The Sylhet Forest Department's efforts in tourism have raised environmental concerns.
Environmentalists accuse the department of bringing in a huge number of tourists to remote spots that are rich in biodiversity, instead of controlling visitor access to preserve greenery and wildlife.
For instance, a massive tourist influx to Sylhet's Ratargul, the country's lone freshwater swamp forest, threatens biodiversity and hurts the natural environment. Environmentalists are demanding that tourist traffic to the area be controlled more strictly.
Instead of responding to the call, the Forest Department has recently started issuing tickets for visitors to Ratargul, which environmentalists say amounts to an official approval for mindlessly harming nature.
In a similar move in 2018, the department launched a treetop project to set up a ropeway in Khadimnagar National Park. With the project initiated, people started to visit the national park in droves after buying Forest Department tickets.
Similarly, Lawachara National Park in Moulvibazar and Satchhari Reserve Forest in Habiganj have been opened up to uncontrolled mass tourism, damaging the natural greenery and wildlife.
Sadly, alongside this onslaught of tourism, the lone wildlife rescue centre in Lawachara has been abandoned for almost four years due to a staffing crisis. Though wild animals often get injured on the train tracks and roads which pass through the wildlife sanctuary, they cannot be treated since the rescue centre remains shuttered.
There is no initiative to reopen the rescue centre.
Out of about 1.54 lakh acres of land under the Sylhet Forest Department, around 58,000 acres of land is illegally occupied at present. On top of this, the department is continuously losing ground to land grabbers.
Furthermore, the Sylhet Forest Department is also reluctant to recover one-third of its lands which have already been encroached upon. Sources at the department said, out of about 1.54 lakh acres of land under the Sylhet Forest Department, around 58,000 acres of land is illegally occupied at present.
On top of this, the department is continuously losing ground to land grabbers.
Abdul Karim Kim, general secretary of the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (Bapa) Sylhet chapter, said the Forest Department is responsible for the protection and maintenance of forests and wildlife. There is a separate ministry for tourism development.
"But we can see that the Forest Department has recently taken the responsibility of tourism development, putting forests and wildlife at risk."
Kim says Ratargul Swamp Forest and Lawachara National Park are two national properties, but the Forest Department's negligence is shrinking the greenery day by day.
"There is illegal logging at night while tourists overwhelm these nature preserves in the daytime. It is necessary to restrict tourist entry, but the forest department has instead taken up building projects in the forests for tourism development," he added.
However, SM Sajjad Hossain, Sylhet divisional forest officer, claims they did not take up any initiative which would harm the forest and nature. He said their tourism-centric initiatives are meant to keep visitors controlled and restricted, rather than allowing them to roam all over the place.
He said the department introduced tickets to limit tourists to Ratargul swamp forest.
The Forest Department last year took up a Tk35.78 crore project, "Forestry and Eco-Tourism Development in Lawachara-Satchhari National Park and Barshijora Eco-Park."
The Lawachara forest project includes construction of a rest house, seating benches for visitors, bridge, convention hall, boundary wall, culverts, playground, walkway, toilets, entrance gate, ticket counter and watchtowers.
Environmentalists fear the project will risk the biodiversity of the 1250-hectare Lawachara forest and it is currently stalled in the face of protests by environmentalists.
Ashraful Kabir, coordinator of environmental organisation Bhumi Santan Bangladesh, said there are many places for tourism. Why does the Forest Department initiate tourism development inside a reserved forest?
He said the Forest Department earlier built some structures such as watchtowers at Ratargul turning the natural greenery into ugly concrete jungles.
Contacted, Forest Minister Md Shahab Uddin said the government is very sincere in protecting the forests.
"We will not take up any project which threatens biodiversity or causes damage to forests. The Forestry and Eco-Tourism Development in Lawachara-Satchhari National Park and Barshijora Eco-Park project is also being reconsidered," he added.