Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) demanded a total halt to the allocation of reserved forest land in the name of development on Sunday.
The organisation made the call as part of a 12-point demand to ensure transparency, accountability and integrity in forest conservation and management – on the occasion of International Forest Day.
International Forest Day is celebrated every year on 21 March. This year's theme is "Forest Restoration: A path to recovery and well-being."
In a press statement on the day, TIB said, "Although the importance of forests and forest land in maintaining the balance of nature and environment is immense, there is a lack of effective measures for forest conservation and development."
The organisation said multifaceted risks for deforestation have been created by those: conducting unplanned development activities on forest land, constructing coal-fired power plants near protected forests including the Sundarbans, allocating land around forests for the construction of public and private industries and establishments, and allowing corruption and encroachment on forest land. This is endangering wildlife and increasing the decay of forest land and resources.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the annual deforestation rate in Bangladesh is almost double that of the global average, at 2.6%. In the last 17 years almost 66 square kilometres of tropical rainforest have been deforested in Bangladesh.
According to data by Bangladesh Forest Department, so far, 2,87,453 acres of forest land has been occupied across the country, among which 1,38,000 acres is protected land.
TIB said, "The misuse of power by the Department of Forests and the collusion and incompetence of a class of officials in the forest-centric corruption have become one of the obstacles to sustainable forest development."
"The Department of Forests has not been able to use both the powers and the powers vested in it to protect public forest lands and to ensure the traditional land rights of forest people," it added.
The civil-society organisation thinks the absence of forest policies and the 94-year-old Forest Act present various challenges in law enforcement on forest, forest land and forest resource conservation. It said, there is a lack of goodwill, on the part of the Department of Forests, in enforcing the laws.
Although a new Forest Act was drafted in 2019, experts have termed it as a renaming of the 1927 Forest Act. As per the provisions of the Section 26 of the proposed act, arbitrarily reserved forest land can be used for public and private development work and the right of the state to the rural community, common people or companies over its share of forest under Section 29. This has created a fear of deforestation.
At the same time, Sections 26, 63 and 70 have raised questions about the effectiveness of the act as these sections do not provide adequate powers to the forest officials to deal with offenses – such as the illegal occupation and eviction of establishments – and do not provide immunity to perform the functions in good faith.
The government has set a target of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. However, in the name of critical technology, industrial plants, including anti-life coal and LNG-based power plants, are being set up in the vicinity of the Sundarbans and in environmentally critical areas, which is a clear violation of Act 5 of the 1995 environment law, said TIB.
TIB's 12-point demands include the enforcement of existing laws in accordance with the constitutional obligation to provide protection and security to all forests and wildlife, including natural resources, biodiversity, forests and the Sundarbans; a total halt to the allocation and use of reserved forest land in the name of development; and that prior to deforestation and use of forest land for state needs, permission from the Department of Forests be obtained and the completion of an error-free environmental impact assessment and enactment of Compensatory Afforestation Rules on environment-friendly afforestation of an equal amount of land be formulated.
It also includes stopping all development projects, including coal-fired power plants around environmentally endangered areas along with the Sundarbans; integrating forest laws and introducing participatory forest conservation and management, including ensuring land rights for minority ethnic groups and forest-dependent families, etc.