The Sal forest in Tangail has been shrinking at a speedy rate over the years, and there seems to be no way to prevent this tragedy under the present circumstances. While locals and Forest Department officials exchange the blame for the senseless tree-felling and land grabbing, almost two-thirds of this major forest has already been wiped out. Only 40,000 acres of the original 1,22,876 acres of forest land (as of 1925) remain as a natural forest now.
Officials claim that both locals and influential outsiders are to blame for deforestation on such a massive scale. Starting from farming on forest land using harmful pesticides (which interfere with its natural biodiversity and ecological balance) to constructing concrete structures on indiscriminately grabbed land, the destruction of this forest seems to be a free-for-all. Foresters say that they also get phone calls from powerful people, such as top government officials, warning them against reclaiming grabbed land.
Locals of the area, many belonging to ethnic minority communities, are worried about the way the forest land, which their families have been living on and using for many decades, is being denuded. They also feel that foresters are to blame for the mass deforestation, as the president of the United Council of Indigenous Organisations of Greater Mymensingh claims that the destruction started in the 80s “when the Forest Department initiated rubber plantations there”. On the other hand, officials of the department face opposition from locals and political heavyweights whenever they try to retrieve grabbed land. The divisional forest officer in Tangail thinks that only support from all quarters concerned can save the forest.
However, environmentalist Gautam Chandra Chanda has blamed the government’s social afforestation programme as the catalyst for mass deforestation of the Sal forest. The programme was meant to lease out plots on the forest land to local landless and poor people. However, due to the greed of a section of dishonest foresters, most of the land went to outsiders and influentials in exchange for hefty bribes. So, the programme under which beneficiaries would have helped in afforestation, planting trees, maintaining the forest, etc. remained unimplemented.
We would urge the government and concerned authorities to prioritise the recovery and strategic afforestation of as much of the forest’s land as possible, while also ensuring that what is left untouched (by grabbers and tree fellers) stays untouched. This means that along with ensuring that locals and officials cooperate with each other in saving the forest, the government must also hold to account all who have contributed to the Sal forest’s destruction so far. Most importantly, environmentalists and other experts need to be involved in any decision-making exercise regarding this forest to avoid further damage. Otherwise, we may eventually witness the preventable death of this vital natural resource while parties involved keep going in circles, desperately looking for someone to blame it on.