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Plunder and loot of Forest of Bangladesh

the lost forest lost forest

1. The forest boss who gobbled up trees: all old trees of the forests of the country have almost vanished

Law enforcers seize huge quantity of timber belonging to detained Chief Conservator of Forest Osman Gani at a sawmill in Jigatala in the capital yesterday (May 30, 2007).

Forest boss held with tucked away Tk 1cr Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) Osman Gani was arrested yesterday at his Uttara house with Tk 1 crore in cash that he had hidden at some unusual places in his house. A joint team of Anti-Corruption Commission, army, Rab and police raided Osman's Bonobithi house at Sector 8 at around 11:00am and found the money, in several currencies, hidden inside a rice drum in the kitchen and inside a pillow kept in the balcony, among other places. The joint team also recovered two passports of the Forest Department head during the nine-hour raid.

Syed Nazrul Islam, officer-in-charge (OC) of Uttara Police Station, told The Daily Star that the joint forces had the information that the CCF had a lot of money hidden at his house. They have been keeping an eye on him for the last couple of days, he added. The joint forces conducted a thorough search of the house and seized Tk 92.9 lakh, US$1,300 and Indonesian rupees 3,000. The OC also said that they have information that Osman has a locker in the Dhanmondi branch of Standard Chartered Bank and they would take him there to check the locker. The joint forces will interrogate the Forest Department head about his source of income, he added (Daily Star, May 30, 2007).

Now detained Chief Conservator of Forest (CCF) Osman Gani had the records of immorality and underhand dealings since early years of his career in the forest department, according to his former colleagues and subordinates here in the port city. Some of his subordinates alleged that the CCF had become multimillionaire several years ago while his posting was in Chittagong as the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO).
His (Osman Gani) former colleagues alleged that the syndicate of the illegal loggers in connivance with the then Divisional Forest Officer destroyed many virgin forests in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

Osman Gani is still shouldering the charges of smuggling 1.2 million cubic feet of logs and lumbers worth more than Taka 1200 million from the reserve forests in Rangamati by permits issued to eight lumber traders in Dhaka overlooking the forest laws. Many of his colleagues believed that a smart amount was cleverly funneled to the pockets of his men from the World Bank funded aforestation project implemented at Noakhali and Hatia coasts in 1996.

osman ganiThe general impression about Osman Gani as a soft-spoken person and an academician notwithstanding the chief conservator of forests never gave up making money by abusing power like his predecessors. Gani allegedly launched a drive recently to collect money from different station officers and range officers in Khulna, Dhaka and Chittagong.

"Many range officers and station officers were recently due for transfer. So far I know, they gave the chief conservator huge money to stop their transfer and his wife received the money at home," said a forest official from Chittagong. "Money flows in natural course to the chief conservator," a Forest Department high official said. "He collects money through the departmental chain to pay the minister and other high officials related to the department," said the official who is also allegedly in Gani's chain.

Sources in the Forest Department said forest officials make money by destroying the forests. High officials like the chief conservator take money for the transfers of the department staffs and providing jobs. They also take bribes from the check posts set up for the protection of the forests. Another means of making quick money is different development projects of the Forest Department, the sources added.

Sources said there are 25 lucrative posts of station officer in Rangamati, 20 in Chittagong, five in Sylhet, 10 in Mymensingh and Tangail, and eight in the Sundarbans. Sources said at present the most money generating divisions are Chittagong North, Chittagong South, Sundarbans, Cox's Bazar, Sylhet and Dhaka. A lucrative posting in the Sundarbans or Chittagong Hill Tracts is sold for Tk 10-20 lakh, said high officials in the Forest Department.

Gani's wife recently collected more than Tk 1 crore from different forest divisions, said an official. Gani, however, did not deposit the sum with any bank for fear of the ongoing anti-corruption drive. In 2006, the forest ministry warned him for abnormal transfer activities in the department.

Earlier, a departmental case was filed against Gani in 2002 when he was the conservator of forests in Khulna Circle for selling out 368 lots of forest wood without any auction showing only Tk 33 lakh as the price. Sources said Gani gulped not less than Tk 3 crore 51 lakh which an open tender would have yielded. Gani was found guilty in the departmental investigation and the erstwhile Bureau of Anti-Corruption filed a case against him in January 2003. But no action was taken against him; he was rather promoted as the deputy chief conservator of forests in 2004.

Gani allegedly had the blessings of three forest ministers of both the Awami League and the BNP-Jamaat alliance governments--Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury, Shajahan Siraj and Tariqul Islam. Sources said before becoming the chief conservator Gani also made a good link with the Hawa Bhaban through former prime minister Khaleda Zia's APS-2 Abdul Matin. Both Matin and Gani hail from Comilla. Gani allegedly made around Tk 2 crore by appointing 83 forest guards in four forest divisions.

Several sources said Gani embezzled money from three forest development projects--the Sundarbans biodiversity project, the Noakhali coastal afforestation project, and the Nishargo project. He allegedly did not return a pricey Canon EOS-100 camera of the Forest Department when he was in charge of the Sundarbans division. Gani's wife Mohsena Ara used to visit the range offices of both the East and West divisions of the Sundarbans once a month to collect money from the forest officials.

"Osman Gani bought houses in Dhaka with the money he made during a decade's stint in the Sundarbans," sources said. It is alleged that Gani maintained his money spinning chain through six officers of deputy ranger and ranger ranks in the Rangamati, Chittagong, Dhaka, Sundarbans, Bogra and the Coastal zones. Sources said the department used to centrally collect more than Tk 2 crore every month from Cox's Bazar, Sundarbans, Chittagong North and South, and Rangamati forest divisions.

"The chief conservator would send shares of the bribes to his higher authorities and close aides working in important posts in the department," said a source. Gani also made huge money by allowing land grabbers to build structures on forestland at the Bhawal National Park. A few forest officials recently informed the Ministry of Environment and Forest anonymously of Gani's corruption.

Sources in the forest department said a system has been established in the department through which the chief conservator automatically gets money even without any coercion. "The British had introduced the system to earn revenue from the forests instead of conserving them. The forest officials' approach towards the forests still remains the same--they only know how to make money out of the forests," a young forest official told The Daily Star, requesting anonymity.

It is alleged that the station officers at the forest check posts never give clearance to a truckload of wood without money. "A huge amount of money is collected at the forest check posts and the chief conservator and other high officials get the share of the money on monthly basis," said the officer. "As an officer has to spend huge money to get a posting, he sells trees to recover that amount," he said, adding that in this way all big and old trees have disappeared from all the forests in the country.

Due to such unbridled corruption of all forest officials, all old trees of the forests of the country have almost vanished except a few in the Sundarbans. Meanwhile, the joint forces yesterday conducted massive searches to round up Gani's two brothers-in-law Khair and Mintu. Khair is also a forest department employee. Sources said Gani used to smuggle timber from different forests to different sawmills in the city including the two on Maneswar Road in Dhanmondi where the joint forces recovered huge quantity of timber early yesterday. Khair and Mintu used to coordinate the smuggling (Daily Star, June 1, 2007).

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2. Incredible Ill-gotten Wealth Forest boss turned to faithfuls for safekeeping

As most of the property of arrested chief conservator of forests Osman Gani is entrusted to his relatives and faithful employees, the law enforcers investigating his corruption are yet to determine the total wealth of the forest boss. More stunning information about the forest boss continue to surface as sources in Khulna yesterday alleged that Gani received Tk 57 lakh as bribe in last January from Sundarbans forest officials and took Tk 60 lakh from 60 officers assuring them of promotion.

So far, about Tk 4 crore in cash, gold ornaments and bank deposits, has been recovered from Gani's possession, an official of the joint force who led drives to reveal unbridled corruption of the forest chief, told The Daily Star yesterday. He also owns a five-storeyed building at Zigatola and two plots at Purbachal and Uttara, the official said. Other sources however said Gani and his wife have Tk 20 crore with different banks and around 150 bighas of land. On Thursday night fixed deposit receipts worth Tk 38 lakh were recovered from the garage of Gani's Uttara residence. The interrogators revealed more information yesterday about Gani's involvement with an international timber smuggling syndicate that smuggled timber into the country from neighbouring countries. An influential former state minister assisted him in running the syndicate and they earned a huge amount of illegal money through the process.

The forest boss also prevented timber traders in Rangamati from cutting down trees from their timber gardens to establish monopoly on the timber business in the hills region, the investigators said. The law enforcers also said that during April the forest boss allegedly took Tk 1 lakh each from 60 forest officials to get them promoted to the post equivalent to cadre ranks. And the money amounting Tk 1 crore that the joint forces recovered on Tuesday from Gani's Uttara residence most probably include the amount given by the promotion-hungry forest officials.

The huge property of the forest chief came to the notice of law enforcers after he drew around Tk 20 crore through different means from banks before visiting America in March this year. Since then the law enforcers had been watching his movement and on Tuesday raided the Uttara house of Gani who is now being quizzed on a seven-day remand at Joint Interrogation Cell.

"Gani is not giving clear information about his properties and the people who assisted him in the corruption. So, he might be taken on further remand," said an investigator. The crack force sources said they will prepare a list of corrupt forest officials and Gani's relatives and will arrest and interrogate them to get accurate statistics of Gani's wealth. "I cannot say anything now as investigation into the case is going on. But it seems that the forest chief needs to be interrogated more," said Sayed Nazrul Islam, officer-in-charge of Uttara Police Station.

"We are receiving information regarding existence of a number of bank accounts of the forest boss in different names," said a law enforcer requesting not to be named. The law enforcers are looking for two brothers-in-law -- Khalek and Mintu -- who were Gani's helping hands in smuggling timbers from different forests to various sawmills in the capital.

It is also reported that five of his relatives became millionaires with the blessings of the forest boss. The dishonest government official earned money through different means including bribery for appointment, transfer, promotion and implementation of different government projects regarding forest, and smuggling timber. He also leased out forestlands at lower prices after taking bribe. A number of forest officials remained at their preferred places in Chittagong zone for years by bribing him Tk 6 lakh to 7 lakh. Owner of a huge amount of ill-gotten wealth, Osman Gani did not properly look after his widowed mother and two mentally challenged sisters living at his ancestral home at Kriparampur village of Homna upazila in Comilla, locals said.

Our staff correspondent from Khulna reports: Gani realised Tk 57 lakh from officials and employees of east and west wings of Sundarban Forest Division threatening them to transfer to 'unattractive' places. Deputy ranger Mohammadullah and tour assistant Yunus Ali of the west wing collected the money, sources said.

While working as conservator of forest in Khulna from 1998 to 2002, Gani misappropriated Tk 3 crore by selling 368 lots of sundari wood (Daily Star, June 3, 2007).

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3. Forest plunderers living on nerves

All forest officials, especially the top ones, are panicking now, slowing down the usual bustle in the offices of the forest department considerably, since the sacking of Osman Gani, the recently detained corrupt chief conservator of forest (CCF). The panic among the officials was multiplied by a news report that the anti-corruption task force interrogators have been preparing a list of other corrupt forest officials.

Sources in the forest department said there are plenty of reasons for the forest officials to be panicked as almost all of them got rich with illegally earned wealth. While visiting the headquarters and the Dhaka zone office of the department this correspondent found forest officials huddled in small circles talking about Gani and the likely omen he had brought upon them. When asked about the present situation in the department, one of them said, "Nobody is clean in this department. Everyone from the top to the bottom is corrupt and they all are really panicking about their futures."

"Osman Gani not only destroyed himself, he brought down uncertainties on many officers," he added. A forest department source said Gani used to draw only Tk 20,400 as his monthly salary, but the joint forces recovered about Tk 4 crore in cash, gold ornaments and documents of large sums of bank deposits from his possession so far without even scratching the surface of his landed properties.

In addition to his basic salary scale of Tk 20,000, as the CCF, Osman Gani was entitled to a government car round the clock and Tk 400 for his medical allowance. He was not getting any house rent as he was living in a government quarter. If he would get the house rent, the gross sum of his maximum monthly pay would be Tk 29,400. Sources said the basic salary of a senior divisional forest officer (DFO) is around Tk 14,500 which will be Tk 17,500 after adding the house rent and the medical allowance, and after deducting the sum that gets deposited in a provident fund. According to the calculation, the gross monthly salary of a conservator of forest (CF) is around Tk 25,000 including the house rent. The salary of an assistant conservator of forest (ACF) starts at around Tk 11,000 while the rangers get around Tk 8,000.

The sources said the basic salary of no forest official is more than Tk 20,000, but most of them get automatic shares of bribe amounting to Tk 1(1 00000) lakh to Tk 10 lakh for each from forest wood check stations. "Even if the CCF did not take bribes from officials and employees seeking favourable transfers and promotions, and even if he did not directly help the illegal tree felling industry, still he would automatically get a share of the bribe chain worth at least Tk 10 lakh every month from the forest wood check stations," said a source.

There are around 100 forest wood check stations, from each of which the CCF and CFs get fixed amounts of bribe money ranging from Tk 5,000 to Tk 50,000 every month. The stations at Korerhat, Dhum Ghat, Hathazari, Padua in Chittagong, and Jaliapara, Ramgarh and Ghagra stations in Rangamati usually pay the CCF and the local CF Tk 50,000 each. Moreover, all CFs, the CCF, and his deputy also get two percent illegal share of the department's yearly development budget, the sources added.

"Even if a CF or a CCF don't get involved in corruption, they still get Tk 60 lakh a year automatically just for being the bosses sitting idle in their chairs, just if they implement a development project with a yearly budget of Tk 30 crore," said a source adding, "But if those officers are greedy they will be able to get more." From the wood check stations local DFOs get a percentage of bribes after paying off the CFs, the DCCF and the CCF. A DFO gets around 20 percent of the total local income from bribes. Rangers and other officials including guards, orderlies, and gardeners get the rest, the sources said.

As an example, the sources cited an incident that occurred about five to seven years ago, an officer was promoted to the post of a deputy secretary but he declined the promotion. "He is still working in the forest department in Chittagong region just to earn illegal money," said a source adding that the officer used to be a major flunkey of Osman Gani (P. Roy, June 4, 2007).

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Loot and plunder

As confessions are gradually surfacing, it is evident that the corrupt forest department officials are making money by destroying the natural resources that the government and the citizens have entrusted them with. According to the forest department, forest land in Bangladesh accounts for around 17 per cent of the entire land area in Bangladesh. The forest land comprises of classified and unclassified state lands, homestead forests and tea/rubber gardens altogether summing up to 2.52 million hectare.

From this massive portion, around 1.52 million hectare of forest land is under the jurisdiction of the forest department. These forests include Protected and Acquired forests, reserved forests and also the Mangrove forests. Due to these natural attributes, corrupt FDOs always had a huge list of lucrative divisions they could be transfer to. Forest department officials, along with Osman himself, have admitted that senior officials receive bribes in the form of cash and other procedures to transfer officials to such divisions. ‘These divisions are ones in Rangamati, Chittagong, Sylhet, Sundarbans, Khulna, Mymensingh, Tangail and other parts where forests are abundant with rich trees and vegetation,’ says a forest official, under condition of anonymity.

He explains that the abundance of trees usually mean that interested parties will want to pay the DFOs huge sums of money in exchange of work orders or illegal permissions to cut down trees and facilitate a 200 to 300 per cent profit. The attractiveness of these divisions are apparent from an information recently received by the forces that Osman’s wife had recently collected over Tk 1 crore from some forest divisions.

Osman himself was directly linked to this corruption during his tenure as a CF. Sources from the forest department claim that a case was filed against him in 2002 for selling out 368 lots of forest wood without any auction as a CF of Khulna circle. Although he did show that Tk 33 Lakh had been received, these sources feel that he had made nearly Tk 4 crore from that particular tender. The departmental investigation found Osman guilty and a case was filed against him by the Bureau of Anti-Corruption in early 2003. However, the official was neither suspended nor dismissed from his position. Rather, he was promoted to Deputy CCF in 2004.

Taking advantage of his political influence, he later made over Tk 2 crore by appointing 83 forest guards to four forest divisions. Sources also claim that Osman was aided through five to six ranger and deputy rangers currently in charge of some forests in Rangamati, Chittagong, Sundarbans and other areas.

Osman and company also aided encroachers build structures and occupy government forestland in Bhawal National Park and some other forests. Although still uncertain, police sources also believe that Osman along with some senior forest department officials were also involved in animal and animal parts smuggling.

‘He has already confessed to providing rare and extinct animals like deer and others to politicians. It is only a matter of time before he divulges more information about these with us,’ says the source.

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4. Osman Gani paid Tk 80 lakh bribe to get top post

former prime ministerDetained former chief conservator of forest (CCF), Osman Gani, yesterday confessed to paying Tk 80 lakh as bribe to get appointed as CCF. Of the amount, Tk 50 lakh was paid to the political office of former prime minister Khaleda Zia and Tk 20 lakh to former minister for environment and forests Tariqul Islam.

Another Tk 10 lakh was given to Amitabh Siraj Apu, son of former textiles minister Shajahan Shiraj, and also personal assistant to Tarique Rahman, to set meetings for Gani with the forest minister and Hawa Bhaban representatives. Gani made this confessional statement during interrogation by the taskforce. Sources concerned said Gani used to blackmail forest officials, against whom divisional cases in connection with plundering of around Tk 3,000 crore were pending, to earn illegal money. He used to threaten them to start the proceedings of the cases if the officials would not pay the monthly bribes, the sources added.

A Dhaka court yesterday again placed the recently dismissed Gani on a five-day remand. Police produced Gani before Metropolitan Magistrate's Court in the afternoon with a prayer for a seven-day remand. Earlier, the investigation officer (IO) of the case informed the court that Gani gave contradictory information regarding corruption and his wealth. So he needs to be quizzed further, the IO added.

Meanwhile, Members of the Anti-Corruption Commission and the joint forces raided the residence of Gani's wife Mohsina on Maneswar Road in the capital for half an hour and seized some documents. Sources said they went to the house to arrest some suspected relatives of the former forest boss but could not find anyone. The environment and forests ministry has already initiated a probe to identify the members of Gani's syndicate (Daily Star, june 5, 2007).

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5. Not a single tree seen in 21-year-old woodland; rampant logging allowed for bribe Insatiable greed wipes out a reserved forest

jugolchari reserve forestJugalchhari 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. A part of Jugalchhari Reserved Forest in Khagrachhari hill district left without trees due to plunder by a section of forest officials for long (Jasim Majumder, Khagrachhari , Daily Star, June 14, 2007).

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6. Depletion of forest by the forest lord!

de forested chittagongMost of the news about the environment either here in Bangladesh or elsewhere in the world is distressingly bad. Reports of disappearance of forests, destruction of wetlands, diminishing of coral reefs and extinction of other natural resources come with frightening frequency. While all countries outside Bangladesh celebrate the World Environment Day every year on June 5 with much fanfare by achieving some environmental progress, the environmental situation in Bangladesh unfolds a dismal picture. Against such a backdrop the Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed while inaugurating the National Tree Plantation Fair at Tangail on June 3 last exhorted every individual in increasing forest wealth by planting trees and protecting these by all means.

Paradoxically the Chief Adviser's inspiring address came at a time when all eyes were focused on Osman Gani, the forest boss of the country who denuded the forest to amass huge wealth through selling both promotions and transfers of forest officials as well as forest resources, now detected by the law enforcers. The week before last a horrified citizenry watched images of the forest lord's plundering of the forest wealth in the country and realised the futility of the move when a protector turns usurper.

Reports allege that while serving as conservator of forests in Khulna, he sold out 368 lots of sundari wood without any auction showing only Tk.33 lakh as the price that would have yielded Tk.3 crore and 51 lakh.. Starting from the Sundarbans to Madhupur to Rangamati to Jugalchari reserve forest -- forest lands and forest wealth have been devoured by Osman Gani and his syndicate and all this went on during the last five years without creating a ripple in any quarters of the past government . Unsurprisingly, when he had to buy his promotion at a hefty price of Tk. 80 lakh, that was shared by high-ups in the past government, nothing could possibly stand in the way to his insatiable greed of denuding the forest through rampant illegal logging.

Home to 330 species of plants, over 270 species of birds, and 42 species of mammals including the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger and the spotted deer, the Sundarbans went under assault systematically during the last one decade. The biggest mangrove forest in the world that once comprised 10,000 square kilometers is now left with only half of that. Once the rulers of the forest, the tigers are now prisoners of human intruders and disappearing faster than any other large mammal. Inside the forest, they are succumbing to poaching and relentless pressure of human population around the forest territory. Nearly 60 percent of the world's tropical rainforests including the emerald mangrove forest of the Sunderbans have been lost and what remains is under extreme pressure from logging and human population growth. Precisely true, once a forest is cut down, many of the living things it has harboured will be driven to extinction.

Realizing that it's impossible to guard every tree in every place, Mittermeier, the president of the CI (Conservation International) suggested a focused, two sided strategy. One priority, based on the ideas of British conservationist Norman Myers, is to protect the world's "hot spots," areas that are disturbed by human activity but still exceptionally rich in animal and plant species found nowhere else. CI has identified 25 hot spots throughout the world where preservation efforts could have maximum benefit The island of Madagascar and the Atlantic forest region of eastern Brazil figure out prominently in their selection because of the vast resources these two places offer . The other priority is to watch over tropical wilderness areas relatively untouched by people. These include the upper Amazon and the Congo basin in Central Africa.

In both hot spots and wilderness regions, CI suggests demarcation of key reserves like the one that was intended to be developed in Jugalchari in the Khagrachari district in our country and which has now been denuded to feed the greed of Osman Gani and his syndicate, the present day human predators. The idea was to keep these forest regions off limits to agriculture and industry forever. But just as important is the nurturing of other territories where healthy forests and human enterprise can coexist. CI has a message for developing countries like ours: your forests are valuable intact and alive than they are chopped down and dead. Profits could come, for example, from the marketing of exotic foods, chemicals and medicines found only in the rain forests and from the largely untapped potential of ecotourism.

CI set up a private trust fund, with contributions from around the world, to help Suriname (the former Dutch Guyana situated in the north of Brazil), guard and manage the protected area. Outside the reserve, CI has worked with local Maroon tribes to limit farming to certain slash- and- burn areas and not disturb most of the forest surrounding their villages. Coincidentally think of Bangladesh with such a big forest like the Sunderbans with lush green trees intact extending over several thousand kilometres! But who will invest in protecting and developing the forests in a country where much of the 3000 crore taka placed for the purpose were misappropriated by corrupt and unscrupulous forest officials.

The story of the destruction of Rangamati forest is equally distressing as revealed by Dr. Ali Reza Khan, an expert and author of several books on wildlife, in a forum arranged by the Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh in the year 2000. Over the years government effort to turn Jugalchari into a reserve forest by spending about Tk.12 crore has ended in a fiasco through embezzlement of fund and allowing illegal logging and timber trade with the direct patronage and blessings of the corrupt forest officials. Almost 10000 hectares of the reserve forest lands of Rangamati that once comprised 60000 hectares have already disappeared. Along with it are gone the massive civet trees, about 150 feet high, and sundari and garjan trees.

Assault has come from many directions as reports suggest. People from the plains were made to settle there in 1983 even after it was declared a sanctuary, and in consequence many plant species of invaluable importance, and trees like Sal and Segun were chopped off and went into the market through devious means as usual. The report further says that out of 80 species of birds found in the Rangamati forest in 1980, only 43 species including owls and common Mainas remain there. Fish population in the wetlands has also declined. Telapia, an alien species, as we all know dominates the wetlands harming the native species of fish. Indiscriminate felling of trees or plundering the forest without permit and payment of revenue to the proper authorities has been going on unabated with the direct help of the forest officials allegedly in exchange for hefty bribes.

Forest department officials seldom venture out to the ranges for routine inspection and monitoring because of such unholy alliance. Nobody knows till now what action was taken against the officials at whose instance and help 17000 cubic feet of teak wood, all properly sized, were being smuggled out from the Baghaihat forest and brought to a halt by the intervention of the army in 2000. People feel that the patronage and protection these corrupt officials enjoyed from the high-ups only emboldened them and reinforced their belief that they could carry on such unfair business unhindered.

Speaking about the Sunderbans and its surrounding areas, almost four million people depend directly or indirectly on this forest for their livelihood. Overfishing and over exploitation of plant and wildlife species are placing increasing amount of stress on the viability of this delicate ecosystem. During my visit to the Sunderbans last year I have seen hundreds and thousands of small fishing boats in the Shela river inside the deep forest area engaged mainly in catching shrimp fries and in the process other fries or small fish that come up are discarded dead or alive because shrimp fries fetch higher price than other catches. While cruising through the shallow canals and rivers flowing deep inside the forest ranges, one feels impressed to see the lush green emerald rain forests that present an unspoiled showcase for the diversity of life.

In lush territory at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal there was hardly a break in the canopy of 150 ft tall trees and virtually every acre was alive with the cacophony of all kinds of insects, birds and monkeys. But beyond the river shore deep inside the forests, I was told by the driver of the launch, there were breaks and empty spaces because forests in this region have fallen to lumbering. Other than slash and burn practices resorted to by a group of criminal gangs of businessmen, illegal quarrying has stripped the earth of its foliage which like deforestation loosens silt that eventually clogs the rivers and waterways and worsens flooding. Environmental reports say silting has caused the bed of China's Yellow River to rise by more than four metres over the past four decades.

In almost all places, including ours, greed, shortsighted environmental policies and corruption cause much of the damage. Perhaps the worst culprit is the indiscriminate logging, much of it illegal, around watersheds. As already mentioned, cutting trees loosens the topsoil reducing the ability to retain liquid. Such indiscriminate felling of trees from natural forests has been stopped in neighbouring India by an order of the Supreme Court.

The recent move by the caretaker government in stopping pilferage of the forest resources of the country through arresting the chief conservator of forests for his unbridled corruption brings hope that situation in Bangladesh may change for the better now. However, people would be happy if the country's apex court played the role of jungles' messiah.

However, the practice of deforestation as a means to poor people's livelihood is assuming serious proportions throughout the world. Much of the world's land is too rocky, arid or salty for agriculture. Forests that have not already been cut deserve protection: they harbour the habitats of earth's endangered wildlife. This has to be done because we are not yet aware of the full dimensions of the bio-diversity that are hidden in the forests and the problems that lie ahead of us. Fewer than two million species of animals, plants, and micro- organisms have been identified till this date. Yet tens of millions more may exist -- in oceans, rainforests and everybody's gardens. In fact nature does not seek to make a connection with us, nature does not care if we live or die. The hard truth is that we can't survive without the oceans and the forests.

Forests temper climate and capture and store water. Their timber has been a springboard of economic development. Forests store 40 percent of terrestrial carbon and can slow the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Deforestation in mountains can worsen floods in grasslands or agricultural lands below, as was the case in China and Madagascar some years before.

The extinction of forests has come in the wake of unprecedented population boom, especially in the Third World. Much of the land becomes less arable by the minute it is assaulted by urbanisation, chemical pollution, desertification and overuse of limited water supplies. The exhaustion of land in many areas has created a new class of displaced person known as "environmental migrant." While wars have so long been fought over territory, the future may see "green wars" triggered by shortages of such basic resources as topsoil or water or greenery. (Md Asadullah Khan, Daily Star, June 15, 2007)

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7. Landslide deaths

HILLS that once protected the port city of Chittagong from the fury of devastating cyclones have come down burying about 120 people alive following heavy downpour which measured little more than nine inches in 24 hours on Monday last. Many people including the key functionaries of the caretaker government have correctly pointed at years of mindless cutting down of the hills for creating plain lands for housing or taking soil for earth filling of low lying areas as the main cause of the disaster that has paralysed life in the second largest city of Bangladesh. Landslide is nothing new in hilly areas. But the scale of the present landslide has been the worst recorded in Bangladesh so far.

The tragedy is definitely the result of short-sighted development activities of some greedy people who ignored the law and rules against hill cutting, and managed to escape the arm of the law for years. Government functionaries have expressed their resolve to punish those responsible for hill cutting which might have weakened the base of the remaining hills in the city. Apparently with their bases mostly removed the hills were unable to remain stable after the percolation of rainwater into their soil and the outcome of the landslide of unimaginable proportions. Most of the city went under waist to chest deep water due to the heavy monsoon downpour.

With the hills turned unstable, residents of the port city run the risk of experiencing maximum fury of cyclones and other sea storms which are becoming increasingly destructive due to global warming and rising sea levels. Rescue operations are still on in the Hathazari, Bakolia, Halishahar and Pahartali areas worst affected by landslide and rescuers fear that at least another 50 bodies might still be remaining trapped under the soil that has come down the hills destroying the human habitats at their feet. The urgent task now is to continue the search to find if anybody still remained trapped alive or dead and rehabilitate the affected families.

The rescue and relief operations should be followed by an extensive survey of the state of the hills with a view to identifying the threat, if any, that their instability might pose. Such a survey would also lead to identification of the homes which run the risk of being run over by landslide in the event of heavy rainfall. Risky buildings and houses used as offices or residences should be relocated as far as possible with government support to prevent future tragedies. Alongside this, the authorities concerned should take all possible measures with a view to ensuring that hill cutting and denudation of hills not only in and around the city but also elsewhere in the country is stopped effectively to prevent such tragedies in future (Thge New Nation, June 13, 2007).

Buried Alive

Jannatul has lost her seven brothers Jannatul Ferdous Nisa, a second year student at the English Department of Chittagong University, dreamt of becoming a university teacher one day. A torrential rain has not only washed away her dream but also buried her alive along with her mother and three brothers in the dreadful landslide on June 11 in most hilly areas of Chittagong.
The tragic incident took place during the torrential rain at around 8:15 am last Monday when Nisa, the only daughter of Saifur Rashid, an employee of the Chittagong University press, had been reading a book stretched out on a divan at their residence in Islamia Colony, adjacent to the Central Shaheed Minar of the university.

All of a sudden a huge chunk of mud collapsed upon their house, burying her, her mother Sanwara Begum, 40, and brothers Saiful Islam, 18, Mizanul Islam, 12, and Minhazul Islam, 7.

The environmental experts, city planners and concerned authorities of the government pointed to relentless cutting of hills as the major reason behind landslides adding that 22 of the city canals were either filled up or encroached, which caused the unprecedented water logging. (New Age, June 15, 2007).

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8. Living on dangerous slope

Over 50 thousand people living in different foothill slums in the port city are under serious risks of falling an easy victim to landslides, especially during the rains. The latest study carried out by Chittagong Development Authority (CDA) reveals that some one lakh out of 14 lakh disadvantaged people, mostly factory workers, day labourers, or self-employed in different informal sectors, are living in some 1,814 slums in the port city.

Of them, over 50 thousand live in the slums situated at the risky and treacherous slopes or bottom of hills where they can rent rooms at cheaper rates but safety of lives is hardly taken into consideration there. Following the study report, the CDA has taken an initiative for rehabilitating the disadvantaged people, sources said. The series of landslides that buried alive over one hundred people in Chittagong on June 11 prompted the CDA to start identifying areas to rehabilitate the disadvantaged people to avert human disasters brought about by landslides.

It is also planning to build up physical barriers around the hills through development of walkways and tree plantation to check growth of slums in the foothill areas. According to the study report, around 92 per cent of the disadvantaged people living in the study area of Lalkhan Bazar, Matijharna and Bakalia Bagarbill came from different parts of the country in search of work or self-employment opportunities. The slums providing them with shelter comprise thatched (72%) and semi-pucca (28%) houses, which are vulnerable to natural calamities.

Unscrupulous and influential locals and vested quarters set up these slums illegally to rent them to the low-income people while in many cases floating and poor people make thatched houses at the foot of the hills for cheap shelter. Setting up of such slums seriously affects natural vegetation, triggering landslides, especially in the rainy season and people living in slums on 'Khas' or government land in and around hills are most vulnerable to death in landslides.

Large slums at Jamtali, Lalkhan Bazar, Matijharna, South Pahartali and an area to the west of Foy's Lake are on the lands of Bangladesh Railway, forest department and public works department. Rehabilitation of the disadvantaged people has become a must to check the mushrooming growth of slums and death in landslides, urban experts said.

"Putting a stop to hill cutting would not be sufficient to stop death in landslides unless those living in the slums of hilly areas could be rehabilitated," CDA Chairman Shah Mohammad Akhter Uddin said. "We have started the process of preparing a Detailed Area Plan identifying areas for rehabilitating the poor on some 35 acres of land at three separate spots of the city under a project -- housing for disadvantaged group of people," the CDA chairman told this correspondent on Wednesday. "The plan to be prepared by December might identify land for rehabilitation in the areas adjacent to Kalpaloke Phase II, Ananya -- a housing project under implementation at Jalalabad, and the other end of Shah Amanat bridge," he said.

He sought cooperation and participation of all the authorities concerned as well as NGOs and individuals to make the initiative a success. The CDA has also plans to develop the northern fringe of the city spreading over 2000-acres of hilly land to the north of Zakir Hossain Road through creation of water reservoirs with necessary silt-traps at the bottom of different hills, said the CDA chairman.

It will help check erosion that fills the city drains with earth and silt, causing frequent inundation, he said. Asked about steps to check the rampant hill cutting and consequent landslides causing casualty in the hill slums, he said the CDA won 18 cases where imprisonment and financial punishment were awarded to people accused of hill cutting.

It filed 25 cases accusing many big fishes for hill cutting since January 31 this year, he said. The accused in the cases also include influential persons like detained Chittagong City Corporation Mayor ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury, Director of Abul Khaer Group SK Sengupta, and proprietors of many real estate developers engaged in levelling hills at different locations under Bayezid, Khulshi, Panchlaish and Pahartali areas in the city, CDA sources said.

"All the concerned authorities like the railway, forest department, public works department having hilly lands under encroachment should come forward to check the evil practice," the CDA chairman said. Besides, the police are also empowered to arrest any person or confiscate equipment and properties for hill cutting at any time and any place under the Building Construction rules and Environment Protection Act, he added (Abdullah Al Mahmud, Ctg,Daily Star, June 17, 2007).

Big shots levelled vast terrain of Ctg hills

a housing estate by cutting hills in the city's Foy's Lake areaSeveral quarters comprising influential political leaders, former ministers, criminals, big business houses and even government and autonomous bodies have been involved in massive cutting or razing of vast terrains of hills in Chittagong. City dwellers have been surprised over the past few years to see the brazen defiance of law and disregard for the country's interest in the activities of these political big shots and businessmen.

The political figures include former commerce minister Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, former food minister and BNP Joint Secretary General Abdullah-Al Noman, Chittagong City Corporation (CCC) Mayor ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury, and former civil aviation minister Mir Mohammad Nasiruddin. Business organisations like S Alam Group and Abul Khair Group are also involved in hill cutting. These people gobbled up hills at Khulshi, Nasirabad, Lalkhan Bazar, Bayezid Bostami, Sholoshahar, Sitakunda, Bhatiari, Hathazari and other places in the district over the last three decades using names of their relatives, friends, institutions, or in the name of other purposes.

Natural habitats of wild animals have been damaged due to the recent landslidesEnvironmentalists believe that such destruction of hills--both complete and partial--is the main reason for massive landslides during torrential rain just like the latest tragedy on June 11 that claimed over 120 lives.

It was learnt that Ibrahim Cotton Mill, owned by former Chittagong municipality (now city corporation) chairman late Sekander Hossain Miah, took lease of a vast hilly area at Nachnikhola on Hathazari-Bhatiari Link Road near the Golf Club under Hathazari upazila many years ago in the name of horticulture. But the farm was never established, and instead the mill management further leased out the property to some influential people who soon razed the entire hill and built 12 brick kilns.

The Environment Act has provisions for monetary penalty ranging from Tk 5,000 to Tk 50,000. There is also a provision for maximum penalty of Tk 10 lakh but it has never been applied against any one yet. "None of the plunderers of hills could be placed behind bars either," said a DoE official.The DoE has filed a total of 32 cases of which only 12 have so far been disposed (Daily Star, June 18, 2007).

DoE (Department of Environment), city corporation, forest office blamed

Absence of specific policy guidelines on hill management, lack of initiative to check indiscriminate hill cutting and encroaching on government land are the main reasons behind the rain-induced landslides in Chittagong that left 127 people buried alive on June 11. Two committees formed to investigate the landslides and collapse of a Bangladesh Railway (BR) wall at Pahartali submitted their reports to the Chittagong divisional commissioner yesterday in which they also pointed out growth of illegal slums as another cause behind the tragedy.

The two committees headed by Additional Divisional Commissioner (revenue) MAN Siddique submitted a number of recommendations to the government, including preparing a national hill management policy. A six-member committee formed to probe the landslides blamed Chittagong City Corporation (CCC), Department of Environment (DoE), Department of Forest and Chittagong Development Authority (CDA) for their failure to take effective measures to check massive hill cutting (Daily Star, June 25, 2007).

9. Forest offices raided, 4 top officials held

The joint forces launched simultaneous raids in forest department offices in Dhaka and other city and district forest offices yesterday and arrested four high-ranking forest officials who were allegedly close aides to detained forest boss Osman Gani.

Conservator of Forests (CF), Central Circle, Ali Kabir Haider and Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Shamsul Azam were arrested from Bon Bhaban at Mohakhali in the capital. Law enforcers arrested CF of Khulna Sheikh Mizanur Rahman at his official residence at Khalishpur, Khulna. They also arrested DFO of Rangamati Asit Ranjan Pal at his office in Rangamati.

The arrestees are suspected corrupt officials and are close aides to Gani. Their names came up on a list, which was prepared based on information gleaned from Gani. Officials in the forest department said joint forces also raided their office in Chittagong to arrest two close associates of Gani but they failed as the two were not in the office.

A member of the joint forces around midnight said they were raiding different places taking Ali Kabir Haider with them. The member said raiding Haider's Wari residence in the capital, they seized bonds worth Tk 50 lakh, and deposit books of different banks where he deposited around Tk 30 lakh and 12 tolas of gold ornaments. Law enforcers also raided Shamsul Azam's father-in-law's residence in Dholaipar last night and seized 79 tolas of gold ornaments and Tk 1 lakh in cash.

Gani was arrested with a large amount of cash tucked away inside his Uttara home on May 29. He was taken on twelve days' of remand in four phases.

The forest boss was arrested with Tk 1 crore in cash that he had hidden in different places in his house including in pillows and barrels of rice. The law enforcers, later on, found title deeds of several plots of land and documents of bank accounts in his, his wife's, close relatives' and staffs' names after Gani had confessed to interrogators about those.

Our Staff Correspondent in Khulna adds: The joint forces yesterday arrested Conservator of Forests in Khulna Sheikh Mizanur Rahman at his official residence in the city's Khalishpur area. During the three-hour raid at Mizanur's house, Tk 2,40,000 in cash, foreign currencies including $400, two passports, and an arms licence were seized. He was shown arrested under the Emergency Powers Act.

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) task force assisted the army-led joint forces in carrying out the operation.

Mizanur Rahman who was promoted to his current post early this year did not submit his wealth statement within June 20 as directed by the anti-graft body. Osman Gani named him as one of his accomplices. Members of the joint forces and the ACC task force also raided the DFO office (west wing) in Khulna city, taking with them Mizan who had also served as a divisional forest officer (DFO) in the east wing of the Sundarbans Forest Division. From there, they went to his village at Chalna under Dakop upazila in Bagerhat. The search at his village home was going on as of filing this report late in the evening.

Forest division sources said the arrest has set alarm bells ringing for the nine other forest officials who too did not turn in their wealth statements within the deadline of June 20. The intelligence agencies are reportedly keeping a close watch on the movements of suspected corrupt forest officials.

Our correspondent from Rangamati reports: The joint forces split in several groups raided the District Forest Office around 3:45pm and held Asit Ranjan Pal, the DFO covering CHT South Forest Department and Pulpwood Forest Department. They first took him to the Sadar zone headquarters and after primary interrogation there, they took the detained forest official to the Pulpwood Forest Office at Kaptai upazila. The crack forces also searched the DFO residence at Kaptai. Later, they handed Asit over to Kaptai police (Daily Star, June 25, 2007).

Last modified: July 07, 2007

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