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Forest Laws and Human Health in Bangladesh: Dove-tailing Social Science with Natural Science


Introduction:

The beginning of forest laws in Bangladesh can be traced back to the 18th– 19th century when​ the entire Indian subcontinent was controlled by British colonialism. Over time, these laws have been reformed, and repealed, as per the demands of time and environment, albeit, both effectively and ineffectively. Forests play a central role in the history of many civilizations as places, as renewable resources, and as symbols of nature to which humans belong and have migrated from. The impact of human activities on forests has been a common topic of discussion and research. However, it is quite rare to find existing literature on how the degrading health of the forest in turn affects human lives and health. Over the last couple of decades, a direct link between the health of the forest and human have seldom been threaded out. This interdisciplinary and interconnected issue between the social and natural sciences evinces how the most vulnerable and socially and economically backward communities and people suffer the first, the most, and the worst consequences of environmental degradation. This blog overlooks the laws and policies crucial in regulating and maintaining forests in Bangladesh and further explores the impact on human health of the implementation, or lack thereof, of these laws and policies.


Connecting Forests, Laws, State, and Human:

Bangladesh has numerous laws and policies regulating the forest and environment, incorporating the principles of multiple international conventions and protocols in order to safeguard forests and wildlife. Some of the provisions in the existing laws and policies below highlight the evolution and importance of forest protection.


In 1894, the colonial British government announced the first official forest strategy for the Indo-Pak region, which provided the basis for creating laws and regulations for forest management and exploitation during this time. Even the rate of forest exploitation increased their authority, with little significance given to resource conservation or preservation. This strategy primarily prioritised crop production, and encouraged the quick conversion of forest areas to agricultural use, and served as the foundation for the legal classification of key forest-related regulations, and the first Forest Act of 1927. While these regulations assisted in bringing forest management under government oversight, their primary goal was to increase forest revenue by appointing feudal lords to manage various forest zones. Unfortunately, despite the advent of institutional management, the state’s economic interests continued to dominate its activities; the overall forest health was not enhanced. This foundation of economic exploitation was grounded deeply within the minds of the people. Thus, the aim of this law, which was to codify the laws ‘relating to forests, the transit of forest produce and the duty leviable on timber and other forest produce, was achieved.


In 1950, the State Acquisition and Tenancy Act, 1950 (East Bengal Act) was enacted with the objective of putting tenants under the direct supervision of the government and destroying landlord power of private individuals over their tenants. The Act allowed tenants to keep homesteads and agricultural areas, but not forested lands. Many private holdings, including forestland, were deemed not retainable as a result of these stipulations. Under this law, the tenants were not permitted to keep forested lands. In order to avoid government claims over their private forested lands, the villagers cut down their forests to build villages, resulting in losing forest land. This law, while effective in fulfilling its objective, was not a necessary law on forestation and conservation. On the other hand, the Acquisition of Waste Land Act, 1950 (East Bengal Act), allows the government to acquire uncultivated private land for public use, including afforestation.


In 1955, Pakistan published its first national forest policy, under which Bangladesh's (at the time, East Pakistan) woods were managed. This policy successfully introduced several formal forest management plans, followed by an inventory of various forest zones. This policy was overtaken by political-economic interests, leading to minimal improvements in the condition and sustainability of the forests.


In 1979, the newly independent Bangladesh drafted its first national forest policy. Unfortunately, the wordings and language of the policy were ambiguous and conflicting in nature which made it impossible to properly follow the recommendations; thus, indirectly encouraging actions that were eventually harmful to the health of the forests.


The 1994 Forest Policy, however, placed a strong emphasis on the preservation and management of trees outside of designated forests through a participatory approach with residents. It encouraged the planting of trees by local groups and communities alongside roads, stream banks, and marginal lands, and the State supports all types of local forestry and forestry-related companies. The next year, the Forestry Sector Master Plan (1995–2015) was strategised, and much later, through the Forest Act of 2000 (Amendment), institutional restructuring (1998–2000), and social forestry rules (2004) were developed.


Following these laws, the Environmental Courts Act, 2010 was enacted in 2010 to establish courts to deal with legal concerns and crimes related to forest issues. Under this law, only special Magistrates have the power to hear complaints, and the courts must conclude the case within 180 days.


In addition, the Saw-mill (Licence) Rules, 2012 provides that no saw-mills should be built within 10 kilometres of a ‘protected forest’, as defined by the Forest Act of 1927. The saw-milling process of the trees includes removing the outer bark of the logs and cutting them into sections, which are then finally sawn into timber boards. This process impacts the environment by rising particulate matter from debarking and sawing, as well as kiln draws. The particulate environmental matter arises from log debarking, sawing into boards, wood residues and kiln drying as these processing stages create environmental hazards on the land.


With regard to protecting forests, the Brick Manufactures and Kiln Establishment (Control) Act, 2013 prohibits brick fields to operate without the Deputy Commissioner’s approval. Although the law also prohibits cutting hills and the usage of forest wood for brick-making, fuel wood is still used to make bricks since it is the owners’ only available energy source for brick-making now.


Both the National Forestry Policy 2016 and the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act, 2012 are against any form of industrial activity within 2 km of sanctuaries. These laws bring to light how far the operation of the Rampal Power plant project conflicts with the legal framework of Bangladesh.


The Bangladesh Forestry Master Plan (2017–2036) is intended to enhance the Protected Area network by 30% and safeguard wildlife from poaching. Bangladesh currently comprises of 45 protected areas; most of which lack funds and well-trained staff, with high levels of conflicts between ministries and agencies over implementing laws and regulations.


Lastly, with the latest amendment of the Forest Act in 2020, the Act legalised social forestry; a practice of planting trees in an area in association with the local population in order to influence their economic, ecological, and social growth. Given the importance, as well as shortage, of forest land, these provisions can be essential in human and forest sustenance. These provisions also allow those who plant the trees to support themselves until the trees’ fruits are reaped.


In order to handle the wildlife and forest-related issues and offences, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change is responsible. Under this Ministry, the Wildlife Crime Control Unit (WCCU) of the Department of Forest (DoF) has been mandated to identify environmentally critical zones, including the forest lands in the country and to draft regulations that improve these forest lands. And under the Environment Court Act 2010, every district has been mandated to have an environmental court, if required. Under this Act, the Magistrate Court will be provided with the power to dispose of complaints and finish proceedings within 180 days. This Act's distinctive feature shows that it can speed up environmental lawsuits and proceedings, resulting in the protection of Bangladesh's forests and other vital resources if properly applied.


Besides its national measures, Bangladesh has signed or ratified significant international forest conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and its Kyoto Protocol. Apart from these, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (“Ramsar” Convention) and The Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage were also signed. Regardless, while on paper and official records the state seems to take a stand or draft laws in line with the international principles regarding the protection, conservation and safeguarding of the forests, in practice, the reality is quite the opposite.


Forest’s Impact on Human Health:

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimated that between 2015 and 2020, almost 10 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of forest were lost globally each year. As a result of not conserving the forests, an adverse effect on human health has been evinced.


Deforestation: Deforestation has been demonstrated to fragment forest ecosystems, increasing the concentration of infectious diseases and non-infectious illnesses like diabetes, typhoid, and lung disease. Following deforestation, as forest species, that cause allergies or irritants, move into new habitats or areas, human health problems will continue to rise.


Climate Change: Climate change has a significant impact on human lives. Following deforestation, one such challenge of climate change is the transboundary movement/migration of pests, and thus, diseases. Similarly, the distribution of a species in a certain area may change, which could increase pollen production negatively affecting human health. Scientists fear that climate change could possibly charge the next pandemic, which have been made worse by human-induced landscape transformation. Removing the trees, the natural protector against climate change, invites frequent heat waves, rising the temperature of the earth, depleting the ozone layer, increasing the level of CO2 in the air, and increases global warning; which all in turn impacts the human body negatively. Deforestation also leads to loosening the soil, catalyses soil erosion, increases the salinity of the groundwater, and increases the sea levels. This groundwater, when consumed by human, raises the blood pressure due to the high salt matter.


Hill Cutting: While the Brick Burning Control (Amendment) Act, 2013 prohibits cutting hills and using forest wood for brickmaking, hill cutting is a common practice in Bangladesh. The main reasons for hill cutting, as evinced through the survey conducted in the Chittagong City Corporation, include higher prices for newly developed plain land, population growth, the apartment and hotel industry, political influence and a lack of hill management policy, soil for brick fields, inadequate monitoring of hill land infrastructure development, and filling in of low areas. Locals from the Chittagong district claim that the hilly areas are rich in forest resources, including food in the form of a variety of fruits, and woody plants and trees with medicinal properties, which are lost as a result of the loss of dense forest areas via hill cutting.


Wood burning and Brick kilns: In Bangladesh, unregulated brick kilns burns an enormous amount of fuel wood each year, which is equal to 2.4 crore standing trees and around 96,000 acres of forested land. The country has between 6,000 and 8,000 brick kilns, which burn primarily coal to generate about 1,200 crore bricks annually. Yet, because most of these kilns are either poorly managed or not inspected at all, many of the uncontrolled brick kilns burn firewood partially or exclusively. Most of the fuel used in these brick kilns is coal, which produces SO2 and particulate matter (PM) emissions, which result in poor air quality, and causes respiratory related diseases.


Power Plant near Forest: One of the basic preconditions for a power plant project must be that it is outside a 25km radius from the outer periphery of an ecologically sensitive area in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the Rampal Power Plant is situated a mere 14km north of the world’s largest mangrove forest Sundarbans which is a UNESCO world heritage site, and has already gone on commercial operation. It is estimated that around 4.75 million tons of coal would be burned annually at this power plant, and emit 14 million tons of CO2, linking to the increase in global warming. The power plant’s SO2, NOx, and PM emissions would have an impact on the air quality over a sizable region. All these pollutants are toxic when inhaled, causing short-term respiratory and other symptoms. Moreover, exposure to PM2.5 and NO2 has been related to serious long-term health effects, most notably an increase in the chance of developing chronic diseases. In the case of PM2.5, these impacts include stroke, lung cancer, heart diseases, and chronic respiratory diseases. Besides these pollutants, the plant could emit high levels of mercury, which when deposited, ‘could be sufficient to render fish unsafe to eat over an area of approximately 70 km2 around the power plant’. Mercury is a neurotoxin that damages children’s brains and nervous systems once consumed.


While there exists no direct connection between the forest laws and their impact on human health, it can be inferred that implementing forest policies that centre on conserving forests will decidedly improve the health of both the forest and human, as doing the opposite adversely affects human health as well. While still archaic in nature, laws and policies are important tools that must be utilised effectively and properly to ensure the sustenance of forests and human health.


Conclusion:

From the existing legal overview, it can be inferred that the foundation of the colonial forest laws in Bangladesh, especially the Forest Act of 1927, was drafted primarily to make commercial use of the forest resources and generate revenue. Bangladesh’s degrading forests demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the current laws, institutions, and methods that collectively fail to safeguard the forest ecosystem. With time, more forest lands are being denuded, historical forest custodians are being alienated, and the forest administration is becoming draconian with its anti-forest and hence anti-people policies and practices. It is quite clear that the existing regulations are archaic, colonial, and unappreciative of modern administration. As a result, not only is the forest's health suffering, but so is human life. It is high time to make practical use of the existing legislation in order to protect forest lands. The state officials should also consider a step forward to collectively work with the communities and all relevant stakeholders to adopt and catalyse a pro-forest and pro-people practice regarding the forest ecosystem, which should extend above and beyond the legal conversation in ensuring the health of the forests, and thus, human.

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