World Environment Day, 2011 - Dr. Nazrul Islam
Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), the global network of non-resident Bangladeshis and their international friends, greets all on the occasion of the World Environment Day (WED), June 5, a day established by UN General Assembly in 1972 for special activities to stimulate worldwide awareness of the environment. This year, WED is
celebrated with the slogan, “Forests – Nature at Your Service!” in order to draw attention to the plight of forests all over the world.
The role of forests for human well being can hardly be overemphasized. This role is both direct and indirect. Directly, forests provide home to more than 300 million people worldwide, and about 1.6 billion people depends on forests for their livelihood. Indirectly, forests are vital for the well being of all human beings, because they are a critical element of the Earth’s eco-balance. Also, forests are home to 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity and
Yet forests are suffering. Each year 36 million acres of natural forests are lost due to human activities. Deforestation and degradation of forests are an important cause for climate change, accounting for about 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Protection of forests is therefore essential for the future of human beings on the Earth.
Forests have taken a serious beating in Bangladesh. From about 20 percent of the area in pre-independence years, forest cover of the country has now dwindled to about 6 percent. Forests of the entire Bhawal-Modhupur tract have now almost disappeared. Forests in Chittagong Hill Tracts and Sylhet and the Sundarbans have shrunk considerably. Whatever remains have suffered degradation. Even the reserve forests are under assault. In the name of cultivation of cash crops, hills are systematically denuded of forest cover. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts deforestation and degradation of forests have taken place in conjunction with displacement of the Adibashi people of the area. People from plain lands have been brought over to occupy the hilly lands and asked to cultivate them the way they did plain lands. The process continues to this day despite the signing of the Peace Treaty in 1999. Thus atrocities toward forests have gone hand in hand with atrocities toward ethnic minorities.
Elsewhere forests have suffered due to greed, corruption, and incompetence. In the name of “development” of forests, misguided projects, such as construction of Eco Parks, have been taken up, mainly to misappropriate project money. These misguided projects have disrupted both the flora and fauna of the forests and the life and
livelihood of the Adibashi people who live in the forests.
While the natural forests have been degraded and destroyed, projects have been taken up to promote so-called “social forests.” Again, misappropriation of project money has been a main motivating factor behind these projects. Further, by promoting alien tree species, such as Eucalyptus, etc. these social forestry projects have often
disrupted the local flora and fauna.
The Department of Forest became one of the most corrupt departments of the government, as was revealed clearly when police raided the erstwhile Forest Department chief, Md. Gani’s house to find bribe money stashed everywhere, including in pillows and mattresses! What could be expected of forests of the country with such people at the helm of the Forest Department!
Deforestation and degradation of forests have taken a heavy toll on the country’s overall environment. The denouement of hills and their conversion into farmland have led to soil erosion, landslides, and clogging of rivers. Loss of forests has also caused loss of biodiversity. Loss of forests has led to deterioration of the air quality. Degradation of the Sunderbans is increasing the vulnerability of the coastal areas to hurricanes, cyclones, and tidal bores.
Thus, Bangladesh has a lot of introspection to do during this year’s World Environment Day. The current government came to power with the promise of “Change.” It has to assess how much it could change the situation with regard to the country’s forests. Could it reverse the process of deforestation and degradation of forests? Could it root out
corruption from the Department of Forests? Could it review the projects and discard the ones that actually destroy forests? Could it change the strategy towards Adibashis, restore their traditional rights over hills and forests, make them the custodian and protector of forests, rather than displacing them by settlers from plain land and converting hills into farmlands?
India has been designated as the global host for this year’s World Environment Day. BEN hopes that this will raise the profile of the day to Bangladeshi people and the government. Many countries are taking steps to reverse the process of deforestation and degradation of forests. In China, for example, the forest cover is now increasing,
thanks to vigorous efforts of the government of that country. Same is the case with Costa Rica. Bangladesh can draw inspiration from these positive experiences and embark on a serious effort to stop the process of deforestation and degradation of forests. The government has to take the lead. BEN, BAPA, and other pro-environment forces will
certainly lend their utmost cooperation in this effort.
Let the World Environment Day, 2011 be a turning point for forests in Bangladesh.