Proposal for safari park in reserved forest of environment minister’s area

This area of the Lathitila forest has been selected for car parking of the proposed safari parkProthom Alo

It requires permission even to enter any reserved forest, let alone any construction. However, the forest department wants to construct a safari park in the reserved forest of Lathitila in Jurhi area of Moulvibazar at an cost of more than Tk 10 billion.

The plan to construct this safari park on a 5,631 acre land through the hill-cutting and deforestation breaching the Environment Protection Act in the constituency of environment, forest and climate change minister Shahab Uddin has already been taken up. The project proposal also includes a construction of a helipad.

Already the forest department has asked for Tk 3.82 billion as initial expenses of the project. However, the planning commission has returned the project proposal citing several inconsistencies, including breaching the law and high costs, on 3 September.

Later, on 1 October, the forest department sent the proposal to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate change again with the answers to the objections raised by the planning commission. According to sources, the ministry will finalise the proposal and send it to the planning commission again for approval. The proposal was not sent as of last Tuesday

The plan to construct a safari park in the Lathitila reserved forest must be cancelled. There is no way to construct anything changing the nature of a reserved forest. The laws of the country do not support that
Sultana Kamal, former BAPA president

The wild animals roam freely in the safari parks. The tourists can visit these parks with due precautions. There are already two safari parks in the, one in Gazipur and another in Cox’s Bazar.

The Lathitila forest is located on one side of the Juri-Lathitila road. It was declared a reserved forest in 1920. The district has several tourist attractions including, Barshijora Eco Park, Lawachara National Park, Madhabkunda Lake and Baikkar Bil. Nearly 500,000 tourists visit these spots every year which led to construction of hotels, motel, restaurants and roads for the visitors. It has endangered the wildlife of forest and wetlands, according to different government and private research.

However, the Lathitila forest is comparatively in a better condition as it was declared a reserve forest. Several organisations, including the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), have termed this project as an arrangement to destroy the forest and demanded for the cancellation of the project.

Former BAPA president Sultana Kamal said, “The plan to construct a safari park in the Lathitila reserved forest must be cancelled. There is no way to construct anything changing the nature of a reserved forest. The laws of the country do not support that.”

She said, “The identities of the person behind this initiative of constructing a safari park in the Lathitila forest should be disclosed. We strongly condemn taking up such an environmentally destructive with money we pay as tax.”

However, the environment minister does not want to pay heed to the concerns raised by the environmentalists, “A major portion of the Lathitila forest is occupied by the locals. We want to construct a safari park there to evict the occupants for better maintenance of the forest.”

He said, “We will respond to the objections raised by the planning ministry. The safari park will lead to development in the area.”

Objections raised by the Planning Commission

The cost of the safari park project is estimated at Tk 10.47 billion. On 3 September, during the meeting of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Safari Park' project evaluation committee (PEC) for five years from July 2023 to June 2028, various inconsistencies and objections were raised regarding the project. After that, the planning ministry returned the proposal without approving it.

Speaking to Prothom Alo regarding this, Marium Akter, in charge of the Development Planning Unit of the forest department said, “We have prepared the explanation against the issues raised by the planning ministry. We have sent that the environment ministry on 1 October. It will be sent to the planning ministry from there after finalising.”

According to the sources present in the meeting of the project evaluation committee, the planning commission has said the project fell under the ‘orange’ category. Approval for this sort of project needs a clearance from the Department of Environment. However, the forest department says that the project falls under the ‘green’ category. Therefore, there is no need of any clearance from the Department of the Environment,

The planning commission says several roads will be constructed in the park under this project. According to the Environment Conservation Act, 1995, if any project includes construction of five to 10-kilometre roads, it falls under the orange category. Besides, the law also says to avoid selecting government declared forests as project sites. But the project has been taken up in the evergreen forest of Lathitila Bit of Juri Range. However, the project has been taken up in the tropical forests under the Lathitila beat under the Juri range. The Planning commission has also mentioned several inconsistencies, including estimating extra costs for hill cutting, monitoring and manpower related proposals.

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The forest department has asked fora workforce of 171 people to implement the project. Some Tk 152.3 has been allocated for this. Besides, the costs of the consultants and monitoring the design have been estimated at Tk 150 million and Tk 80 million respectively. The proposal says a private will be hired for the work. The Public Works Department is a specialist in these sorts of works. The Planning Commission, therefore, suggested the Public Work Department for this.

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An official of the Finance Division present in the meeting of the project evaluation committee said the project would be implemented with government money. So it would be prudent to exclude the proposal to spend Tk 150 million for consultants. Besides, the proposal also said about appointing five officials, including the project director, on deputation. However, there has been no allocation for their remuneration. The Planning Commission also raised questions over this.

The forest department has proposed to construct a ‘skywalk’ at a cost of Tk 220 million. The commission has asked to omit this proposal as well. The forest department also wants to build a helipad in the reserved forest of Lathitila at a cost of Tk 6 million. They also want to construct a 6-metre-wide road at a cost of Tk 70 million. The commission said the construction of the road would create an adverse impact on the environment. The commission also raised objections regarding the proposal to construct a helipad there.

The commission suggested buying 10 cars instead of 13 for the project. The commission also objected to the proposal to allocate Tk 10 million for foreign trips of the officials.

According to the documents, the forest department wants to buy wild animals worth Tk 300 million including lions, tigers, elephants, nilgai (a rare species of antelope), hog deer, Indian Muntjac, barasingha, rhinoceros, Bengal slow loris, leopard, African giraffe, zebra and hippopotamus. Besides, the forest department also wants to buy fishes, tortoises, pythons, crocodiles, gharial and monitor lizards. The Planning Commission also raised questions as to why Tk 300 million would be needed to purchase these animals.

According to the commission, the work on the safari parks in Gazipur and Cox’s Bazar is not finished yet. And the proposal to construct another safari park in Moulvibazar even before the completion of the work on safari parks in Cox’s Bazar and Gazipur is questionable.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Fazlul Haque, an official of the planning commission, said we havemade some observations. The forest department has been asked to get clearance from the environment ministry.

“We also asked them about the necessity of another safari park when there are two safari parks already in the country,” he added.

‘Suicidal and destructive project’

The Lathitila reserve forest is still home to rare and endangered species including, Indian muntjac, wild boar, gibbons and vertigo monkey. This is also home to small-nailed otters. These animals are indigenous to the Sundarbans and the Latithila forest. This tropical evergreen and bio-diverse forest of the country is also a reservoir of rare species of trees like white thingan, bailam tree and sandalwood tree.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Saber Hossain Chowdhury, president of the parliamentary standing committee on the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, said, “The forests and the environment of Bangladesh are already endangered due to climate change. Therefore, we have to save whatever reserved forest we have. So we have to find ways to protect the forests without constructing any infrastructure.”

The Lathitila forestland is a part of the Patharia hill along the Bangladesh-India border. The Madhabkunda Eco Park is 20 kilometres south of the Lathitila and the Lawachara National Park is located 50 kilometres south of the Lathitila forest. It is home to several endangered animals. It was quite renowned during the British colonial era.

Wildlife expert and environmentalist Reza Khan told Prothom Alo, “Such a safari park in the Lathitila forest will be a suicidal and catastrophic project for the country. It’s the government’s constitutional duty to protect people's natural resources with their money. So the government should move away from its activity to destroy such a rich forest in the name of constructing a safari park there.”

*This report appeared on the print and online versions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu