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    Volume 9 Issue 19| May 7, 2010|

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Sunderban Burning
Where have all the Trees Gone?

A gutted tree amid parched forest area.

Morshed Ali Khan

The startling news of Sunderbans burning at Chadpai range on Saturday, March 20 came from my colleague Reaz Ahmad at The Daily Star office in Dhaka a day after. At the time I was in Kowkhali 80 kilometres away from Gulishakhali, Baanshagor Forest Patrol Station that had received the first news of smoke billowing from deep inside the forest at around 1:30 pm on the day.

Forest fire in the Sunderbans is now new. Within the last six years nine fires have destroyed huge areas of the forest. According to Khosru Chwdhury, an expert on the mangrove pointed out that fire never breaks out in the Sunderbans naturally as it happens in other forests. The Sunderbans has constant soggy and wet surroundings. Any fire in this forest is almost always caused by human carelessness.

At around 4 am on Monday I was well on my way to Gulishakhali on a motorbike -- the only means of transport other than by boat to this part of the country during the dry season. The road through Moralganj was extremely bumpy.

At around 8 am a group of nine firefighters waited at the Baanshagor Forest Patrol Station. "The fire is under control," announced the team leader who had worked the entire day on Sunday to tackle the mysterious blaze that had razed about three square kilometres of the mangrove.

" We are now heading back to the spot five kilometres into the forest with our pumping machines. Our intention is to flood the whole area eliminating further risks of fire from the smouldering bushes," said Quaiyum Khan, leader of the nine-member firefighting team from Moralganj.

The party was soon on its way with adult labourers carrying the two heavy pump machines and half a dozen children from the nearby village carrying coiled hosepipes on their heads.

As the sun rose higher the sweltering heat started tiring the men and children. The going was getting tougher amid the tropical bushes. Surprisingly unlike any other parts of the mangrove forest that I had admired over the years, the Gulishakhali forest was devoid of large trees. Thick overgrown bushes of creepers and small plants covered the forest floors. Several well-used tracks on the way strongly indicated regular human traffic in the area. There was no sign of any wildlife other than a lonely Crested Serpent Eagle hovering overhead. Where were the Sundaris, Baines, Amur, Parosh, Pashur, Geoa and other trees adorning the world heritage site of the Sunderban I thought.

Soon the forest department's mindless plantation scheme appeared before us. Along the canal hundreds of rain-trees spread out branches. The alien species of rain-trees were the forest department's brainchild though which it was trying to replace the thousands of trees stolen over the years.

A forester tries to douse smouldering roots of a tree with his hand.

"You know why this fire was started?" whispered a man walking along the path. "This new forester Khaleque is a very bad man. As soon as Khaleque arrived, he declared war on the illegal loggers despite our repeated warning," said the man in a Khaki shirt. He said he was one of the FGs (forest guards) accompanying Khaleque on operations against the loggers who used to roam freely in the area.

"These landless people who have been settled on the periphery of the forest survive on the forest. You have to allow them to collect fuel wood. You cannot deprive them of their livelihood. The forest is dying anyway," he said.

The FG looked suspicious. He frequently joked with the labourers and villagers in the local dialect, showing his local connection. He was visibly upset with his unusual boss waging a war against plunderers. For me, the FG's complaint was rather a compliment for Khaleque. A field level forester becoming his junior colleague's point of anger because he was honest! Very unusual forest story, I thought. My mind was already beginning to esteem Khaleque.

The FG, as he wanted to be called, said a day before the fire Khaleque led a forest team to surprise 20 illegal loggers near the Andarmanik canal. The loggers fled into the deep forest while the forester confiscated a huge haul of freshly chopped logs.

"We knew the loggers were very angry. As soon as we were informed of the smoke billowing from the forest the following day, we had no doubt in mind that the fire was caused by the gang that had fled into the area hours ago," the FG continued. "I tell you this new forester is ruining many people's lives."

Along the track dozens of stems of different trees lay on the ground. A few large trees here and there rose from the ground to be covered by creepers.

The heat was intense. As we neared the area where the bush fire had spread, the ground emitted an intense heat. The party carrying heavy pumping machines stopped more frequently for water. The scorching sun overhead and now the heated floor were taking their toll. We were all perspiring.

"Do you have some water?" asked the Moralganj correspondent of a Bangla national daily accompanying the party. I had carried 1.5 litres of water out of which about a litre was remaining. As soon as I handed him the bottle he gulped more than half of it without looking anywhere. I knew I was in trouble since no one had any water to spare.

The landscape looked parched over an area of about three square kilometres. Smoke still billowed from the smouldering bushes and trees. The firefighters installed the heavy machines along a narrow canal and started flooding the forest. The water on the burning bushes produced sudden gusts of smoke.

Prior to starting for the spot firefighters and foresters pose in front of the Baanshagor forest petrol office in Gulishakhali.

Explaining why the forest had no large trees a forest official, busy overseeing the operation, said that Sundari and other trees needed tidal water for survival. "Nine months of the year the entire area receives no tidal water at all so the mangrove trees have all died."

Later when I asked Khosru Chowdhury to comment on the forester's reasoning behind lack of large trees Khosru replied, " The area of the forest in Gulishakhali is famous for many trees including Sundari. There is no reason other than theft for the trees to disappear."

The heat was unbearable. From head to toe I was drenched in sweat. I thought of the way back and the fierce sun at around noon and tried in vain to procure some water.

A group of labourers, led by one Mosharraf Sarder a resident of Gulishakhali village rested under a tree nearby. Mosharraf carried an axe over his shoulder and said it had saved his life many times from wild boars and tigers. Then suddenly he said that the forest fire was man-made. He led me into the forest to show where it had originated. The place was at the edge of a shallow trench dug by the firefighters on the first day.

The party walk through the Sunderbans almost devoid of large trees.

"The loggers led by Nuru Kha, Barek Kha and Amzad Kha of the village were very angry against the new forester and tried to destroy the forest by setting fire to it," said Mosharraf.

Born in the area and a seasoned guide for the foresters, Mosharraf also admitted that the villagers, including himself, freely roamed the forest collecting fuel wood and made a living out of it. In exchange for various services to the local forest office he was regularly rewarded.

I needed to get back to Kowkhali before dusk to file the story and send as many pictures as possible. So I sought Mosharraf's help. He agreed to accompany me back to the forest office five kilometres away. I jumped on the opportunity and asked "Can you please procure some drinking water before we start walking? "

Mosharraf looked puzzled for a second and then recollecting himself said, "No one has any water to spare here. If we are thirsty we drink from the canal, although it is very salty."

The first kilometre back was hard. The second seemed even harder. By now the sun was right over the head unleashing its fierce power. I felt dehydration creeping through my muscles. I was slowly drained as I stopped to find a shade and respite from the fatigue.

"Thank God there is no wind. If the wind blew, it would be impossible to contain the fire," Mosharraf murmured sitting next to me.

"How far still?" I asked.
"We have come less than half the distance," he replied without looking at me.

We were on our way after 10 minutes. Mosharraf walked ahead of me and every 10 minutes outpaced me by 20 metres or more than looking back at me displayed a sarcastic smile on his lip. "If you are too thirsty, why don't you drink some water from the canal ahead," he said.

I staggered to the Baanshagor forest station at around 2:00 PM and fell onto the chair at the veranda. Mosharraf got me a plastic jug-full of water, in which I emptied two sachets of orsaline from my backpack and drank it slowly. I recovered and wasting no time was riding back to Kowkhali 80 km away.

At around 7 pm Kowkhali was blacked out without electricity. Pannu, the owner of the Internet centre there told me he had just learnt from the Palli Bidyut office there won't be any power till 9 pm. I waited.

By the time my story and pictures were successfully sent to the office it was nearly 10 pm. The story however, was published a day later in the national page of The Daily Star on March 24.

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