards. The locals have lost ownership of the lands and have turned into workers in the orchards created on their land. They have moved away from Jhum cultivation (a traditional farming method of the minor ethnic groups in Bangladesh).

The grim reality of the ongoing deforestation in the three districts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts can be seen in the reports made by the forest department as well as other local and international organisations. Global Forest Watch (GFW) and the World Research Institute (WRI) estimate that from 2002 to 2020, 3.7 per cent of the total natural forests in Bangladesh were destroyed. In Chattogram and the Hill Tracts this is more than 9 per cent. Around 40 per cent of Bangladesh’s total forests are in the three districts of the Chattogram Hill Tracts – Bandarban, Khagrachhari and Rangamati. On the other hand, 78 per cent of the total forestation that took place in the country in the same time period happened in Chattogram and the Hill Tracts. However, much of this forestation actually is a replacement of the hilly forests by orchards, according to the two organisations.

If orchards replace these natural forests, then the country’s biodiversity will be under huge risk.
Rakibul Amin, country director, IUCN

Rakibul Amin, country director of IUCN, an international organisation for nature conservation, told Prothom Alo that a vast majority of the country’s forest land and biodiversity is in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Elephants, cheetahs and animals on the verge of extinction, live there. If orchards replace these natural forests, then the country’s biodiversity will be under huge risk.

Deforestation in three districts highest in the country

United Nation’s climate change organisation UNFCCC presented a survey to the Bangladesh government in 2021 on how much of the country’s forests has been destroyed. The report presented various reasons behind deforestation in the three Hill Tract districts. It pointed out cutting down and smuggling out trees illegally and Jhum cultivation as the main reasons. Moreover, commercial fruit gardens, tobacco, ginger and turmeric farming is also increasing rapidly. A lot of trees are cut down in the Hill Tracts to burn tobacco.

According to that report, out of the total deforestation that took place in Bangladesh from 2000 to 2015, 90 per cent took place in those three districts. Due to this Bangladesh has emitted 7,78,448 tonnes of carbon-di-oxide. 31 per cent of Bangladesh’s total carbon emission was due to deforestation.

As per the forest department’s estimation in 2021, in the three Hill Tract districts 5 thousand occupiers have grabbed 16,644 hectares of forest land.

We have to protect the forests to give the residents of Chittagong Hill Tracts the chance to earn a living. Otherwise, the forests won’t survive. The increase in fruit production also won’t be sustainable
Rakibul Hasan, executive editor, Arannyak Foundation

Saw mills, furniture factories everywhere

According to the furniture manufacturer association in Rangamati, there are 1200 factories that produce wood furniture and other items made of wood just in the city. These products are then transported to different parts of the country. Most of the wood is supplied from the local hilly forests.

From Boonorupa to Kaptai lake, Rangamati city is teeming with saw mills and furniture factories. Thousands of trees arrive here via Kaptai Lake. They are sawed up right by the lake-side and then sent to the factories.

The head office of the department of agricultural extension is in Rangamati. The total fruit harvest of the three Hill Tract districts is centrally kept there. According to it, the fruit planting has increased five times in the last 12 years in the year. In the 2020-21 fiscal year, fruit trees were planted on nearly eight thousand acres of land. Moreover, the harvest of paddy, corn, vegetables, mushrooms etc have also increased.

Nature preservation organisation Arannyak Foundation’s executive director Rakibul Hasan told Prothom Alo, we have to protect the forests to give the residents of Chittagong Hill Tracts the chance to earn a living. Otherwise, the forests won’t survive. The increase in fruit production also won’t be sustainable.

*The report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ashfaq-Ul-Alam Niloy

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