Diminishing hills, endangered ecology

Rezaul Karim

Hills and mounds in and around Sylhet are gradually diminishing, thanks to the greedy and ferocious attacks by a section of people. Ecologists, both local and foreign, fear that besides damaging local landscape, this is going to have serious long-term impacts, writes Rezaul Karim

NATURAL resources are a gift of God. But like any other thing on earth, they do not last forever. They need nourishing, and conservation in order to last for generations. What many people are not aware of is the fact that destruction of natural resources seriously affects the ecological balance. Destruction of forests and hills affects the flora and fauna of the area, which in turn has an effect on the food chain. This chain of events could lead to a serious threat to mankind's existence itself over a long period of destruction and negligence.

Sylhet was once haven of greenery and a treasure trove of nature in our country. The hills and mounds in and around Sylhet are gradually diminishing, thanks to the greedy and ferocious attacks by a section of people. Ecologists, both local and foreign, fear that besides damaging local landscape, this is going to have serious long-term impacts.

Indiscriminate destruction of hills have a direct impact on the lithosphere (land) leading to floods, water logging, change of weather, increase in temperature and increase in storms, landslides slides and weathering. The biosphere (organisms) suffers extinction of rare species, destruction of bio-diversity, spread of diseases. Some of the immediate effects on the environment being observed are deforestation, reduction in fertility of the soil, damage to life and property due to landslides, communication cut-off and destruction of historical and religious sites.

Hills in Sylhet cover about 206 square kilometres. This include the terrain of hills and mounds along the foothills of the Khasiya and Jyontiya hills, hills along the North-east and south-western regions, Golapganj, Biyanibazar. These small hills vary in height from 20 to 100 metres. These hills and mounds are mostly of red earth and some contain sandstone as well. These are not only important for their scenic beauty but are great resources of the country. One of Bangladesh's prime exports, tea, is grown on these hills. Once known for absence of trees, these hills now boast of a lot of trees, which were planted to provide shade to the tea plantations. The hills are now sources of panoramic beauty. In addition to providing shade to tea plantations, there has been some planned forestation along some hills. This has made the region not only a tourist attraction, but also important in maintaining ecological balance in the region.

Just a few decades back, these hills were rich in flora and fauna. But now, a lot of these rare species are either endangered or extinct. These hills are also the sources of mineral resources like natural gas, limestone, sandstone, which have traditionally contributed to the economy of the country. The fertility of land along the foothills is also very suitable for fruit bearing trees and the tea plantation owners in the areas where tea is not grown have grown numerous orchards. The hilly region has also proved to be suitable for rubber plantation.

But large-scale destruction of the hills (by cutting it down for earth and soil) has been gradually changing the entire scenario. Destruction is predominant in Star Tea Estate, Malinichara Tea Estate, Lakkatura Tea Estate, Chatak, Golapganj and Gowainhat. This venture to obtain soil, sand and stones is increasing day by day. Survey shows that on an average, 1200 square metres of hilly region are being made flat each year. Those who have been to Sylhet for the last time about a decade ago, will now be surprised at the change in the area if they were to visit it now.

The destruction started back in the 1970s by a section of the people. It has been noticed that over 1,000 truck loads of earth is taken from the hills of Sylhet everyday to be used for land filling in low-lying regions and construction of roads. And its not only the hills under private ownership, even public property is being indiscriminately destroyed in the process. Each truckload of soil earns the hill owners a mere Tk 80-100. They probably have no idea of the cost they are causing to nature. This meagre profit-earning venture is damaging the ecology to such an extent, which cannot be measured even in crores of taka. These can never be replenished.

There are laws against cutting down hills, but they are not really heeded to. Like many other laws they too are not implemented. No one has ever been made to answer for the disregard he has shown for law or for causing such an extent of damage to environment, which can never be compensated. Absence of legal action against those who are destroying these natural resources in Sylhet have now resulted in a serious threat to the environment in the region.

Source: The Daily Star, 5 October, 2001