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A Formula to Secure Bangladesh’s Forests

Photo by UNDP Bangladesh

That the environment is under pressure is not a new story, but a fact that has been witnessed with concern in all parts of the world. What is often forgotten is that humans are deeply dependent on the environment. It supports our very existence. Food, water and the air that we breathe are ‘services’ crucial to our survival - yet the environment continues to be destroyed.

In the face of a changing climate and growing natural hazards it is unsurprising that the global community marked the recently passed World Environment Day – 5 June - with a renewed sense of urgency. This year’s theme, “Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care”, is timely and as Bangladesh celebrates the day we must look to both establish strong natural resource management practices and engage people as guardians of the environment. One example of this can be found in our own Chittagong Hill Tracts where communities draw on traditional knowledge to sustainably manage natural resources through Village Common Forests (VCFs). 

Regrettably, Bangladesh has been experiencing severe deforestation and forest degradation over the past 30 years. A 2011 paper co-authored by Center for International Forestry cited data suggesting 90 percent of Bangladesh’s forest have experienced a level of degradation due to the pressures of a growing population and policy gaps. This loss of forest has contributed to the extinction and endangerment of many plants and animals unique to Bangladesh, including the symbol of our nation’s pride – the Bengal Tiger. Over 200 land mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and plant species have reached an ‘at-risk status’ to varying magnitudes as rated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Indeed, much of the wildlife that makes up the nation’s vibrant and diverse biodiversity are being threatened, frequently as a result of human activities.

The loss of such biodiversity also has wider social consequences, including negative impacts on livelihoods, food security and resilience to environmental disasters. According to the World Bank crimes affecting the environment and natural resources impose roughly $70 billion a year in damages to developing countries.  Moreover, the Bangladesh Millennium Development Goal Progress Report released last year highlighted the need for further action in this area if we are to meet the goal of ensuring environmental sustainability and target of reaching 20 percent forest coverage and 70 percent density by 2015.

Whilst the status of Bangladesh’s forests look bleak, the customary management of 300 VCFs in the Hill Tracts’ exemplifies good practice in managing natural resources and protecting forests.

VCFs, also known as Mouza Forests, are central habitats for wildlife and a crucial to the existence of approximately 700 Hills communities through the supply of water for drinking, household use and irrigation.

They are also widely recognized as offering a strong and low cost model for protecting forests and natural resources. A 2008 study reported that that communities attached to community manage forests not only utilized more innovative techniques of cultivation – such as minimum tillage, controlled burning of debris and mulching – but also have positive impacts on the immediate soil quality and water preservation[1]. This finding is supported by the work of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom who demonstrated the value of common resources and the ability for dependent groups to successfully manage these assets.  Such research reinforces the role that communities can and should play in natural resource governance and emphasizes the need to broaden this approach to other common resources and sites across the country.

Moreover, significant evidence points to the Chittagong Hill Tracts’ VCFs as a sustainable example for engaging local communities to protect the nation’s vital forest resources. Further, with formal recognition and wider support from government it is a model that can be replicated and scaled-up, empowering communities to become part of the solution to sustain our country’s forests and other critical environmental resources including wetlands, coastal belts and marine ecosystems.

In a world of rapid growth and development, forests that historically were preserved for generations are now vanishing at an astounding rate. It is time that we look to proven traditional practices as a way of countering this modern threat and securing a greener, healthier Bangladesh.

Since 2013, the CHT Development Facility has been working in partnership with traditional institutions and resource dependent communities to sustain local natural resources, restore biodiversity and improve livelihoods for the poor through the VCFsThe project is currently being rolled out across 55 community-managed forests.

Biplab Chakma

[1] Misbahuzzaman K., S. Ghosh, M. and A. Alam (2008) Are Village Common Forests (VCFs) a model for sustainable natural resources management in uplands of Bangladesh.

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