Projects that destroyed three forests

21 March was International Forest Day. The theme for the day this year is, ‘Forests and innovation: New solutions for a better world’. How have artificial forests been created in Bangladesh destroying natural forests in the name of different projects? And was nature destroyed? Partha Shankar Saha looked for the answers to these questions

These two Sundari trees bear witness to the Chakaria Sundarbans that has vanished from Cox's Bazar.SM Hanif

Nere Dalbat (76) cannot recognise the Madhupur forest anymore. This former school teacher of the Mandi community was born in Gaira village of Madhupur forest in Tangail. This forest is the residence of Bangladesh’s unique matrilineal community Mandi or Garo.

Hundreds of species of anonymous trees along with magnanimous sal and banyan trees that Nere Dalbat had seen in this forest in his childhood have vanished now. There’s a ‘planted forest’ of acacia trees on a huge area now. And there are invasive species of rubber trees.

Meanwhile, miles after miles of forest have been cleared to be replaced by banana and pineapple plantations. But the forest Nere Dalbat had seen in his childhood is still etched in his memory.

Nere Dalbat said, “There were such spots in the forest where the sun did not shine. I have seen jhum plantation in the forest as a child. There were even peacocks there. In fact, we used to source our food from the forest.” Nere talked about different types of potatoes including ‘thaja’ and ‘aampeng’. Those cannot even be found anymore.

Evils of social forestry in Madhupur forest has become clarified in satellite image. There are no trees in Chakaria Sundarbans on the coast of Cox’s Bazar. Many local and foreign advisors were involved with the projects that were made destroying natural forests.

The condition of Madhupur forest was still quite good till late seventies. Towards the end of 1980s, vast areas of the forest were cleared out in the name of social forestry with foreign loans and foreign species of eucalyptus and acacia trees were spread out there. In Nere Dalbat’s words, “The forest’s bad luck started with the social forestry.”

It did not just change the appearance of Madhupur forest, but also brought sufferings in the lives of the people living in the forest. This former school teacher is an accused in 14 forest cases, 13 of which have been dismissed with just one left now.

The forest department wanted to set up an eco park in 2004 through a development project. And the forest department filed cases one after another against those who protested against it then. Nere is one of them.

Not only in Madhupur forest, the sad tales of forest and people dependent on forest are also scattered in Chakaria Sundarbans of Cox’s Bazar as well as in Chittagong Hill Tracts. Forests have been destroyed in the name of development in these areas as well.

Deforestation in Madhupur

‘Social forestry’ started in Madhupur forest towards the end of the eighties under the Thana Afforestation and Nursery Development Project (TANDP).

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) had funded this programme. The objective was to produce fire wood on the land that had already been decayed or encroached. 

From the time of this project being implemented, Madhupur forest started disappearing faster than ever before. Cutting down local varieties of trees, foreign species were planted monopolistically.

In the first phase of the social forestry programme these foreign varieties had included acacia and eucalyptus trees. And, plantation of exotic rubber trees began in this forest back in 1986. 

Trees planted under the so called social forestry programme by cutting down trees from the natural forest were supposed to be axed within ten years.

Once the trees were cut down, land grabbers coming from different areas occupied the vacant land and started farming cash crops such as bananas, pineapples and papayas extensively.

In recent times, spice cultivation (especially ginger and turmeric) has also occupied notable area of the forest as well as land possessed by the Garo and other local residents.

Currently, pineapple farms have occupied thousands acres of land from Madhupur and vast parts of the sal forest. The plantation of this has been increasing at an alarming rate while it is being controlled by outsiders and traders.

The forest department however talks of different reasons behind the deforestation in Madhupur. Forest department’s divisional forest officer (DFO) in Tangail, Md Sajjaduzzaman said that the Garo’s setting up habitation is at the root of deforestation.

Plus, there were outsiders destroying the forest together with the Garos. Later, social forestry was done there finding no other way. However, this official feels that the forest department too has some liabilities.

No matter how many excuses the forest department gives for deforestation, but the satellite images have clarified the evils of social forestry in Madhupur forest.

Such images came up in a study titled ‘Forest Cover Change Analysis Using Remote Sensing Technics in Madhupur Sal Forest of Bangladesh’ done by two researchers at Bangladesh Space Research and Remote Sensing Organisation (SPARRSO), MA Salam and MAT Pramanik.

The research showed that back in 1973, about 10,000 hectares of land throughout the entire forest was covered with sal trees. In 2015, the figure stood slightly above 2,500 hectares.

Meanwhile, rubber plantations, pineapple farms or invasive species of acacia trees have covered up almost 60 per cent of the forest land.

President of Joyenshahi Adivasi Unnayan Parishad, a human rights organisation of Madhupur’s local ethnic minorities, Eugene Nokrek was saying that some people are reaping fast economic benefits from the trees and cash crops planted with foreign funding. But the forest has already lost and is still losing its resources.

In 1976 Chakaria Sundarbans had an area of 19,617 acres while in 1995, the forest area decreased to only 866 acres.
Source: SPARRSO's satellite image taken from the book 'Stolen Forest'.

No forest left at Chakaria Sundarbans

Still there are some bits of sal forest left in Madhupur. But there’s none left in Chakaria Sundarbans on the coast of Cox’s Bazar. There was a uniquely beautiful forest there just back in 1972.

The area of that was more than 19.000 acres at that time. But in 1982, a shrimp farming venture was launched there under ADB’s Aqua Culture Project. So, hundreds of shrimp enclosures were set up by clearing out the forest.

Then World Bank and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) introduced fish farming projects there in 1986. They had invested USD 26 million (2.6 crore) for shrimp farming at that time through their projects. Under World Bank’s funding 500 shrimp enclosures, each having an area of 100 acres, were set up in the forest.

Since the beginning of these projects, this enriched forest started disappearing gradually. Abdul Malek (76), a resident of Charandwip area of ​​Chiringa union of Chakaria upazila, saw the destruction of this forest right before his eyes.

He was telling Prothom Alo that back in the eighties, fish enclousers were created by cutting down Keora, Bain and Sundari trees from the Sundarbans under government’s patronage. There’s nothing left of the forest now. Salt fields and fish enclosures have been built on the forest land.

The Chakaria forest was intact even till 1979. In 1982, some bits on the north-western side of the forest disappeared and the area of forest stood at 8,650 acres. Then in 1995, the entire forest disappeared.

The World Bank in 1994 stated in their project closure report, “There have been no environmental disasters because of the project; rather, issues like waterlogging have been solved in the long term. And, no Sundarbans have been cut down.” However, the ADB report from 1989 has admitted that 800 hectares of forest had been deforested.

Professor at the institute of forestry and environmental science of Chittagong University, Mohammad Al-Amin has long been studying the mangrove forest. The destruction of Chakaria Sundarbans is ‘a major environmental disaster’ to him.

He was saying that the forest was home to innumerous species of trees and animals. Apart from that, the forest had a huge significance since it used work as a shield against natural storms.

The loss of a hundred thousand lives and property along the coast of Cox’s Bazar in the cyclone of 1991 could have been prevented if that forest had existed. Shrimp production had been comparatively better for five years after the forest axed down. And the shrimp production started dwindling there since then.

Based on research, Mohammad Al-Amin said, “The reason for this is that the microorganisms that were destroyed by deforestation did not regrow again. They had been gradually decaying while the quality of soil has also deteriorated. We would have to pay for it.”

Rubber plantation on in Tanchangya Para area under Jhagrabil Mouza in Rangamati.
Supriyo Chakma

Rubber and softwood tree threaten hill forests

Nowapotong and Baishari are two unions under Rowangchhari and Naikhongchhari upazilas of Bandarban. Among them, people in Nowapotong area have seen how plantation of softwood trees started there by destroying the natural forest to supply raw material for Karnaphuli Paper Mills.

Meanwhile, rubber plantation left people of the Chak community in Baishari more endangered. Rubber plantation started in the country back in 1970s. With ADB’s advice and assistance the project was run in Chittagong Hill Tracts as well.

Rubber farming has been going on by clearing out 35,000 acres of land on the hills. No natural forest will return there again. The forest department established Kaptai pulpwood division on the Hil Tract back in 1978 while, the Bandarban pulpwood division was created in 1982.

These two divisions were fashioned just to supply softwood for pulp or paper mache. The two divisions received nearly 264,000 (2.64 lakh) acres of land in total.

Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA) and the Bangladesh government had jointly taken the first pulpwood project in the Hill Tract. The project was titled ‘Development of Pulpwood Plantation in the CHT Forests’. People living on the Hill Tract were the victims of this.

Former Nowapotong union parishad chairman Shambhu Tanchangyawas telling Prothom Alo, “All the softwood trees were planted in the whole area by cutting down our natural forests. That forest too is destroyed now while the natural forest got ruined in the meantime.”  

Deforestation: Who to blame

Director of non-government research organisation, Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD) Philip Gain has been working on the damages of foreign projects in country’s forestlands for more than three decades now.

He said, “The lender institutions keep these unlawful projects going by taking advantage of the ongoing culture of the country of being spared even after committing crimes. And it continues even today.”

Many local and foreign consultants were involved with the projects created through the destruction of natural forests. Foreign donors provided money and the government took it. So the environment, forest and climate change minister Saber Hossain Chowdhury believes the local policy makers who were in charge are accountable here.  

The minister told Prothom Alo, “Many of our agencies including the forest department have interest in projects. Sometimes we don’t judge whether it’s good or bad. The reason for that might be our weaknesses. But when we’ll be capable ourselves these won’t happen anymore. That’s what we are trying now.”

There’s a term called ‘polluters’ pay in the environmental movement. That means those responsible for environmental destruction have to pay the liabilities in financial price. Is it impossible to take responsibility of the damage caused from projects done by clearing out the forests?

In response to this question, economist Hossain Zillur Rahman said projects, destructive to the environment have been continuing one after another in the forest land of the country because of the foreign agencies, ‘project-loving’ officers of the ministry and the local opportunist groups in the area adjacent to the forest. There’s that colonial mindset behind it.  

Former advisor to the caretaker government Hossain Zillur Rahman also said that noticeably lower quality consultants come from abroad to work in these projects. They also get joined by local people of the same standard. And none of them are held accountable in any way.

However, there are some instances where several lending institutions sometimes canceled their projects due to strong protest and better quality of research. Unfortunately, there’s no attention to creating better-quality research and researchers in the country, he added.

* This analysis appeared in the prink and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Nourin Ahmed Monisha.