Chopping down lush forest resources to make way for development may provide us with momentary economic or social benefit, but the long-term cost of deforestation could be greater.
According to a major study led by Ana Rodrigues of the Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in Montpellier, France, which explored the development ‘boom and bust’ from deforestation, communities develop rapidly when forests are cleared. However, the development is temporary. Rates of development swiftly fall back below average levels when the people relying on the resources move on, leaving the local resources nearly depleted. The findings of a study on the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil and the income of the communities depending on the forest resources undermine the argument that deforestation leads to long-term development.
Deforestation is a grave concern in Bangladesh, a country with special geographical features and settings that make it the sixth most natural disaster-prone country out of 173 countries mentioned in the World Risk Report 2016. According to data from the University of Maryland, only around 14 percent of Bangladesh’s land area has significant tree cover. A total of 85,000 hectares of tree cover were lost between 2001 and 2015, with the loss numbers doubling between 2013 and 2014 and peaking in 2015.
Fifty percent of the country’s forests have been destroyed in the last 20 years. Some 30 years ago, the forest area in Tangail was 2,000 acres; today it is down to 1,000 acres and continuously decreasing every day.
Bangladesh has joined the lower-middle-income country category in 2015 and is aspiring to join the middle-income group by 2021. Deforestation has been justified under the name of development in the form of rapid urbanization, industrialization, and growing population. The incumbent government has undertaken numerous development projects to boost economic growth. The proposed coal power plants in the Sundarbans – the Rampal and Orion – are two such endeavours.
When former US Vice President Al Gore requested Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to drop the power plant projects during a forum hosted by economist Thomas Friedman at the World Economic Forum in Davos early last year, she replied, “We have to provide energy to our people. I have to develop our country. If you cannot develop the economic conditions of your people, how will you save our people? We have to ensure the food security; we have to give them job opportunity.”
But how sustainable will this security be? According to the aforementioned study, not very. Newly available natural resources in an area of cleared forest attract investment and infrastructure. New roads lead to improved access to education and medicine, and the increased overall income improve living conditions. But as natural resources like timber dry up, things change and sometimes get even worse than before. Apart from the environmental consequences, deforestation also results in deteriorating quality of lives of the people dependent on the forests.
The crisis surrounding Sundarban is only one of the many facets causing deforestation in Bangladesh. To build the makeshift residences for the persecuted Rohingya people, the government allocated 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of forest land, which is hosting around a million people. Recent study shows that this huge number of Rohingyas is burning almost 50 million kilos of firewood for cooking every day, mainly relying on the forest around the area of their camps. As a result, the nearby forests are being destroyed. The crisis has already started to significantly affect the host community through loss of natural resources, rises in demand for food and fuel, and transportation costs, while also increasing the risk of landslides.
In the early 70s, the government established Protected Areas (PA) for conservation. Currently, 267,330 hectares or nearly two percent of the country's total area, is under PAs. These include 17 declared national parks, 17 wildlife sanctuaries and one special biodiversity conservation area.
However, in the most recent turn of events, Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation (BPC) asked to acquire some 191 acres of reserved forest land in Maheshkhali, Cox's Bazar for construction of an unrefined fuel terminal. The forest department initially calculated the economic compensation for the reserved forest at Tk2,770 million on the basis of the cost of timber and loss of biodiversity this would cause. In the end, the deal was settled on a total of Tk43.6 million for the land that was supposed to be protected by the government. And then, there are the illegal loggers who are continuously wiping out greenery in remote forest in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
An integration of environmental protection and management planning into the national planning, and strengthening environmental institutions are emergency steps forward for Bangladesh. Without a proper conservation of forest resources, the country may lose all of its forests within a short period of time. On the development front, climate-resilient forest and landscape management should be prioritized, which will improve rural livelihoods and foster economic opportunities in rural areas.