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Vanishing CHT forests: Some management suggestions

Out of 1.54 million hectares of government managed forests in the (Bangladeshi) country about 0.35 million hectares are hill reserves in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The CHT forest once represented high percentage of forest cover associated with richness of flora and fauna. The country’s precious biologically diverse tropical evergreen and semi-evergreen forest of CHT has suffered most from non-sustainable management and illegal timber trade.

On the other hand, another 0.40 million hectares of Un-classed State Forest (USF) exist in CHT under the control of Deputy Commissioner, and this mainly represents habitation of tribal community, where shifting cultivation is regularly practiced. Vast areas of this USF land are already been denuded due mainly to extraction of timber and firewood through royalty permit. However, according to Forest Transit Rules 1973, tribal communities can cut trees and collect firewood from USF for their home consumption only. But theft of wood for commercial purpose is still a threat for the USF.

Depletion of resources and biodiversity
Although trees and plants are the major components in hill forest ecosystem and represent varieties of economic, social and environmental values, but, unfortunately, CHT forest was being traditionally managed for timber production and this tendency has turned the species-rich forest into a species-poor secondary ones.

Apart from the timber production for variety of uses, CHT forest was also associated with many species of bamboos and their extraction was mainly restricted to sustained supply to the Karnaphuli Paper Mills. Along with bamboo, large number of medicinal plants and other minor forest species of economic value also accounted for more than 50% of the country’s need, but their present contribution has alarmingly dwindled and many forest based industries are facing great uncertainty due to serious shortage of raw materials.

With regard to the species diversity, the old management plan of CHT recorded 204 species of plants, 76 species of mammals and 332 species of birds. However, at present, most of the important tree and plant species including fruits and fodder bearing ones are in a very low abundance and threatened. Conservation status of wildlife is also alarming and many animal and bird species meanwhile have possibly been extinct as discovered by visit of wildlife experts.

Shifting cultivation and denudation
Due to excessive practice of shifting cultivation in the USF land, forest cover and fertility of the soil had drastically reduced and this practice nowadays has moved progressively to the vast areas of national forest reserve. Thus it poses threat of additional burden for the management. For example, in Bagaihat and Kassalong forest of the north hill tracts, illegal settlement and encroachment deserve special concern. Improper supervision of the field staff and their security in such areas are a prime factor for failure to stop the denudation and encroachment. In fact, instead of having vast areas of USF land, controlled by district civil administration, encroachment upon and Jhum cultivation in the dense reserve forest cannot be allowed in keeping with watershed and ecosystem function of the hills.

Faulty management
Whatever the reasons put forward for deforestation and biodiversity loss in the CHT, the “clear-felling” introduced in the hills, in which all mature trees in a single operation are removed, is primarily responsible for eroding biodiversity to a large extent. By contrast, in the ‘selective’ management system practiced elsewhere, in which only a few large commercial trees are felled with care, and tree species diversity and structure of the residual stands remain intact, and wild animals and birds are also not threatened.

Extensive canopy opening in the CHT forest followed by clear-felling not only encouraged secondary pioneers (undesirable species) to occupy the forest floor but ultimately its ecosystem has become severely degraded with accelerated soil erosion and siltation in its rivers and streams. It is widely admitted that the clear-felling management system in the hills have no ecological basis and the damage is unrecoverable as tropical ecosystem is complex and fragile.

The tropical deforestation rate is 0.7 per cent per annum and this figure almost coincides with the deforestation rate of the CHT. Based on this estimate, a total of about 41,000 hectares of denuded reserve forest of the Rangamati circle alone had been planted mostly with teaks in last 23 years. On the contrary, field observations and records found very poor condition of these plantations due mainly to encroachment, shifting cultivation and illegal felling.

Alien species also do not have any significant role in protecting environment including habitat for wildlife. Microclimates of even-aged teak forest and visibility inside are altogether different from naturally regenerated uneven-aged forest. Moreover, no plants and undergrowth of original composition can grow along with alien species. Species richness and diversity of natural forest makes the ecosystem stable and maintains surrounding congenial environment for various living forms.

Timber trafficking and depletion of natural forest
The historical problem of timber trafficking from the natural forests as well as from old plantations nowadays is the biggest challenge for the management. Local tribes, settlers and unscrupulous timber traders are all involved in this illegal business. This practice has never stopped and the forest will remain totally unprotected unless this is strictly handled.

Forest Department with their poor staff position and logistic support often fail to confront the thieves. But there are also strong allegations, published in print media, about their connivance (assisting) in illegal trafficking. Besides, many agencies are also alleged to have involved in getting monetary benefit from illegal timber trafficking as reflected in the disclosure of TIB. TIB report also found that the control of such illegal timber business depends on the attitude and leadership of the local administration. The current moratorium on natural forest cutting with a view to conserve biodiversity cannot be effective without strict handling of timber theft and strong commitment of the top management.

Addressing the challenges
In the face of detrimental effects of shifting cultivation, encroachment, illegal timber trafficking, deforestation and faulty management practice in the forests of Chittagong Hill Tracts, the following have been suggested to ensure long-term maintenance of forest cover, species composition and diversity:
* In order to make the shifting cultivation environmentally friendly in the USF land, site-specific agro forestry models will have to be developed as acceptable to the indigenous communities.
* For denuded reserve forest, participatory forestry and agro forestry with indigenous tree species including food and fodder trees and plants could be best possible option than plantation of teak or alien species.
* In many degraded forest areas including USF land there are profuse natural regeneration of original composition, which only needs proper protection from biotic interference to grow as natural forests.
* The undisturbed patches of natural forest should be protected as nature reserves or repositories of biodiversity under the existing protected area management programmes.
* Social forestry and forest conservation programmes in the hills must be based on participatory project design with due consideration of biological, ecological factors and socioeconomic condition of the community.
* Coordination with the relevant agencies and projects also deserves special attention in order to share experiences with regard to community development.
* Strict handling of dishonest timber traders through effective implementation of existing laws.
* Revision of Forest Transit Rules 1973 in order to stop illegal extraction of timber from the natural forest under the legal coverage of ‘Jhote permit’ system.
* An effective, operational and restructured wildlife circle with sincere and dedicated personnel is a must with proper logistics and funding support.
* To arrest further biodiversity loss and for sustainable management of CHT resources, there is an urgent need for biodiversity survey with acceptable statistical precision.

The writer Saiful Islam, is an environmental activist.

This article is quoted from The Daily Star, Bangladesh. The original article was originally published on 2010.02.20.

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