Up to 61% misappropriation of funds allocated for implementing forest projects has been done by the Forest Department, a research by the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has found.
It says the Forest Department is playing a passive role in causing permanent damage to forests by allotting protected forest lands for various development projects.
The findings of the research titled "Forest Department: Governance Challenges and Way Forward" were unveiled on
TIB Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman described forest-related irregularities and corruption as the main reasons behind the decline in forest lands at an alarming rate.
He said continuous deforestation in coastal areas had posed a challenge to the response to climate change and the acts of a group of individuals were becoming obstacles to protecting the health of a large segment of the population.
He also said forest lands were being allotted to other organisations due to a lack of accountability.
"This, in addition to the damage done to the environment, is intensifying the practice of abuse of power day by day," said Iftekharuzzaman.
The traditional land rights of the ethnic communities dependent on forests needed to be protected, he added.
"The Forest Department's exercise of discriminatory power in the name of grabbing and evicting protected forests, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in violation of forest laws must be curbed now."
The TIB research said the Forest Department's garden survey teams, forest conservators, audit teams, investigation teams, and even local media workers share the embezzled funds.
It said there had been allegations of embezzlement of entire bills collected by contractors after partial completion of projects. There had also been allegations that a segment of policymakers was involved in misappropriating funds from forest projects.
The research contained information about a former minister ordering the authorities concerned to pay the full bill, including that for unfinished work, to a contractor in an ongoing project and that Forest Department official later being sacked in the face of pressure.
It mentioned transactions of Tk50,000 to Tk3 crore for the appointment, promotion, and transfer of people for posts ranging from forest rangers to the chief forest conservator.
Citing Global Forest Watch data, the research said 432,250 acres of tree coverage had decreased in Bangladesh between 2001 and 2019, which was about 9% of the total tree-covered areas.
It said about 160,240 acres of forest lands had been allotted to various government organisations and revealed information about the destruction of elephant sanctuaries and the construction of economic zones in protected forests.
According to the research, 287,453 acres of forest lands had been illegally occupied till December last year, but the Forest Department had been able to recover only 8,792 acres in the last five years.
It said the government was failing to take steps to recover illegally occupied forest lands and evict illegal establishments due to a lack of initiatives and also because the Forest Department does not have the final versions of government forest land documents.
It noted that there had been no initiative to modernise the 93-year-old forest law through radical reforms and called on the government to update the law through such reforms.
The research gave 15 suggestions, including the formulation of the compensatory afforestation rules to protect forest lands, stopping revenue collections from the forest sector, creating environment-friendly forests in degraded natural forests and treeless lands, and expanding the forest conservation management based on modern technology.
To conduct the research, the TIB collected information from 60 offices, including that of the chief conservator of forests.
The corruption watchdog said it had faced non-cooperation from the Forest Department headquarters while collecting information.
The research was carried out in Chattogram, Rangamati, Bandarban, Cox's Bazar, Dhaka, Gazipur, Tangail, Khulna, Bagerhat, and Patuakhali.