Four years of illegal sand lifting and forest razing have turned what was once a dense forest in Chakaria, Cox’s Bazar, into what now appears to be a lake.
The rampant tree felling takes place on both sides of the Hargoja canal in Paglir Beel area.
The canal through Dulhazra Safari Park of Cox’s Bazar forest division (north) is leased out to the upazila chairman of Chakaria.
Upazila Nirbahi Officer Syed Shamsul Tabriz told The Daily Star that there is a legal quarry in Hargoja canal in the Paglir Beel area, but men working for the lessee — the upazila chairman — are encroaching into the forest.
“We discussed the issue in our monthly meeting and decided to get the area surveyed to assess how far they have encroached,” he said. “It is getting rampant. We are doing our best to stop it.”
The continuous sand lifting is threatening to eat into the Biodiversity Conservation Zone under the Chattogram wildlife division, threatening animal habitats in greater Chattogram that are already in jeopardy.
Mohammad Moazzom Hossain, director of Department of Environment (DoE) in Chattogram region, said a team from his office visited the spot and found a grim scenario there.
“We will issue a notice to the perpetrators soon and take action as per law,” he added.
After talking to locals the team found that at least 11 locals engaged 24 large machines to dig out sand in the forest area. The razing and digging has inched perilously close to the Biodiversity Conservation Zone.
On September 15, this correspondent found no trace of forest when visiting the spot that was lush with greenery just a few years ago. Around 50 acres of the forest land was dug 10 to 15 feet deep to lift the sand, causing it to resemble a water body.
Around 30 trucks lumbered in empty and chugged back sand-laden over the course of the day. One of the truck drivers, pulling the vehicle over at Shah Suja road, said each truckload of sand would be sold for Tk 10,000.
The sand is used at various construction sites, he said, requesting that his name not be used.
Another truck driver told The Daily Star the vehicle’s owner pays Tk 500 for each trip to influential locals including Dulhazra Union Parishad Chairman Nurul Amin, his brother Md Monsur and one Bipen Dutta. They have the backing of Chakaria upazila Chairman Fajlul Karim Saydee.
Nurul Amin told The Daily Star that Paglir Beel was leased out to the upazila chairman and that he had nothing to do with the sand lifting.
Saydee said most quarries in Chakaria were leased out to him as party men make a living by lifting sand.
“I don’t know actually what the scenario is on the ground. If there is any damage, I will certainly abide by the action the authorities concerned will take,” he said.
Thouhidul Islam, divisional forest officer (north) of Cox’s Bazar under Chattogram Forest Circle, told this correspondent that they had seized and burnt down sand lifting machines last year in the area.
“As I came to know it from you, I am going to take action soon,” he said, adding that there is political backing behind the rampant sand lifting.
Abu Naser Md Yeasin Neyaz, divisional forest officer (wildlife and nature conservation), said due to the sand lifting which has caused a large crater in the area, a biodiversity conservation zone for animals is in jeopardy.