An overview of coastal forest division in Chittagong

--R.S.M. Munirul Islam Divisional Forest Officer Coastal Forest Division Chittagong

21. R.S.M Islam

Loss of human lives and properties is common in the coastal areas due to cyclones and tidal surges. Like other coastal areas of Bangladesh, Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar suffers severely almost every year. During nineteen sixties, the coastal areas of Bangladesh experienced severe cyclone and tidal surge. Available cyclone recordings since 1979 shows that during the last 125 years, over 42 cyclones hit the coastal belt, 14 occurred during the last 25 years, while during the period from 1960 to 1970 alone, eight severe cyclones were recorded. The necessity and experience made people realize that the best way of survival against the cyclone devastation and escape from tidal surges was construction of embankment and community centers (Cyclone shelter) along the coastal belt from the 1960s. But it was really difficult to protect the embankment from the tidal wave action. In these circumstances, the protective role of the natural mangroves, the Sundarbans, led the Forest Department to try the establishment of mangrove plantations.

Coastal Afforestation initiatives were started in the inter-tidal zones outside the protective coastal embankment since 1966. No country started such a large-scale coastal afforestation program before Bangladesh. So Bangladesh is pioneer in the management planted mangroves as well as natural mangroves in the world.

The primary objective of raising mangrove plantation in the coastal areas was to mitigate the disastrous effects of cyclones and storm surges. The early success of the plantation program resulted in setting of some additional objectives. Presently the objectives of the coastal afforestation are:

w         Protection of lives and properties of the coastal population against cyclones and tidal surges.

w         Conservation and stabilization of newly accreted fragile coastal lands, and acceleration of further accretion with the ultimate aim of transferring a large part of this stable land to agriculture;

w         Production of timber for fuel wood and industrial use;

w         Creation of employment opportunities for isolated rural communities, and

w         Development of a suitable environment for wildlife, fish and other estuarine and marine fauna.

Chittagong Coastal Forest Division is one of the four oldest Coastal Afforestation Divisions in Bangladesh. It is formed on 22 July, 1967 with a jurisdiction of 195,000 acres of newly accreted coastal char land and 18,286.40 acres of hill forests ( in Moheskhali). This area extends along the 330 km long coastal belt of Chittagong and Cox’sBazar district and adjoining off-shore islands and chars like Urirchar, Shandweep, Kutubdia, Sonadia and Moheshkhali and lies between 20°30′ and 22°55’N latitude and between 90°15′ and 92°30′ E Longitude as per gazette notification of 1985. Its jurisdiction started from the mouth of Feni River in the north-west upto the mouth of Naf River in the south-east. Now there are 12 ranges, a nursery centre, 35 Beat Offices under this division.

Plantation Works

The suitable site for mangrove plantation is newly accreted mud flats colonized by a grass “Dhanshi” and regularly submerged by the tidal water. The adverse environment such as wave action of the sea, cyclones, tidal surge etc. is one of the big threat for the success  of the mangrove plantation. In addition to mangrove plantation, some non-mangrove plantation and strip plantations have also been established in coastal areas.

Coastal afforestation was started in Coastal Forest Division, Chittagong since 1967. Till now, a total of 52,951.41 ha mangrove, 4690.68 ha of non-mangrove, 1467.45 km of Strip and 400.0 ha. bamboo and cane plantation have been established in Coastal Forest Division, Chittagong. Keora (Sonneratia apetala) and Baen (Avicennia officinalis) are the two most common species used in the newly accreted char land plantations. Now there is a gregarious natural regeneration of Gewa and other mangrove species under the Keora and Baen plantations. This is sometimes called Human-induced Succession. This process of succession is very dominant in Moheshkhali and Miresharai coastal areas.

Reservation of notified land

By the gazette notification No. 1/For-83-75/539 dated-24/03/1977 and No. 12/For-13-19/84/908 dated-22/12/1985, a total of 195,000.0 acres of newly accreted coastal char land (165,000.0 acres in Chittagong and 30,000.0 acres in Cox’s Bazar District) have been declared as Reserve Forest as per the section 4 of the Forest Act, 1927 and transferred to Forest Department for afforestation. Additional Deputy Commissioner (Revenue) of the respective district has been appointed as Forest Settlement Officer in the later gazette notification of 1985 to complete the whole reservation process. But unfortunately nothing was done for a long period of time. In the mean time, the land has been converted, forest destroyed, encroached and land leased by the revenue department. Thus the reservation process has become difficult in certain cases.  Very recently (24/11/2011 to 10/10/2012), Forest Settlement Officer, Chittagong issued notification under section 6 of Forest Act, 1927 on a total of 37,596.66 acre of coastal notified forest land inviting claim of any rights and resolved. On 27/05/13, a proposal was sent through the Appeal Authority (Divisional Commissioner, Chittagong) to Ministry of Environment and Forest to publish in the Gezette notification as Reserve Forest under section 20 of the said act.  Beside this another 34,642.05 acres notified land has been subsequently proposed to Forest Settlement Officer, Chittagong to complete the reservation process.

On the other hand, a total of 17,003.28 acres of coastal notified land of Cox’sBazar District has been published on gazette under section 6, out of this 16,218.04 acres has been proposed for declaring as reserve forest under section  20 of the said act. In addition, a new proposal for notification under section 6 for 3583.51acres land has been sent to Forest Settlement Officer, Cox’s Bazar.

Some Major Problems

Manpower and logistic support

The total allocated manpower for this division is 388, of which 96 posts are vacant. Most staff are reluctant to work in the adverse coastal environment due to poor facilities.  In most cases, there are no office and habitable residence facilities for the staff after the devastation of cyclones in 1991, 1994 and 1997. Communication facilities like vehicle, water vessels, fuels and other logistics are very inadequate. In remote areas like Urir Char, Shandweep and remote areas of Moheskhali Island, the FD staffs have to work on the constant threat of cyclone and tidal surge and lead a very miserable life without facilities for pure drinking water, electricity, proper and enough residence. In return, they do not get any risk allowance. However, this is the foremost justified claim of the FD personnel.

Conversion of Mangrove to Shrimp Pond and Salt Pans

A large chunk of notified land have been encroached by the land grabbers for shrimp culture and salt production. This problem is very acute in Cox’s Bazar district. Till now about 4000.0 ha of land under Chittagong Coastal Forest Division have undergone to Shrimp culture. About 7450.0 ha of natural mangrove forest of Chakaria Sundarbans (one of the oldest natural mangroves of this subcontinent) which was almost destroyed during eighties is devoid of any mangrove vegetation due to this problem.

Leasing of Notified Forest Land by District Administration

A total of 195,000 acres (165,000 acres in Chittagong district and 30,000 acres in Cox’s Bazar district) newly accreted coastal forest land has been declared reserve forest and transferred to Forest Department as per latest gazette notification of 1985. According to Order of Ministry of Land in 30/10/1996, no notified forest land (khas land) will be leased out to any person for any purpose without the consent of Ministry of Land and Ministry of Environment and Forest. On 18 April, 2010, the Cabinet Division ordered the Deputy Commissioners not to lease out any notified forest land to any person before being returned by the Ministry of Environment and Forest. Deputy Commissioners of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar are also directed by the Upper Court not to lease out any notified forest land. But, they continue to lease out notified forest land to landless or for commercial shrimp or salt production disobeying these above orders.