Two government organisations want to install a power supply line and construct a road through the country's largest forest, the Ramgarh Sitakunda Reserve Forest. The forest covers an area of 72 square kilometres.
The Roads and Highways Department plans to construct a 9-km road while the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) wants to install a 13-km electricity line through the reserve forest.
All projects require environmental impact assessment before implementation. However, the two government bodies want to proceed with their projects even though the Forest Division has not approved them.
This reserve forest hosts the Baroiadhala National Forest and the Hazarikhil Wildlife Sanctuary. It is home to 25 species of mammal, 123 species of bird, eight species of reptiles and 25 species of tree.
Environmentalists fear that implementation of the projects will gravely endanger the biodiversity of the forest, and urged the government bodies to back off from it.
The installation of the 400-KV transmission line at Matarbari-Modunaghat-Meghnaghat will raze a 13km stretch of the forest by the felling of 15,000 trees at Mirsharai.
The electricity line will be installed over a 63-hectare area of the reserved forest which includes 41 hectares of forest belonging to the Forest Division and a 21.6-hectare rubber-tree garden of the Bangladesh Forest Industries Development Corporation.
The Forest Division and the Forest Industries Development Corporation will incur an estimated loss of Tk78 crore by the felling of these trees.
When contacted, the senior officials of the Bangladesh Power Development Board refused to comment on this matter.
Around 10,000 endangered species of trees will be felled if the Roads and Highways Department (RHD) implements its plan to construct the 9km road through the forest.
"We have been repeatedly opposing both the road construction and the electricity line installation in the forest. We recently raised the issue in the ministry and said that the construction will endanger the biodiversity of the reserve forest," Baktiar Noor Siddiki, department forest officer of Chattogram North Forest Department told The Business Standard.
In November this year, the roads and bridges ministry formed a committee consisting of people from the planning commission, the Forest Division and the Roads and Highway Department to settle the issue. The decision on road construction will be taken after the committee submits its report, he added.
Talking to The Business Standard, Zulfikar Ahmed, executive engineer and project officer of the Roads and Highways Department said that a team from the ministry will inspect the proposed construction site on December 25. Their report will decide if the road will be constructed or not, he added.
"The project will be completed by December next year," he also said.
Regarding tree felling, Zulfikar claimed, "The path we have selected for the road was previously a foot-trail. Very few trees will be cut down because the forest is thin on this track."
Sources said the department is constructing a 21-km bypass road from Sitakunda to Fatikchhari to connect the Dhaka-Chattogram highway and the Fatikchhari-Khagrachhari road. About 12-km of the road has already been constructed. The remaining 9 kilometres fall inside the reserve forest.
The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) approved Tk 72 crores for the construction, and according to the new work plan, the construction will end by December 2020. RHD officials said constructing this 9-km road will reduce the travel distance from Dhaka to the hill tracts by 70 kilometres.
The road will improve road transportation to the hill tract districts, and tourism will get a significant boost.
Sources at the Chattogram Roads and Highways Department said on June 29 last year, ECNEC approved a project to improve the roads in the region. The construction of the 9km road falls under this project.
The records of the Forest Division show that the government categorised 2,934 hectares in Sitakunda and Mirsharai upazila as the Baroiadhala National Forest to save natural resources and biodiversity.
Also, 2,908 hectares of land in Fatikchari upazila was declared as the Hazarikhil Wildlife Sanctuary in 2014. Both the Forest Act of 1927 and the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act of 2012 categorically forbid any infrastructure development activity in reserve forest areas, and says the violation is a punishable offence.
Talking to The Business Standard Prof Dr Md Kamal Hossain of Institute of Forestry and Environmental Sciences said this forest has some nearly extinct species of trees, and these will be affected if the construction takes place.
He also said the wildlife of the forest will be endangered, and people will build homes and take-over the forest in years to come.
"This project should not be implemented for the sake of protecting the environment," he also said.