In Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s literature, you would not be able to finish a full sentence without getting the description of dozen of different flora, starting from the century old shade trees to the little grass flower. Bibhutibhushan was the master in bringing up the real nature of Bengal in his letarature. As clearly depicted by Bibhutibhushan, an exceedingly lively nature and rich biodiversity made the landscape of Bangladesh.
Several years ago, I had an opportunity to travel to the Chimbuk hill at BandarBan hilly district. While I expected a visual commentary of Bibhutibhushan, I was shocked and saddened to see an indiscriminate massacre of nature. The arakan mountain range that runs parallal to the coast line through Chittagong or the more intimidating landscape of the hill tract districts used to be home of dense lush green rain forest and was inhabited by an amazing range of creatures. Wild elephants used to roam along the foot of the hills in dense jungle, they also used to have leopards, porcupines, gibons, orang otangs, deers, bears, pythons, Nil Guy etc. Now-a-days, this dense green rainforest has turned into governments fruit gardens.
For many decades, there have been government programs of planting fruit trees along all the rainforests and to accomodate more fruit trees there have been more felling of trees that were meant to be there naturally.
Tagore wrote, “Oi Maloti lota dole, pial o toru ro kole”. As both Maloti lota and pial toru are not lucrative, they have to give way for Ipil Ipil trees or amra gardens.
Now in the forests covering chittagong and CHT hills, you will hardly see the diversity Bibhuti or Tagore wrote about.
This rampant extermination of nature, dear readers, didn’t start in one year, in last five year or even in last fifteen years. It is a decades long problem. Sometimes in the early eighties, I was travelling from Khagrachhari to Matiranga. The memory I still have left is only of those fruit gardens along the mountain cliffs which I now guess once used to be dense jungles.
I wrote in an earlier blog that the famous oscar winning movie ” Around the world in 80 days’ was shot in east pakistan. The director with his 100 plus crew travelled all the way to Lauachhara forest in Sylhet only for a real dense forest which would be pitch dark even at mid day ( as warranted by the book description). Friends, lauachhara forest is now not even a skeleton of a forest now.
The problem, dear readers, is very very serious. A country means its people, and its nature. We have lost our nature. We are not losing, we have already lost it. A very serious crime have been committed.
And, dear readers, the crime was committed by us, the people, more specifically, the peoples republic of Bangladesh.
For many years, the nature, esp the forest resources has been looked by the government as a source of revenue generation. The concept of preserving the nature is incompatible with the psyche of Bangladesh bureaucracy. It is exactly like those bureaucrats who got annoyed at the offer of free submarine data cable and was very quick to rebuff the offer.
The people of Bangladesh know that where there is a foresty office, there no longer exits a forest. People have seen in their own eyes the money hidden in the drums, the gold ornaments hidden under the bed of arrested chief conservator of forest Dr Osman Goni and clearly understood that these are the money that came out of the vanishing forest resources in Bangladesh.
And while the nations jumps ecstatically at this catch, they easily forget that Osman Goni is only a tiny part of a big problem. The big problem is the government and its policy.
Let’s hear from from two current senior officials of Bangladesh forest department.
Ishtiaq U. Ahmad, the Conservator of Forests for Wildlife at the Forest Department and Philip J. DeCosse, the Chief-of-Party of the Forest Department’s Nishorgo Support Project recently wrote that
contributor to corrupt practices in the forest sector is the de facto forest policy that has put a high priority on generation of non-tax revenue from forests for the government budget. In the light of this policy, the department has evolved increasingly in ways that ensure that these government targets are met.
At the beginning of each year, the government gives the chief conservator of forests (CCF) a target figure for revenue generation from the forest department for the coming fiscal year. In the past five years, this figure has hovered around Taka 100 crore per year. In May, the CCF sits with his conservators and divisional forest officers and divides up the responsibilities to achieve this target.
The annual recurrent costs of the forest department happen to be the same as the government revenue targets, or almost Taka 100 crore. The government seems to have set revenue targets so that the forest department would not be an extra burden on the national budget. In essence, the department, as it operates now, pays for itself. This may seem sensible to someone responsible for reducing government expenditure, but the policy has had a strongly negative impact on the forests.
Although the figures are not exact, evidence from recent forest inventories conducted by the department suggests that forested areas in reserved lands have decreased precipitously.
The fact that higher-level political actors have benefited greatly from this tree felling business explains in part why this revenue generation from timber continues in spite of the dwindling forests.
The means of generating this government revenue are well known, and include: (1) proceeds from felling operations; (2) auction revenue of seized timber; and, (3) issuance of permits. While these are legal operations, any forest officer open to corruption will find these processes a perfect means of aligning public and private interest. Permits given for legal felling operations can be abused, as can operations of transit checkpoints.
In short, the high priority given to meeting government-fixed revenue targets encourages both, an ever-increased amount of tree felling and the corrupt practices that are so easily associated with it.
To be frank, the problem lies within a generation old mindset. Over the last centuries, the forest has been looked by both the government and the community as an easy source of resources. The idea of conservation of the natur, the God made landscape and the diversity of flora and fauna is extinct in our thought. The word conservation only remains in the name of the officer who leads the forest extermination process in the name of revenue generation for the government.
When I think of a fight back in solving/ correcting the problem, the first problem I see is the lack of an organized environmnetal activist group. BAPA ( Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon) has done some Dhaka based work, some conference and rally. Although this group has done some laudable job, raised awareness, hard core environmental activism probably should not have been expected from this group. It is run by some very respected senior citizens who are involved in many other civic actvities and whose focus is multiprong. What is needed at this point is a Green Peace type organization which would be run by young passionate nature loving people. We expect this group to rush to Sundarbans with Dingi boat at the news of oil spill or to research on impact systemic deforestation in southeastern mountain ranges and or lauch a campign to trace extinct Shushuk ( Dolphins) from Bangladesh rivers.
Will this write up generate enough interest in a nature lover in Bangladesh who will start thinking of forming a hard core environmental activist group?