The forest department In 1965 allotted 56,000 acres of agricultural land for the growing of raw materials for Sylhet Pulp and Paper Mill.
According to the agreement, the land cannot be used for any other purpose and must be returned to the department if the paper mill is closed or government ownership changes.
The paper mill was sold to the private sector in April 2006 amid continued losses. But the forest department has not yet got back the land.
Forest department officials said that after the sale, the paper mill authorities handed over the land to the forest department on paper. However, the then officials of the forest department did not acquire the land by conducting a survey at that time.
The land is now occupied by local people and influential groups. So far, the department has been able to recover only 3,500 acres of land by conducting operations in different times.
Forest officials said it is not possible to recover most of the land that have been occupied by people as they have built houses and other infrastructures there.
Sylhet Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Sajjad Hossain said, "Most of the land allotted to the paper mill was occupied by some people while the mill was in operation. This has happened due to their mismanagement. We have recovered about 3,500 acres of land."
"A project to plant murta (Schumannianthus dichotomus) plant has been sent to the ministry to save another 1,400 hectares. If this project is passed, the land allotted to the paper mill will be recovered and murta will be cultivated in those lands," he added.
Sajjad Hossain further said, "A land can be re-occupied after we have recovered it. We do not have enough manpower. To protect the land from being occupied again, the murta trees would be planted there."
However, the forest official said it is almost impossible to recover most of the occupied land and added that many structures have been erected on the land.
Cherag Ali, a resident in the area, has occupied a lot of land allotted to the paper mill in Satir Haor area of Gowainghat, Sylhet. He cultivates the occupied land.
He said, "The land has been in a state of abandonment for a long time. We cultivate it together with other locals."
Shariful Islam has built a multi-storey house on the forest department's land allotted for the paper mill.
"I bought this place from someone else a long time ago and built the house," he said, adding, "I did not know that this land belonged to the forest department."
According to the Sylhet office of the forest department, the paper mill has been allotted 18,012 acres of land in Sunamganj, 6,844 acres in Kompaniganj and 22,207 acres in Goanghat for reed cultivation.
Besides, lands of several other upazilas including Jaintapur of Sylhet were allotted. Of these, 3,044 acres have been recovered in Sunamganj, 757 acres in Companiganj and 2,160 acres in Gowainghat.
Sylhet Pulp and Paper Mill started production of raw material for making paper in 1973. Commercial production of the mill began in June 1975. The mill was established on 300 acres of land in Kumna, Madhabpur and Bhajna Mahal mouzas of Chhatak upazila of Sunamganj.
According to the authorities, the mill counted losses year after year since the start of production. It saw a profit only once in FY1986-87.
The mill was sold to the Nitol-Niloy Group in April 2006 through the Privatization Commission during the four-party coalition government on the pretext of continued losses.
At that time, the factory was worth around Tk1,200 crore including its real-estates. But it was sold at only Tk47 crore. After a long hiatus, the factory resumed production in 2013 under the name Nitol Cartridge Paper Mill.
Around 140 acres of the factory and surrounding facilities were sold to the company. The rest of the land was handed over to the forest department on paper.
But in these years the department has not been able to recover the occupied land.
Sunamganj Deputy Commissioner Abdul Ahad said, "If the forest department wants, all kinds of cooperation will be given to rescue the occupied land."