Khagrachhari forest officers are unable to protect forests, not knowing the boundaries of forest reserves in the district.
About 4,400 square miles of classified and unclassified forest reserves, the largest forest area of the country, are spread across the three hill districts of Rangamati, Khagrachhari, and Bandarban. Of that, 138 square miles or 88,181 acres are in Khagrachhari.
But forest officials do not know the specific boundaries of the district's forest reserves. They said they are unable to protect the forest reserves as their boundaries are yet to be demarcated. A lack of security in these remote areas also makes it difficult to protect these forests.
Locals say the forests of Khagrachhari are becoming barren and treeless day by day in the absence of supervision.
They say marauding and unlicensed timber traders in collusion with corrupt forest officials are destroying the green forests of Khagrachhari without hindrance. Even false holding permits are being used in some cases to destroy the forests, he added.
To protect the district's 88,181 acres of forest reserves, the Forest Department has only three lookout check stations – Jamtali check station on the Khagrachhari-Dighinala route, Manikchhari check station on the Khagrachhari-Chattogram route, and the Ramgarh check station on the Khagrachhari-Bariarhat route.
The forest officials of these check stations allegedly accept bribes from timber smugglers, assisting in their pillage.
Statistics say 36 illegal brick kilns in Khagrachhari burn 216,000 tonnes of forest wood throughout the year.
At least 150 sawmills have also sprung up all over the district, most of which are illegal. Besides leaders of political parties, these illegal sawmills are owned by government officials as well.
According to the Forest Act, no sawmill can be set up within 10km of the forest reserves. However, forest encroachers do not care about the law. Trees are felled day and night to supply timber to sawmills surrounding the reserve forests.
According to sawmill workers, 100-150 cubic feet of wood is processed daily at each sawmill. As such, 15,000-22,000 cubic feet of wood is cut daily in sawmills of the district.
It has been alleged that due to the negligence of officials, deforestation is freely rampant with the sanction and patronage of influential locals.
There are four reserve forests in Khagrachhari. The 54,112 acre Naraichhari forest reserve in Dighinala upazila is the largest, and is completely unprotected. The forest is dominated by regional political parties and forest officials cannot go there without the help of law enforcement.
Abdul Jalil, a forest officer for Naraichhari Range, said, "This reserve forest is very remote and close to the Indian border. It is dominated by the armed regional parties of UPDF and JSS. We are very helpless here due to the influence of these organisations."
Ajit Kumar Rudra, divisional forest officer for the Chattogram Hill Tracts North Forest Department, said, "The district administration has not identified and demarcated the location and boundaries of the forest reserves. They have not handed over a map to the Forest Department and this problem is more than two decades old. However, with the help of the army, I am planning to visit the forest."
The Jhum Control Forest Division was established in 1960-61 and the Hajachhari Range and Merung Range of Khagrachhari's reserve forests fall under this division. Nevertheless, the Forest Department has no control over these two ranges.
There are 12,350 acres of forest reserves in the Hajachhari Range. Hajachhari Range Forester Md Solaiman said, "We have no control over the forest reserves in this range and so far, it has not been possible to demarcate the boundaries of the range. Whenever we try to demarcate the border, we face obstacles from regional organisations."
The Merung Range supposedly has 5899.62 acres of forest reserve but forest officials in charge, do not know where this forest is located.
Merung Range Forester Matiur Rahman said, "I know the forest reserve only on paper. But in fact, I do not know where it is located."
"It has been almost two years since I took charge as forest officer in this range. The district administration did nothing to explain or demarcate the boundaries and identify the location of the forest reserve," he added.
GM Mohammad Kabir, divisional forest officer of Jhum Control Forest Division, said, "The reserve forests under my charge are in very remote areas and we cannot go there whenever we want. We have to seek the help of the army to go to the reserve forest."
The Forest Department has no control over the 4,490 acres of forest reserves in the Mahalchhari Range either. Nizam Uddin Ahmed took charge as a forest officer of this range three months ago. However, he does not know the boundaries and location of the forest reserve.
The reserve forest of Lakshmichhari Range is also completely unprotected. However, Abdul Gafur Khan Chowdhury, forester of the range, denied this claim, saying, "The entire 165 acres of the forest reserve is under the protection of the forest department. We patrol the forest regularly."
Forest officer Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman claimed that both the forests of the Bijitala range are under the control of the Forest Department, but he does not know the boundaries of the forest.
Outgoing Khagrachhari Divisional Forest Officer Sarwar Alam said, "We have control over all the reserve forests. We regularly patrol the forests and protect them."
Pratap Chandra Biswas, deputy commissioner of Khagrachhari and also chairman of the District Environment and Forest Development Committee, said, "The excuse given by forest officials for not making clear the location and boundaries of the forest is ridiculous. They only had to inform the district administration if the boundaries and locations were not known. But the forest officials never informed the district administration about the matter."
Pradeep Chowdhury, president of the Khagrachhari unit of Paribesh Surokkha Andolon, said, "This problem is not new. Over the years, deforestation has begun to have an adverse effect on the environment. Besides demarcating the boundaries of the forest, the forest needs to be rescued from the hands of timber smugglers. If a long-term ban on timber cutting is not imposed in the Chattogram Hill Tracts, a catastrophic natural disaster will ensue."