In the meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee of the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, forest department gave an account of the occupation of forest land which is worrying. According to their calculations, the number of forest land grabbers in the country is 160,566 and they have 257,158 acres of forest land in their possession. The total forest area is 46,46,700 acres.
Forest land has been occupied to build houses, agriculture and industries and businesses. According to the report of the forest department, 172 people have occupied the protected forest and set up permanent establishments and industries. They occupy 820 acres of reserved forest. Some 4,914 acres of forest have been grabbed to set up markets, shops, educational institutions, cottages, farms, resorts and so on.
Earlier, a joint study by the Centre for Environmental and Geographical Information Services (CEGIS) and the international organisation Water Aid Bangladesh had said, the forest in the three hill districts had decreased by 362,036 hectares in 12 years. Occupancy continues in various protected forests including Madhupur in Tangail and Gazipur.
We appreciate the initiative of the parliamentary committee. They gave a complete list of the deforested areas, albeit belatedly. Now it remains to be seen what the forest department and the government will do. Committee chairman Saber Hossain Chowdhury said about 500 acres of land had been recovered from the occupancy. He hoped that a large portion of the occupied land would be recovered by the end of the current term of the government.
What is the basis of this optimism of Saber Hossain Chowdhury? If the activities of the forest department are limited with sending letters to the district administration or filing one or two cases, the occupied forest land can never be recovered. The occupiers are so influential that these cases are not settled year after year. An integrated and sustainable plan is needed to reclaim the occupied forest.
There are strict laws on forest conservation. Even then, it is necessary to find out who are behind the destruction of over 250,000 acres of forest land. The environment ministry and land ministry have agreed to work as a joint working group to recover the grabbed forest land. Not only do they have to form working groups, they also have to be active in rescuing the occupied forests.
According to environmentalists, any country needs to have at least 25 per cent forest cover. We have only 15 per cent, of which the amount of natural forest is very small, about five per cent. Although the amount of created forest has increased, the amount of protected or natural forest is gradually decreasing.
It is relatively easy to recover forest lands occupied by individuals or non-government organisations. But the cooperation of the concerned people is needed to rescue the forest lands which have been taken over by various government agencies and institutions. It has to be remembered, the people own the forest. The responsibility of the government is to protect that forest. Forest conservation must be a priority in our development plans.