DHAKA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For Bangladeshis, pre-election political trouble has become a fact of life. Every five years, the nation expects chaos as cars are torched, roads blocked and train lines vandalised. January’s polls have been no different.
In fact, this time around, things have become even more critical - at least 500 people died in 2013 due to election-related violence in the run-up to the latest vote.
Another worrying phenomenon is the expansion of road blockades across the country, in which political protestors have used large trees to barricade highways.
According to government officials, this method of disruption – aimed at cutting off communication with the capital - was introduced by Hefajat E Islam, a vocal Islamist group, and then adopted by another mainstream religious political party called Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh. These organisations are associated with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), some of whose supporters have also used the tactic.
The country’s Chief Conservator of Forests, Yunus Ali, estimates that more than 70,000 trees have been felled for this purpose over the past year. And Poribesh Bachao Andolan (POBA), a popular environmentalist organisation, claims that 65,000 trees have been chopped down for political ends since this style of protest gathered momentum in April 2013.
The main reason for the large-scale unrest in the run up to the Jan. 5 general election was the lack of consensus between major political parties over how the polls should be conducted.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League ended with more than two-thirds of seats in a contest that was shunned by international observers as flawed and derided as a farce by the BNP, which boycotted the election.
Given the country’s uncertain political future, experts are concerned about the environmental impact of protest tactics in a country that already faces a wide range of climate-linked natural hazards.
“Trees cannot be the enemy; this mindless eco-vandalism cannot be the reflection of a democracy-seeking movement,” said renowned environmentalist Ainun Nishat in an interview.
“When we are struggling to enrich our forests and encourage tree planting, this sort of event could wipe out our dream,” he added. “Politicians should rethink their policy - they can’t get people’s support by forcing them and doing such chaotic demonstrations. Destroying forest land is setting our environmental efforts back at least 20 years.”
LOCAL PEOPLE TO SUFFER
Highlighting that Bangladesh has only 17 percent forest cover, POBA chairman Abu Naser Khan questioned the senseless ecological devastation carried out by politicians.
“As Bangladesh is a country of almost 160 million people, we need at least 25 percent forest cover to survive in a better environment,” he said.
Award-winning environmentalist Syeda Rizwana Hasan noted it was particularly “unfortunate…that we have no place to register our complaints against such a heinous and unacceptable practice.”
Protesters are mainly chopping trees planted by the government in association with local people as part of forest projects aimed at protecting human life and property from environmental hazards.
The roads and highway department has confirmed that protesters have cut down roadside trees managed by such projects, which are 55 percent owned by local people.
“They will suffer both financially and environmentally - which is unfortunate and unacceptable,” Nishat said.
Trees have been affected by political unrest in 24 of the country’s 64 districts, with both government and NGO sources confirming the impact in these areas.
Trees are also being felled due to political violence in the southern coastal belt of Bangladesh, which is vulnerable to storms, rising sea levels and erosion. The destruction of vegetation is leaving the region even more unprotected against climate-related dangers, experts say.
The southern districts most affected - Noakhali, Chittagong, Laxmipur, Feni, Bhola, Patuakhali and Satkhira – are also known as strongholds of Islamist groups.
“About 10,000 trees, most aged over five years, were cut down in Noakhali district,” the POBA chairman said.
The district offices of Satkhira, an area recognised as a power base for Islamists, reported that at least 8,000 trees had been cut down since April.
This disturbing trend of eco-vandalism began in February 2013, when the country’s war crimes tribunal issued its first verdict against the top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh. It then picked up pace with a major joint Jamaat-e-Islami and BNP protest in April.
“We have lost many trees which were 20 to 30 years of age,” a visibly distressed POBA spokesman told journalists.
GOVERNMENT STARTS TO ACT
As well as being used to barricade roads, several thousand of the felled trees have been sold to supplement political groups’ funds, environmentalists say, while the government is attempting to recoup the rest.
“Not only the politicians but also local miscreants are taking the opportunity to earn money by trading those trees,” POBA’s Naser Khan said.
The government has yet to calculate the value of the lost trees, while POBA estimates it amounts to “almost $5 million” across the country.
Protesters, especially in Noakhali, Satkhira and Cox’s Bazaar, have used banned Chinese-made ‘power saws’ to cut down trees, POBA research found.
Forest department officials say a tree could be cut down in just 10 minutes using this equipment.
The state has filed 150 police cases so far under the forest act, accusing protesters from Hefajat E Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh. The government is also using the media to appeal to the public and politicians to desist from such tactics.
Even Prime Minister Hasina has called on opposition parties not to fell trees. “I’m appealing to those people who are destroying our environment by cutting roadside trees because you are also destroying the future of our kids,” she said in a televised speech.
But as no one has yet been detained or sentenced for tree-cutting, environmentalists are becoming increasingly anxious.
“Our worry is that the culture of destroying ecology to give voice to political opposition may soon gain social acceptability,” Nishat said.
Pantho Rahaman is a television and print journalist based in Dhaka.