Source: The Daily Star News
Over 100 trees already chopped down after HC directive; ethnic people, environmentalists protest
A timber trader chopped down over 100 trees and destroyed two betel leaf enclosers at Kailin Punji near Nahar Tea Garden in Srimangal yesterday after the High Court gave the go-ahead to cut down 4,000 trees. Earlier, 1,200 trees were already felled in 2008.
The HC bench comprising Justice Md Mamtaz Uddin Ahmed and Justice Naima Haider in the go-ahead on February 22 allowed the garden owner to cut the trees.
Indigenous people of neighbouring Khasia Punjis (villages) and environmentalist group Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (Bapa) apprehend displacement of indigenous people from their ancestral homesteads, loss of traditional livelihood and environmental degradation as a consequence of the wholesale tree felling.
The Ministry of Environment and Forest dubiously issued a permit on June 30, 2008 in favour of Nahar Tea Garden in Moulvibazar allowing it to chop down a total of 4,000 trees in exchange for Tk 47.51 lakh as royalty to the public treasury.
Nahar Tea Garden, however, made a deal with M/s Salim Timber and Traders to sell the 4,000 trees in October, 2006, two years prior to obtaining the permit. The deal involved Tk 1.5 crore.
Following protests by the Khasia community and Bapa, forest ministry on October 19, 2008 suspended the permit.
Before the suspension, the contractor, however, had cut 1,200 trees and removed them with elephants. The court in its February 22 directive did not mention the number of trees already felled.
Interestingly, Sylhet Divisional Forest Officer Md Delwar Hossain issued a fresh permit on February 2 this year allowing the garden owner to cut down 2,350 trees and asked to spare 450, as those are located in the Khasia Punjis (1200+2350+450=4000).
Following a writ petition filed by the timber trader Salim Uddin Mohalder and Nahar Tea Garden Manager Pijush Kanti Bhattacharya, the court on February 22 directed the forest department authorities and local administration to allow the felling of trees as per the earlier work order.
In the Sylhet Divisional Forest Office permit, the garden owner was asked to pay the government an enhanced royalty of Tk 1.19 crore for the trees as per revised rate of forest goods.
The HC in its February 22 rule also asked authorities including environment and forest secretary to show on what legal grounds they had imposed the enhanced royalty and reduced the number of trees by 450 and stayed the permit for three weeks.
"The timber trader started cutting the trees around noon with the backing of several hundred musclemen," said father Joseph, a religious leader of the local Khasia community.
Environment and Forest Secretary Mihir Kanti Majumdar said he would take initiatives to file an appeal today against the HC directive that allowed the felling of trees.
As to why the ministry gave permission in the first place to wipe out as many as 4,000 trees, he said, "We shelved it for some time."
The then Sylhet Divisional Forest Officer Abdul Mabud in a letter to the Nahar Garden manager in August, 2008 said 3,754 of the total 4,000 trees grew naturally and the rest were planted. The trees had 87,174 cubic foot timber and 75,508 cubic foot of firewood.
The trees included Cham, Gamar, Gorjon, Jaam, Koroi, Bonak, Rongi, Shimul, Awal, Khami, Bolos, Lud, Belpoi, Dumur and others.
Khushi Kabir, chairman of Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD), said tree felling on this scale would adversely affect environment, life and livelihood of the local indigenous people. "Forest area in Bangladesh is already very low compared to requirement," she said.
Bapa General Secretary Md Abdul Matin referring to locals' estimate said even though the tea garden has a lease for 864 acres of land, it is on over 1,200 acres of land including 200 acres of Khasia community land.
The garden owner has been realising money by sub-leasing 100 acres of the leased-land in violation of the terms in Bangladesh Tea Management Directory, alleged Bapa Member Secretary Sharif Jamil.
The owner has realised a total of Tk 2 crore illegally in the form of land tax since 1984 from the Khasia communities, said Md Abdul Matin.
Deputy Commissioner of Moulvibazar Mofizul Islam said Khasia community is dependent on the trees for their livelihood by the betel leaf cultivation. He received no complaints about realising tax from the community, he said.
There are around 60 Khasia families in two Khaisa Punjis--Akilam Punji and Kailin Punji--in and around the garden.The tea garden's manager Pijush Kanti said they needed to cut the trees to expand the garden by 60 acres every year. On realising tax from the Khasia, he said they do not do that anymore but the previous owner used to do it.