Seven years ago, scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research sounded the warning that the loss of forests in Bangladesh had reached 90 percent due to deforestation.
Making the situation worse, the Rohingya influx in August 2017 caused serious deforestation across the wildlife-rich Teknaf and Ukhiya regions of Cox's Bazaar. The Forest Department lost nearly 3,000 hectares of forests worth Tk 1,865.
Fast forward six years, to come upon the announcement by the Forest Department last year that the country's green coverage had increased.
According to the department's study, titled 'Report on Bangladesh's Forest and Tree Resources - 2019', tree coverage had extended to 22.37 percent of the country's total area. In a previous report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the coverage had been 10.9 per cent.
The increase in forest coverage included trees outside natural forest areas, including the canopies that are an outcome of social afforestation programmes.
According to Ariful Hoque Belal, Assistant Chief Conservator of Forests, besides natural forests, the Forest Department has leased many public and private lands for commercial plantation.
"The increased green coverage is the outcome of the government's extensive social forestry since 1974. The department, however, doesn't own all of the additional forestland due to lack of capacity," he said.
Currently, the Forest Department owns around 1,604,000 hectares of natural forests while there are 237,000 hectares of forest plantations under social afforestation programmes. Of the forestland, 618,253.49 hectares are classified as reserved forests (terrestrial and marine).
Every year the government expands reservation coverage across the threatened forestland as a means of protecting wild ecology from shrinking.
While the authorities deserve to be commended for steps to increase green coverage, it appears that very little attention is paid to increasing the capacity of the government to protect forests in the country.
The department suffers from a serious lack of manpower, with experts expressing the fear that in the long run this chronic lack of manpower threatens to unravel all the gains made over the last seven years.
At the forest department, at least 3,090 posts out of 10,312 are vacant. The number of forest guards, the frontline saviors, has been dwindling every year owing to a lack of recruitment.
According to Mahmudul Hasan, Assistant Chief Conservator of Forests (Establishment Unit), currently a mere 1,816 forest guards are in service against 2,451 sanctioned posts. That means a single forest guard needs to cover more than 340 hectares of reserved forestland.
A challenging job turns into an impossible one when the guards suffer from an acute shortage of equipment.
Abdul Hai, President of Bangladesh Forest Guard Welfare Association, told The Business Standard that the forest guards were very weak due to a lack of crucial firearms and other health protective gear. According to him, without firearms, protecting forest resources from well-equipped robbers is quite tough.
"One out of five forest guards can carry firearms. We don't get any risk allowance. Our accommodation facilities in the remote forests are very poor," Hai said in dismay.
He believes that if the frontline guards are well equipped, conservation of the forests will indeed be successful.
The expansion of green coverage is little cause for happiness for forest guards like Motalib, who is stationed at Madhupur Saal Forest, an area with the highest deforestation rate of 0.75 percent between 2006 and 2014.
"The local forestland grabbers are most influential. Their subordinates carry lethal weapons. How can we check them with a mere wooden stick?" Motalib questioned.
According to a study, titled 'Development of National Database on Long-Term Deforestation 1930-2014 in Bangladesh', the country's natural forests, for the first time since 1930, went through a phase of the highest deforestation between 2006 and 2014, mainly due to irregularities in forest management.
The study was conducted by India's National Remote Sensing Centre. The study revealed that the highest rate of forest coverage loss occurred in the Chittagong region and the Saal forest range of Madhupur under Tangail Circle.
The circle's divisional forest officer Mohammad Zahirul Haque told this correspondent that his staff members were working despite a manpower shortage of 25 percent.
"Often, we have to depend on outsourcing informers. With a lack of equipment and less deployment of guards, we are struggling to protect the forest," he said, adding that at present, illegal logging and forestland grabbing were the main problems for the Madhupur forest.
Meanwhile, the Khulna Circle that regulates the 6.10 lakh hectares of the Sundarbans, runs with only 783 employees.
"We work with 30 percent of manpower shortage. The accommodations of forest guards are mostly fragile. Despite extensive modernization, protecting forest resources is quite challenging," said Moyeen Uddin Khan, Conservator of Forests, Khulna Circle.
He added, however, that a development project for the Sundarbans was still awaiting approval. "If the project is implemented, some concrete accommodation for the forest staff will be built," he said.
Speaking to The Business Standard, Habibun Nahar, Deputy Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, said that like other wings of the government, the forest department too had been suffering from a shortage of manpower.
"I have proposed the introduction of a risk allowance for forest guards. The government has recently recruited some forest officers. However, the recruitment of forest guards is being withheld due to the coronavirus-driven shutdown."