People living near Chiria Reserve Forest are sometimes woken up at night by the sound of trespassers felling trees on the hills.
But the sound doesn’t seem to be heard by the officials who are supposed to protect the hill forests in Rangunia upazila of Chattogram.
“During the Eid holidays earlier this month, I woke up and went up a hill to see what was going on. But the thieves chased me away,” said a 56-year-old man who requested not to be named fearing attacks by what he said were organised gangs.
The logging he talked about took place just about a hundred yards away from Rangunia Range Office in Sharaf Bhata union under Chattogram South Forest Department.
During a recent visit, this correspondent saw six new stumps of teak trees that must have been planted in 1980 when, according to officials, the forest was created under a government programme.
According to data from the Department of Forest, 10 percent of the country’s total forestland has been lost since the independence due to deforestation, land grabbing and allocation for government and non-government projects and leasing.
Besides, illegal tree felling remains rampant in most reserved forests. This has been happening at a time when the government is trying to increase the country’s forest coverage to 18 percent from the current 15.58 percent by 2030 which is a condition to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG).
In the reserved forest in Chattogram’s Rangunia, locals said tree felling in the remote Chiria forest has been going on for the last few years by a local gang that remain unbothered by the forest officials.
Just a few miles away, in Narischa Beat area which is also under the Chattogram South Division Forest, this correspondent saw stumps of at least 150 teak trees that had been stolen recently. This forest has around 500 stumps marked by the department as stolen.
A signboard mentions that Block-Sharaf Bhata, Narischa Beat, is a forest on 6.40 Hectares of land.
Contacted, Beat Officer Abdul Mannan said no tree was stolen from the forest.
When this correspondent told him about the stumps, he admitted that “a few trees” had been felled and he filed a Prosecution Offence Report about it.
Locals said the gang of thieves takes the logs to the nearby Betagi union across the Karnaphuli River where sawmills shape the logs into smaller sizes. Eventually, they end up at the hand of furniture traders.
Contacted, Prohallad Ray, range officer of Rangunia under Chattogram South Forest Department, claimed that many of the stumps seen by this correspondent must be of dead trees which are taken away by local miscreants.
He added that officials had recently recovered the 15 pieces of logs from Ramgotir Haat area of Betagi union. But who cut the trees remains unknown, he said.
“I asked my beat officer to look into the matter seriously to find out the people involved,” he said.
Forest department insiders said many forest department officials are involved in the racket.
Contacted, Mozammel Haque Shah Chowdhury, divisional forest officer of Chattogram South Forest Department, told The Daily Star that he was not aware of any tree felling.
Professor Sikandar Khan, president of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon’s Chattogram Chapter, said, “The razing of forests is systematic. Authorities who are supposed to protect either look the other way or skim off the top. They are jeopardising our future, our biodiversity, and our wildlife.”
Exemplary punishment should be handed down to the criminals if the government wants to protect the forest at all.