May 24, 2008

Chittagong Hill Tracts: Park Exploration Harming Wildlife

Sample ImageThe decision to permit seismic testing in the Lawachara National Park is taking a devastating toll on life and livelihoods, and should be stopped and reconsidered.

Below is an article written by Srabantee Shegufta and published by the Daily Star:

Under The Wild Life (Preservation) (Amendment) Act-1974 in 1996, part of the West Bhanugach Reserved Forest was declared "Lawachara National Park," which encompasses an area of 1250 hectares. The Lawachara National Park is located 60 km south of the Sylhet city in the Komalgonj Upajila of Moulvibazar District -- about 10 km away from the town of Srimangal.

Biological Diversity in the Lawachara National Park consists of 460 species and the Park also supports important population of rare species like Primate Gibbon and Capped Langur.

Few months ago, the Government has permitted US Company Chevron to conduct a 3D seismic survey in the Lawachara National Park. The survey of Chevron involves such kinds of experiments which will have long term adverse effects on the sensitive forest. The explosions, which are now being conducted in Lawachara as a part of Chevron's survey, leave the wildlife there in a hazardous position. Being frightened by the shakes generated by the explosions, wild animals are leaving the forest at an alarming rate. In such an incident a Primate Gibbon, in an attempt to flee, jumped onto the electric cable and surrendered to death on 7th May, 2008. Cracks appear in the walls of many houses in the area, that too due to explosions during seismic survey.

Regrettably, Chevron was permitted to conduct their survey when monsoon is knocking at the door. Monsoon is the time for reproduction of rare species of plants, mushrooms and various species of wild life. The indigenous communities i.e. Mandi, Tripuri, Khashia along with tea garden workers and local people are mainly dependant on the natural resources of the forest. Indubitably, the reproduction will be seriously hampered by Chevron's survey. As a consequence the people dependant on such resources will have to suffer a lot. Chevron's survey prompted opposition from certain groups of environmentalists, environment specialists, journalists, travelers, indigenous communities and the local people.

Few days after Lawachara was declared a National Park, on 14th June of 1997 various parts of the forest were smashed up by the explosion of Magurchara gas-field as a result of the careless activities conducted by the US Company Occidental. Before the forest could repair the loss, another US Company Unicol constructed underground gas pipelines across the forest. During the installation of gas pipelines, the reproduction of various species was seriously hampered and the ecosystem of the forest became critically imbalanced. Now the question to be asked is whether Chevron is going to be the next devastator of this beautiful forest?

Under the Wildlife (Preservation) (Amendment) Act, 1974, from 1980 several areas of Bangladesh are being declared as "Protected Areas" and presently there are 16 notified "Protected Areas" under the management of Forest Department, covering an area of 241,675 hectares under three categories -- National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Game Reserve. Under The Wild Life (preservation) (Amendment) Act of 1974 "National Parks" are areas of "outstanding scenic and natural beauty" whose purpose is the "protection and preservation of scenery, flora and fauna in the natural state, to which access for public recreation, education and research may be allowed." Cleaning up or breaking up land for any purpose is prohibited by Bangladesh Forest Act-1972 and commercial activities of any national or international organizations are also strictly prohibited in the national parks. Lawachara forest was recognized as a "National Park" in 1996. The survey of Chevron in Lawachara National Park involves experiments that infringe the existing laws of the country. Now it is the high time to declare Lawachara National Park an "Ecologically Critical Area" under Rule-3, Section-5 of the Environment Conservation Act-1995 to protect the wildlife, nature and the people from being extinct and to conserve the natural beauty.

Though Chevron assured that their survey would be carried out in accordance with the country's environmental rules and regulations, the methods employed by it, permitted by the Department of Forest, clearly violate many provisions of the existing environment related laws of Bangladesh. Where there remains a probability of a significant environmental degradation and pollution by the activities of any organization, it is the duty of the Department of Environment to require that organization to conduct the Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before the site clearance can be granted. These reports were not submitted before the commencement of the survey. The survey also violates the provisions of the United Nation's Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)-1992 which is dedicated to conserve biodiversity and sustainable use of the same.

To protect the natural beauties from destruction and to conserve the unique biodiversity, the Department of Forest has started a five-year project in 2003, called Nishorgo Support Project (NSP) with the aid of USAID. The project is working at five initial pilot sites. Lawachara National Park is one of those five sites. Though the program was started with an aim to conserve the biodiversity, silence of NSP about the survey of US company Chevron, which will have a great impact on the nature, is awfully puzzling. Is there any bias on the part of US aided NSP Project's authority? Another inexplicable thing is, whereas the Director General of the Department of Environment is empowered under the Environment Conservation Act-1995 to take necessary steps to prevent probable accidents, which may cause environmental degradation and pollution, how Chevron was permitted to carry out the survey by the same Department?

It is obvious that Chevron is not doing things in compliance with the existing laws of the country. To permit something that is potentially perilous to environment is not an act of prudence. Government must rethink their decision as soon as possible and make Chevron pay compensation required to restore environmental standard and to people who sustained loss due to their activity.