St. Martin's Island was at the centre of discussion and concern for the Bangladeshis during the recent Category 5 Cyclone Mocha that hit the country on 13 May 2023. The hurricane caused damage to the structures of the local people living in 'kutcha' (tin-shed, bamboo-made) houses. In contrast, the concrete hotels and motels the outsider business enterprises constructed had not been damaged. Instead, the local people could take refuge in those concrete structures during the cyclone.
St. Martin's Island is one of the major local tourist destinations. It has been in the public consciousness for several decades, regarding imposing restrictions on the number of visitors and using certain construction materials, mainly concrete. Yet there has been a significant increase in the number of concrete structures all over the island.
Besides the private hotels and motels owned by influential people, the government also constructed several concrete buildings for different institutions. The Bangladesh Navy, Coast Guard, Bangladesh Police, Department of Environment, Bangladesh Meteorological Department, Bangladesh Water Development Board, Zila Parishad, etc., have built structures which are regularly rented out to visitors.
However, the restrictions are imposed on the local people, who, with their limited resources, are forbidden to construct concrete structures. Despite the restrictions, concrete structures are being built using unscrupulous means, right under the noses of regulatory agencies, which is an open secret.
St. Martin's Island is an Ecologically Critical Area (ECA), and several studies and projects have been conducted to conserve the island's biodiversity (habitat, species, ecosystem). Recommendations included zonation for managing tourism, tourist carrying capacity, and sustainable use of the island's resources.
During my tenure as the spearhead of the GEF/UNDP-funded Coastal and Wetland Biodiversity Management Project (CWBMP) administered by the Department of Environment (DOE), a conservation management plan was developed for St. Martin's Island in 2007. Specific recommendations were given mainly to logically demarcate land use zones based on which infrastructures can be developed to promote tourism and conserve the ecosystem.
These zones include – 1) Managed Resource Zone - covers the northern part of the Island (ECA), south to Golachipa, to be used as a multiple-use economic zone, 2) Sustainable Use Zone - covers the middle part of St. Martin's Island from the southern border of the managed resource zone and continues southward to Dakhinpara and 3) Restricted Access Zone - covers the southern part of the Island, known as Cheradia.
This zone possesses the critical ecological features for which the ECA was declared – coral-algal communities, coral-associated biodiversity, mangrove patches and other natural vegetation, including seaweeds, and thus deserves strict protection.
The government acts only when the water is above the head, and this gives rise to corruption and the opportunity for dishonest government officials and politicians to make the people pay for their legitimate claims. The local people need building materials delivered at factory rates without any middleman intervention. It is not the building materials that are destroying the ecosystem. The people and tourists must be regulated and managed, and the administration has failed.
Cyclones like Mocha may also hit the island again; when that happens, the local people will suffer economically and psychologically. It is high time that the government decides on the zonation of the island. Many hotels and resorts have already come up in the sustainable use zone, and the restricted access zone has become a must-visit site for most tourists. It may be difficult, but not impossible, for the government to regulate the tourists and the economic development, considering the carrying capacity of the island and for the sake of conserving the unique ecosystem that the island supports.
Dr SMA Rashid is a wildlife biologist.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.