Remember the scenes from the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, where two young little hobbits accidentally met Treebeard, the thousand year old and wise Ent, who is literally a moving talking and action taking tree?
He discovered the hobbits “Merry” and “Pippin” after they managed to escape from the band of Orcs. The hobbits brought news of the evil Wizard Saruman’s treachery and his Orcs ruthlessly damaging the trees, but Treebeard, oldest and the wisest among the Ents, already knew of these disasters. Now, the Ents — usually a very patient, deliberate people — did become angry at Saruman, whose armies were cutting down large numbers of their trees. Treebeard convened an Entmoot, a meeting of the Ents, and the thousand years old ‘trees’ came to discuss what can be done to stop this madness.
In the similar and horrifying manner, we have seen that the last few decades in Bangladesh is going through a large amount of forest destruction, for human habitat, for power production or even for agriculture. Are we standing near a doomed situation, when we see Sundarbans, the most beloved of our forests, is burning?
Forests and Jungles in Bangladesh: What do we have?
Protected areas (including forests and jungles) in Bangladesh cover some 2% of the country’s total area or (243 677 ha.) of the country, and we famously heard that old information of having somewhere near 17% forests in the country, where we should have 25%. There are around fifteen national parks in Bangladesh as well as fifteen wildlife sanctuaries, eight Eco-parks and one game reserve. Have a look at the list, and see how many of them you have known before. (be honest!)
The slow and steady process of Deforestation
Forest officials blame illegal encroachment by the local people and over-exploitation of forest resources as the immediate reasons for ht fast depletion of woodlands in Bangladesh. Especially in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, substantial loss of forest resources is attributed to commercial exploitation of immature tress for sale on the black market. Commercial use of forest land for monoculture of rubber and for fuel wood has also had a negative impact on the country’s forests.
A massive expansion of commercial shrimp culture recently appeared to be the latest threat to the forests in the southern coastal areas, especially in Satkhira and Cox’s Bazaar. Unplanned and uncontrolled growth of shrimp enclosures have led to the destruction of mangrove forest areas and a redacting in livestock. Cultivation of shrimp affects the soil since it need saline water for a long period of the year.
And of course, the exploitation of forests for power production or natural resources mining is ongoing. We didn’t forget the incidents of Magurchhara or Tengratila gas fields, where the forests were burnt by natural gas explosions caused by the negligence of the mining companies. And the very recent example of Sundarban is right before our eyes, where regular sinking of ships with coals and oils, along with mane-made fires and the construction of Rampal power plants, the situation is almost out of hands.
All of these are contributing to intensify the adverse impacts of climate change in Bangladesh. Already we started to feel the scorching heat – summers are getting hotter than other years. The alarming signs of El-Nino is also started to be visible, which dramatically affects the natural eco-system.
The Protection of the Forests: what does the Law say?
The framework for legal protection of the forests is mostly centered on the Forest Act. Besides, the Environment Act of 1995 and some other subject-oriented legislations provides secondary support.
The Forest Act of 1927, as amended with its related rules and regulations, is the basic law governing forests in Bangladesh. The emphasis of the Act is on the protection of reserved forest. Some important features of the Act are:
(i) Under the purview of the Forest Act, all rights or claims over forestlands have been settled at the time of the reservation. The Act prohibits the grant of any new rights of any kind to individuals or communities;
(ii) Any activity within the forest reserves is prohibited, unless permitted by the Forest Department;
(iii) Most of the violations may result in court cases where the minimum fine is Taka 2,000 and/or two month’s rigorous imprisonment; and
(iv) The Act empowers the Forest Department to regulate the use of water-courses within Reserve Forests.
An amendment of the Forest Act of 1927 was drafted in 1987 and approved in 1989, as the Forest (Amendment) Ordinance 1989. The Forest Act was further amended in 2000 and renamed as the Forest (Amendment) Act, 2000. Under this amendment some major changes have been brought in the Act. But it is not very unsurprising that all those legal provisions are not strong enough.
The Rampal Curse: ‘Tearful’ eyes of the Tiger
The widely criticized Rampal power plant program has sparked a huge amount of spotlight in last few years. Especially with the accidental sinking of coal and oil tanker ships in different rivers, man-made fire in the forest, Sundarban is on the threat of a massive destruction. Have a look at the few points of the adverse impacts Rampal power plant is going to leave on Sundarban –
1. Production of 500 Megawatts of electricity in coal based power plant needs 2.2 billion gallons of water. And this water will be supplied from the “Poshur” river, which protects the whole ecological balance out there.
2. In foreign countries (even in India) no coal based power plants can be established within 15-20 kilometers of protected forests or residential areas. However, our Govt. allowed this Rampal project in an area which stands just 14 kilometers away (As per the Contraversial EIA Report), though experts say that it stands only a few kilometers away from our precious Sundarbans, which has been declared as Ecologically Critical Area by Global community.
3. This 1320 Megawatts power plant will produce 142 tons of Sulfur-Di-Oxide an 85 tons of Nitrogen-Di-Oxide in a daily basis. Apart from that, this plant will also discharge 100 cubic meters of effluent in the Poshur river per hour. The authority won’t follow the Zero Discharge method, but the same Indian authority doesn’t forget to follow Zero discharge method in establishing power plants in own country.
4. This power plant will produce 7,50,000 tons of fly ash and 2,00,000 tons of bottom ash containing Arsenic, Mercury, Lead, Nickel, Vanadium, Beryllium, Barium, Cadmium, Chromium, Selenium and even Radium. More importantly, this has been directed to be used in land filling (1414 acres of 1834 acres) of the area.
5. Excess mining of the groundwater will drawdown the groundwater level to a severe extent. Already the salinity of the soil of Sundarbans and surroundings has reached an extreme level due to the outcome of two devastating cyclones, Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2010
Is it already too late to save Sundarban?
Commitment for a Greener Bangladesh: Our country our duty
The first thing of course, is awareness. We need to know and disseminate what we know by sharing ideas, knowledge and experiences. Campaigns (online and offline), programs and youth discussion forums can be very helpful to analyze the problem, and to find and recommend some possible solutions from youth perspective. Activity-oriented programs like Tree Plantations and Social Forestry can play a vital role.
Cutting down on air pollution is an important step in going green. While transportation is the most obvious generator of air pollution, other aspects of our lifestyle also affects the amount of emissions we create everything from the products we buy, our behaviors at home and the way we handle household waste. A number of small changes in different areas can make a difference. The big results come when everyone is making such a contribution. Thus to reduce air pollution youths can ride bicycle for long or short distances hence reducing the use of fuels; and luckily we have seen a surge in this trend. Lots and lots of people are now riding bicycles. Dependence on renewable energy like Solar should be increased at every level. Economic and careful use of gas, electricity and fuel will definitely contribute to build a greener Bangladesh, which can easily be done by the youth in Bangladesh. All we need to do is to care!
Lastly, traveling in the wilderness, some day hikes or trekking can immensely influence the way we live in our big metropolitan cities. The connection with the wild and nature that we broke done thousand years ago, will start to revive from the secret cells of your DNA, and you’ll start to feel more fresh, more motivated and more committed for the nature.
Let’s not bring the doom upon us
In search of the underlying causes of deforestation and forest degradation in Bangladesh, a number of researchers found that the modern industrial civilization has created a form of life style, which through consumerism and conspicuous consumption, made the plundering of forest and nature a lucrative enterprise for the industrial capitalism. Thus, the effective implementation of forest laws and effective forest management have been recommended as remedial measures of deforestation and degradation.
I’d like to finish with the scenes from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. After lengthy deliberation Treebeard led them marching on Saruman’s fortress at Isengard, accompanied by the two Hobbits: the last march of the Ents. In the Battle of Isengard, they totally destroyed the valley, freed the river and trapped evil Saruman in his tower.
Nature will take its revenge if we do not redress the wounds we have already caused. Let’s start our work before it is loot late.
This article was originally published as the Cover Story of Youth Wave magazine (June 2016 issue).