The Declining Forest and Causes of Deforestation in Bangladesh 

Dr. Mir Muhammad Hassan 


The developing worldís share in global industrial round timber trade might be further declining from its present 11 percent in the coming years. This view was expressed by the International Tropical Timber Organization in 1999. On the contrary, sustainable forestry plantations in developed countries are enjoying a comparative production advantage. FAO in 1999, on the basis of recent studies made forecast that production of round timber would continue to exceed consumption throughout the world except in Asian countries. FAO reported on a loss of 65.1 million hectares of rain forests in developing countries and an increase of 8.8 million hectare plantation forest in developed countries between 1990-1995. 

 Apart from this unfavourable economic trend environmental and social factors also call for achieving a sustainable trend of tropical forestry in developing contraries. From the above context there is an increased awareness of the need to conserve both wood, non-wood and wildlife resources in the declining tropical forests and to ensure that local people have equitable access to the forest resources. In addition, international concern that exists regarding the status and output of freshwater resource to which forest contributes positively also provides this issue more prominence. The role of forest in climate change was discussed in the Kyoto protocol very elaborately: the industrialized countries and the wealthy entrepreneurs would be tempted to invest in sustainable forestry practice and management in the light of the incentives that have come out through ratification of the Kyoto protocol. 

With an objective to promote private investment in sustainable forest management (SFM) developing countries should aim at (i) provision of basic information on forestry sector, (ii) making of an inventory of obstacles to private investment in SFM, (iii) exploration on private investment opportunities in SFM and (iv) setting out of the recommendations for future actions. 

With the above objectives in mind the international Panel for Forest in 1997 called for generation of additional private financial resources to contribute to SFM in poorer countries of the tropics. But the respond to the call failed to increase overall investment in the forestry sector of the developing countries. Subsequently, to arouse private sectors interest in sustainable forestry in developing countries the DG for International Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioned FORM Ecology Consultants and the Netherlands Committee for IUCN to investigate the issue. 

Bangladesh has a total forest land area of 2.5 million hectares out of that the Sundarbans and coastal forest occupy near 0.8 million hectares and the CHT has nearly 0.9 hectare. Though a large area within the Sundarbans has already become non-productive, bushy forest or vacant land, the overall situation there still is not that frustrating like forests lands of the plain land districts e.g. Bhawal-Madhupur and Barind tracts and the hill forests of Chittagong, Sylhet and CHT. 

As per the landsat data CHT has 7,00,000 hectares of completely deforested USF and 355,000 hectares of partly deforested RF lands. The timber productivity potential of  CHT lands can be assumed to be nearly 4.0 million m3 annually. At the present price in primary makers potential annual output from CHT alone might reach Tk. 28.0 billion within a period of 40 years. But unfortunately the present output from CHT forest do not exceed more than Tk. 2.0 billion by any means. This potential loss of revenue from forestry in CHT alone is too big for a poor country like Bangladesh. 

With a view to converting the denuded and degraded hill forest lands of CHT into productive and biologically exuberant tropical rain forest and investment of Tk. 6000 billion would be necessary. This amount of investment might be quite large for GoB from the public sector alone. Hence, opportunities for investment in the forestry sector can be created with the provision of attractive incentive to that the national and international entrepreneurs might be feel encouraged to invest in this gainful sector in CHT and elsewhere in Bangladesh. 

An investment promotion project has been initiated by GoB specify the interests and wishes of the stakeholder groups. This group will remain responsible for final definition of the goals, activities and setups of the entrepreneurs interested to invest in Bangladesh in SFM programme. The proposed stakeholders group shall include experts from finance, forestry, environment, social science, etc. These experts shall develop mechanism for providing appropriate information based on which sound decisions could be taken by the prospective entrepreneurs to invest in SFM in Bangladesh. 

Causes of Deforestation in Bangladesh 

The Bangladesh forest with its exuberant majesty and biodiversity depleted and shrank to 6 percent from 20 percent of land area within a time span of 50 years after 1947. This happened due to policy weakness, over exploitation and law and order failures. True, there is lack of legislation to provide protection to the national forest but poor implementation mechanism of the existing rules perhaps cause as greater damage in this regard. 

Since the beginning of the British Rule, the Indian subcontinent including Bangladesh appeared to hold inexhaustible forest resources base. Rennelís map (1866) indicated that the Sundarban, sal forest of the Bhawal-Madhupur tracts covered an area several times larger than it is at present. The hill forest of Chittagong CHT, Sylhet, Mymensingh and Comilla were also densely populated by more than 2000 flowering plant species including 300 tree species. Nearly 30 tree species in hill forest 20 species in plain land forest and 30 species in the littoral forests used to be commercially exploited. In addition the homesteads were covered with valuable fruit, fodder, timber, fuel wood, bamboo and many multipurpose tree species. The demand for forest products was low and population size was three times smaller. Hence, the government and the people of that time could collect produces from forests freely as per need. This demand-supply situation is now a matter of the past. For over the centuries the policy pursued only administrators was to expand the agricultural land area by clearing of forest by ignoring or under estimating the tangible and intangible contributions of forest. The destructive policy, rapid change of society from rural urban and growth of population put extra stress on forests that consequently depleted Bangladesh forest to the present level. Enactment of appropriate policy and legislation and their proper implementation could probably help to save the country from present precarious situation in respect of forest resources. In that perspective the existing forest policies and legislation are reviewed here. 

Forest Policies 

The first outline of the policy for forest conservancy was laid down in 1858 as Charter of Indian Forests during the reign of Lord Dalhousie. Subsequently, the Forest Policy, 1894 indicated regarding the role of forest in the conservation of soil, climate, watershed and prevention of erosion, siltation, flood, cyclone, torrent, etc. However, preference on agricultural use of land over forestry practice remained unchanged.  Hence, clearing of forest for agricultural use of land continued unabated and unchanged even after enactment of the policy. The Forest Policy 1955 dealt with primarily the issues related to West Pakistan forest and thus it grossly neglected the issues that relate to Bangladesh forest. On the contrary, it was assumed under itís provision that Bangladesh has vast forest coverage hence emphasis in framing the policy was put on increased exploitation of natural forest and the need for conservation, development and management were undermined and ignored. Consequently, a Forest Product Laboratory was set in Chittagong and Paper Mill at Chandroghona during the mid-fifties for increased extraction and utilization of forest products at commercial scales. 

The Forest Policy, 1955 was revised in 1962, but the policy discrimination regarding Bangladesh forest continued even after adoption of this policy. However the need for strengthening of Forest Department and initiation of research on Forest Management Research in Bangladesh were felt necessary under the revised Forest Policy, 1962. This policy also failed to support all round growth perspectives of forest and failed to recognize the need oriented forestry research, development and utilization. Hence, degradation of forest in Bangladesh continued. 

The Forest Policy for the independent Bangladesh framed in 1979 remained dormant for a long time as an office document without any effective implementation effort due to lack of sincere intention of GoB and capability of Forest Department. Under the changed socio-economic condition and falling law and order situation that followed after 1972, caused rapid exhaustion of the forest resources in Bangladesh. In addition price hike of the fossil fuel in the international market, closure of the Suez Canal and economic isolation of Bangladesh from the world community accelerated rapid exhaustion resources in Bangladesh including the forest resources. The Forest Policy, 1962 was found inadequate in view of UNCED (Rio Conference 1992) that viewed forest as multi functional, multi dimensional and renewable biological resource production unit with multiple use potentials. The policy makers being inspired by the Rio Conference did ultimately realize the need for a sectoral study for framing a 20-year Forestry Master Plan to combat the environment and ecological degradation situation in Bangladesh. The Forestry Master Plan was published accordingly in 1993. The National Forest Policy, 1994 subsequently enacted by MoEF in light of the recommendations of Forestry Master Plan. The salient features of the National Forest Policy, 1994 are (i) raising of forest covered are to 20 percent by 2015, (ii) ensuring of coordinated participation of FD, NGOs and private individuals in forestry related activities, (iii) Strengthening capability of FD, Bangladesh Forest Research Institute (BFRI), (iv) Forestry Training Academy University, (v) entrepreneurship development to deal with research development and utilization of forest resources, (vi) reorganization of FD, BFRI, BFIDC and other forestry sector organizations. 

The estimated resources requirement for the proposed activities was Tk. 8,000 million. ADB came forward to organize collection of fund from various donor agencies. The Forestry Sector Project (FSP) was launched in 1997 with ADB support of Tk. 4,000 million as the first project for implementing the FMP recommendations. As per ADB evaluation FSP though launched since mid 1997 is a sick project and failed to reach the physical and financial targets. 

Forest Legislation 

The forest offences in British-India were dealt under the Indian Penal Codes until the forest in several states was declared as State Forest for management, exploration and conservation purpose. The customary rights of people as well as the public interest in forestry sector recognized by the government are conflicting to conservation and management of state forests. Hence, it was soon realized that to deal with the vivid nature of forest offences that take place within the state forests special laws required to be enacted. The Forest Act 1865 was therefore enacted in India to prevent crimes, protecting resources e.g., trees, wildlife, ecology, watershed, landscape, etc., and to expand and manage the state forests. Hence, the Act was subsequently revised in 1878. Finally, the Forest Act, 1927 was enacted to provide full-scale legal coverage for protection and development of Reserve Forest and other types of state managed forests. This Act was valid in Bangladesh to deal with Forest offences until enactment of the Forest Act, 1994 with the subsequent Amendment in 2000. Seventeen sections of Article xvi of the Forest Act, 1927 were amended and the linguistic errors were corrected by the enactment of Forest (Amendment) Act, 2000. 

Other laws, ordinances and rules of general nature that have a strong bearing in relation to forest administration, management and conservation include (i) Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) Act 1973, (Amendment) 1974 and 1998 (ii) Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 1995, (iii) Environmental Conservation Rule, 1997, (iv) Hill Cutting Ordinance 1986, (v) Brick Burning Act 1989, (vi) Cattle Trespass Act, 1871, etc. 

From the above discussion it becomes apparent that there had been defined policies for forestry practice in Bangladesh since 1865. But only few of these are satisfactory to the needs of time and the legislation enacted for pursuing the policies are rather punitive in nature than encouraging to private sector involvement in forestry activities. Moreover, the prevailing law and order in Bangladesh makes FD unable to implement the existing legislation and in providing protection the national forests. For example, as per several of FD field staff and timber merchants of Coxís Bazar, Rangamati and Khagrachari who preferred to remain anonymous reported that it costs nearly Tk. 70,000 in the form of extortion for moving a seven tonne truck from these stations to Dhaka. The parties involved in extorting the money are 27 where FDís share is less than 20 percent. It, therefore, becomes clear that none of the single agencies including FD can totally stop pilferage of forest resources in Bangladesh. 

The FD officials at all levels are in favour of enactment of more harsh forest rules with provisions of severe punitive measures and non-bailable confinement. But promulgation or enactment of Acts along may not be of much help under the existing morally and socio-economically degraded condition of Bangladesh. 

Source: The Bangladesh Observer, May 6, 2001