The government had declared the Sonadia island to be an environmentally critical area (ECA) as its environment and biodiversity is extremely important for us. It is now at risk.
Turtles on the verge of extinction have made their home here. All sorts of migratory birds flock here too. The island has a forest of aerial root trees.
There had been a time when the government planned to construct a deep-sea port on this island. Now it says it will make this into an economic zone for eco-tourism. Hotels, motels and other structures will be constructed here.
When the project was being planned, it was said that this will bring in a lot of economic benefits. But have these planners the least idea about the forests and the biodiversity of Sonadia? No amount of money can buy the protection that these provide us. If they had any inkling about this, they would never allow such an absurd project on this island.
In the nineties, the government took up afforestation of the island. Forests grew there naturally too. The Supreme Court also issued directives to protect the coastal forests. The Sundarbans saved our southwest regions from the cyclones Sidr and Aila.
We still have some forests in Chittagong and along the Cox’s Bazar coast. If we destroy those too, then the eastern coast will remain even more unprotected in the face of cyclones and tidal surges.
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority (BEZA) is legally supposed to create economic zones only in non-fertile and empty spaces. And it is also bound to follow the Environment Conservation Act.
This act of 2010 has provision for stern punishment in the case of rendering damage to biodiversity in environmentally critical areas (ECA). Such offences can lead to a 2 to 10-year prison sentence and a Tk 200,000 to Tk 1 million fine. No trees can be felled or animal habitats destroyed in ECA zones.
Creating an economic zone in Sonadia in the name of ecotourism is contrary to the environment conservation act. So should we assume that BEZA is above the prevailing laws of the land?
The water resources ministry has opposed the plans to build hotels and other tourism infrastructure on the island. It says this cannot be done in ECA zones
I support this stand. BEZA should move away from Sonadia. This should be declared a biodiversity conservation area. There is no clear concept about ecotourism in this country. If BEZA gets legal permission by using the term ‘ecotourism’ in Sonadia, that must not be allowed.
Even a country like Thailand which thrives on tourism has shut down its Maya sea beach as they want to protect the biodiversity there.
We have no evidence of responsible tourism in Cox’s Bazar, Saint Martin, the Sundarbans, Lawachhara or anywhere in the country. Uncontrolled tourism in these areas have destroyed biodiversity and even the slightest environmental balance. Sonadia still survives with its own natural characteristics. We must protect it at all costs.
* Syeda Rizwana Hasan is the chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA). This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.