People from seven unions in Satkania upazila of Chattogram depend on crops produced in the 700 hectares of land in Dhailla Beel area, but half of that area has become uncultivable as brickfield owners cut topsoil from there.
Environmentalists fear that if the brickfield owners keep extracting topsoil from the lands, the whole Dhailla Beel will become uncultivable soon.
Most of the brick kilns in Satkania are on the west side of the Chattogram-Cox's Bazar highway from Maulovir Dokan area to Keranihaat. After harvesting Aman paddy in the land on the east side of the highway, farmers have been harvesting various types of seasonal crops, including mustard, potato and cauliflower. But the area on the west side of the road – where the brick kilns are – has turned into an uncultivable waterbody.
These brick kilns have been using the topsoil from the surrounding areas for years. As a result, lands where once two crops were cultivated in a year have now become uncultivable waterbodies, said locals.
Currently, there are 64 legal and illegal brickfields in Satkania upazila. More than 35 of these are in the Dhailla Beel area. Most of these brick kilns do not have proper environmental clearances.
SM Rana, a resident of Satkania, said some landowners sell topsoil for temporary financial gain, while the others are forced to sell it under the pressure of the criminal gangs formed centring the brickfields.
"The brickyard owners or their associate criminals extract topsoil from the lands. They have good contacts in the administration at the local and higher levels. That is why the brick kiln owners can extract topsoil of fertile lands year after year," he said.
Environmentalist Manzoorul Kibria, a Chittagong University professor, said it is illegal to acquire topsoil for making bricks. The farmer or landowner can make temporary profit by selling topsoil, but it has a far-reaching adverse effect on agriculture.
"If a piece of land is excavated 100-120 feet for topsoil, it is not possible to produce any crop on it, but the brick kilns in Satkania are taking away the topsoil from the surrounding lands regularly. Soon the whole of Satkania will become barren if they continue to do it at the current rate," he added.
According to the locals, after setting up a brick kiln, its owner initially buys topsoil from the nearby lands at a high price. Removing 100-120 feet topsoil from a piece of land elevates the adjoining lands in a few years. Those elevated lands cannot hold water, so they become uncultivable. As a result, the owners of those lands have no other option but to sell their topsoil to the brick kilns. In this way, the brickfield owners ruin acres of land year after year.
If a landowner does not want to sell his topsoil, miscreants take it forcefully. The miscreants beat up the landowner if he tries to stop them, alleged the locals.
Badsha Mia, a Satkania resident, said most of the owners of the brickyards are influential. They bribe the officials of the local administration and Department of Environment and carry out their illegal activities. As a result, the locals cannot do anything to stop them.
The Satkania upazila administration has identified extraction of topsoil from the arable lands as the main obstacle in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in the area. Removing topsoil not only makes a piece of land uncultivable, it also severely damages the environment.
Satkania Upazila Executive Officer Fatema-tuz-Zohra said, "The brickyards have been operating for a long time with the approval of the concerned departments. Moreover, there are High Court writs on many brickfields. So, we cannot take steps against them even if we want to."
"Despite all these, whenever we hear about excavation of cropland in any area, we immediately take action. Last week, we raided four brickfields in Rupkania, Kaliaish and Aochia areas in the upazila. We seized two excavators and slapped Tk2.5 lakh fine on their owners," she added.
Mofidul Alam, Director of Department of Environment (Chattogram region), said the condition of three upazilas of Chattogram including Satkania is very critical due to brick kilns.
"We conduct regular raids on unauthorised brickfields and take legal action. Many people including brick kiln owners, landowners and local people's representatives are involved in making brick with topsoil from the land. We cannot stop it due to non-cooperation of the people's representatives in these areas," he said.
Brushing aside all the allegations of ruining the environment and farmlands, Faridul Alam, general secretary of the Satkania Brickfield Owners' Association, said the lands in the area were barren all along.
"We first remove the topsoil from the barren lands. Later, other landowners in the area approach us to sell their topsoil, because they think that sending their sons abroad or starting a business with the money would be more profitable. At the same time, they remain the owner of the land," he said.
He further said, "No unauthorised brick kiln is a member of our association. We have only 40 brick kiln owners who have all kinds of approvals from the concerned departments. We try to make bricks following all the laws."