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Insatiable greed wipes out a reserved forest

Not a single tree seen in 21-year-old woodland; rampant logging allowed for bribe
Jasim Majumder, Khagrachhari

Jugalchhari Reserved Forest in the hill district of Khagrachhari does not exist anymore because of mismanagement and misdeeds of forest department officials, sources said.As a result the government lost a large sum of investment and at least 10 types of wild lives and 25 kinds of birds lost their safe habitat, environmentalists said adding that the large reserved forest could have been a wonderful natural habitat for wild lives.

A total of 2,415 acres of the reserved forest, which was supposed to grow into a lush habitat for many kinds of wild lives in the last 21 years since 1984, is now totally destroyed due to rampant illegal felling of trees by loggers under the safe shelter of the officials of Divisional Forest Office (DFO) and Panchhari Range Office.

Local forest officials of all levels directly helped the loggers to plunder the forest in exchange for hefty sums of bribes, making sure that they would not go out into the forest for routine inspections and monitoring, but they did not hesitate to misappropriate allocated government fund for the purpose, sources said.

A total of 2,565.50 acres of land of the same mouza were also brought under Jugalchhari forest for cultivating a variety of fruits, 800 acres of those were brought under the forest in 1984, 180 acres in 1997, 550 acres in 1985, 550 acres in 1993, and 555 acres in 1994.

According to a statement of the DFO, a total of 30,89,130 segun saplings and a large variety of fruit trees were planted in the forest in the last 21 years. But during a recent visit to where the forest once was, The Daily Star correspondent could not find a single tree of any kind there.

According to Mongshi Marma, the man who coordinated the process of setting up the now vanished Jugalchhari Reserved Forest and its fruit orchards, the government spent more than Tk 12 crore for planting, preserving, nurturing and monitoring the trees, and it also had a target of earning more than Tk 100 crore after 20 years of its establishment.

But after 21 years now the government still could not earn a single taka as the fruit orchards and the forest itself do not exist any more, Mongshi said.

Pradip Chowdhury, programme coordinator of the Centre for Sustainable Development (CFSD), said due to a lack of proper management many wild lives lost their habitat threatening the environment.

“We want a proper investigation of the wholesale plunder of the forest, which made it extinct,” he said.

“All forest officials concerned are responsible for the complete destruction of the reserved forest”, said former chairman of Bhaibonchhara union parishad Kazi Shamsul Islam.

Minati Bala Tripura, 33, an indigenous woman who lives near where the forest once was, said the forest officials concerned directly helped loggers to cut down the trees.

But, Divisional Forest Officer Shah-e-Alam said after the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord had been signed the indigenous communities cut down the trees of the forest illegally to sell the logs. When asked why he did not take any action against the alleged crime, he said, “I was not here at that time. Officials who were here at that time should have taken actions.”

Interestingly enough the same office misappropriated more than Tk 3 crore of government fund in the name of rehabilitating landless indigenous people in Jugalchhari Reserved Forest, sources said.

According to the DFO office, it settled 117 families in the forest in the last 20 years to look after the forest, but during a recent visit there this correspondent found only five families there.

A publication of DFO claimed that the government spent over Tk 1.5 crore for settling the families, each of which received more than Tk 1 lakh and five acres of land.

But, Sneha Kumar Tripura, 53, a settler in the forest said they did not get any money from the forest department although they received some land.

Confronted with the allegation, the divisional forest officer said most of the settlers left the forest soon after getting the money.

A total of 288 cases were filed against loggers in recent years, sources confirmed.

But, the forest officials would drop the cases in exchange for bribes of as much as Tk 50,000 to Tk 70,000 per case.

For issuing permits allowing sales of fruits from the orchards, the officials would take bribes ranging from Tk 10,000 to more than Tk 50,000 depending on the seniority of the official who was being bribed.

When asked about the allegations, Sadar Assistant Commissioner (Land) Rubaiat-e-Ashik said he heard that some of his staff are involved in corruption but he himself never has been.

The divisional forest officer however replied to the same query with a categorical denial of any kind of involvement of any of his staff in such corrupt practices.

Picture
A part of Jugalchhari Reserved Forest in Khagrachhari hill district left without trees due to plunder by a section of forest officials for long. PHOTO: STAR


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