Blazes burning Sundarbans

24 fire incidents in 19 years

Around 75 acres of forest land with various trees and shrubs have been burnt in 24 incidents of fire in 19 years in the country’s largest mangrove forest ‘Sundarbans’. 

The forest department attributes the incidents of fire to the lack of awareness of local inhabitants, tourists,  death of rivers adjacent to the forest, vandalism and burning butt of bidi or cigarette thrown carelessly in the wood.

However, analysts say that a group is carrying out the sabotage in a planned way to occupy the Sundarbans land. Behind this, dishonest officials and employees of the forest department are also involved. The forest department, however, has denied the allegations.

The forest department has formed probe committees at different times to investigate the fire incidents. The committees made a number of recommendations to protect the forest, including raising awareness among forest users and visitors, digging up dead rivers adjacent to the forest, building fences and watch towers in border areas of Sundarbans etc. However, most of the recommendations of the committee have not been implemented.

The Forest Department has also formed a three-member probe committee to identify the cause of the latest fire in the Sundarbans and estimate its financial damage.

The fire was extinguished on Tuesday afternoon after a fire broke out in the eastern part of the Sundarbans on Monday afternoon, the Fire Service and Forest Department said. 

However, the fire broke out there again on Wednesday morning. The fire was not completely doused until the last news was received. Locals say it is now very difficult to control the fire without rain.

According to the Forest Department, there have been 24 fire incidents between 2002 and 2021 in the area of Katka of Chandpai Range, Nangli, Mandarbaria, Pachakodalia, Sutar Khal area of Ghutabaria, Terabeka, Amurbunia, Khurabaria, Dhansangar, Dumuria, Gulishakhali, Tulatala, Madrasarchilya and Dhansagar of the Sundarbans. 

Mohammad Moinuddin Khan, Conservator of Forests, Forest Department of Khulna, told Bangladesh Post that most of the fire incidents were caused by ‘Mouyal’, or those who collect honey from the forest. Someone can also trigger fire by simply throwing a burning cigarette butt on the dry fallen leaves. 

Professor Anu Muhammad, member-secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports told Bangladesh Post that as part of a plan to turn the Sundarbans into ordinary land and occupy it, some vested groups have been causing fire incidents frequently there. Those who are implementing various projects in the area are involved in it, so that forest land can be easily grabbed and occupied at low cost. 

Some officials and employees of the forest department are allegedly involved in the crime, who are taking advantage of that influential dishonest group.

“It is completely unreasonable to blame the ‘Mauwals’ for the fire. Because, peoples of that area have been done it for centuries. There has never been occurred so much fire before,” he added. 

However, the officials of the forest department refuted the statement. Md. Moinuddin Khan, Conservator of Forests told Bangladesh Post that Anu Muhammad has made political statements. We are trying our best to protect the Sundarbans. There are fires in different forests of the world. The number of incidents of fire in the Sundarbans is less than that. However, we have consulted  local residents and foresters at various times to raise awareness. Different types of awareness campaigns are being run. Besides, efforts are being made to set up a fire service station in the area adjacent to the Sundarbans.

The only way to protect the Sundarbans from all kinds of damage is to ban people from entering the forest completely. For this, an initiative has been taken to implement a project for alternative employment for those who earn their income from forests. Work on the project will start  after approval by ECNEC.

Masudur Rahman, a local resident near the Sundarbans, said the Bhola River had died because it had not been excavated for a long time. When the winter comes, this river dries up. As a result, local people can enter the Sundarbans freely. Some unscrupulous people enter the forest and damage the forest resources.

“The Sundarbans protects the people of the coastal areas. The Sundarbans has saved us from natural disasters like Sidr, Aila and Amphan. Without the Sundarbans, we will not be able to survive natural disasters. Once any fire breaks out, the forest department quickly forms investigation committee. The committee also submits various recommendations to the government. However, we don't know if these will be implemented or not,” he added. 

The Sundarbans mangrove forest, one of the largest such forests in the world is formed at the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal. Total area of the entire Sundarbans is about one million ha, 60% of which is found in Bangladesh and the rest in India. 

In Bangladesh the forest area is intersected by numerous rivers and creeks, which is located in the southern part of Satkhira, Khulna and Bagerhat districts.

The 1,39,700 hectares of forest consisting of 3 wildlife sanctuaries in the Sundarbans were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.