Text and Photographs By: Sirajul Hossain[Shorter version of this article was published in the Daily Star: The proposed Wildlife Act: Anomalies persist on 17th November, 2011. Link: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=210678 ]
The government of Bangladesh is formulating a new set of laws for the protection of wildlife in the country named the Wildlife (Protection) Act 2011, which is a follow up of Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) Order, 1973. A workshop organized to discuss about the improvement of the existing law held in Bangladesh Forest Department on 30th April 2008. Unlike the common practice in Bangladesh, as participants we were delighted seeing the broad participation of various government authorities and interested bodies and friends of the wildlife of Bangladesh. From their numerous inputs, we hoped for a diverse and effective legislation will be forwarded. But ironically we are seeing in the draft that most of the propositions have not been incorporated and all our participations used as eyewash. A monopolized authority has been structured and very vague and undefined committees have been proposed which can be formed by the personal choice of any secretary or minister to rubberstamp a partisan, biased or erroneous decision. It is unclear that this hijack has been done by the ministry or by someone interested in the Forest Department itself with their limited idea on the broadness of the issue.
Forming a suitable and efficient law regarding wildlife is challenging in any country where human pressure is so high. Our perception regarding wildlife is changing so rapidly in recent years which are very rare in any other sector of human planning and legitimacy. A decade ago forest was seen only as government’s source of revenue and the wildlife there was seen as sport hunting games. A century ago forest and its wildlife was seen as a threat and danger to human habitation. Now we see all those as national treasure and protection as a prime concern. These quick turn of ideas creates enormous misunderstanding and confutation which may interrupt traditional livelihood for the people who live close to the natural landscape.
Any law carries a philosophy behind it. The Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) Order, 1973 is actually some modification of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 of India, which is actually a package of legislation enacted in 1972 by the Government of India. All are a follow up of the British rules of protecting forests from the colonial age. The philosophy still persists in the proposed act which is going to the parliament for legislation where the sublime agenda of its formulators are still the same as its predecessors to protect everything from the people for the queen.
The proposed wildlife act is an ill motivated package to take in control of the paradigm of the wildlife of Bangladesh by the government in an omnipotent fashion. The proposed act is formulated in such a subtle way, that one man’s decision can control the mechanism and that one man, the chief of the Forest Department has been empirically proven powerless in the practice of governing and decision making freely. That one man always became the puppet of the forest secretary or the minister who can be politically motivated and in most cases with corrupt intention.
A good law must be something that is formulated in such a way that the present and the foreseen practice of manipulation do not pierce it. And at the same time people’s practicing life do not get hampered in a large extent if enacted. The proposed act has been engineered just to do the opposite, if enacted as it is. Any wrongdoing can be Okayed by the mechanism prescribed bypassing the people’s right in critical issues and it can also disrupt many law abiding people’s daily life of those who are living in and around our wilderness.
The goal for the proposed act is to protect wildlife of Bangladesh. But how do we know that what is to be done to protect the wildlife of Bangladesh? Protecting wildlife is a very complex issue which incorporates many law and order, scientific and technical and social and policy issues including economy and finance. The law not only should focus on the protection of the species but as well as protecting the habitat of the species which are often shared with the human habitation all over the country. We have to understand that wildlife and its habitat is such a treasure of a country which is in most cases non- retrievable, that means if we lose them once, it is nearly impossible to get them back again.
The biggest flaw of this proposed act is that it is structured in a pyramid structure where the Chief Wildlife Warden knows everything and decides everything what to do. Of course he may get advice from the Scientific Committee and the Wildlife Advisory Board can suggest him but the committee and the board are fairly scientific and technical management commissions and the members of these committees are not defined in the proposed law. None of these committees suggested any members having such powerful and decision making significance that their position and action can be respected by all to save our wildlife. From the practice of our government and the ministry we know that this is the root of all wrong practices and manipulation. According to the proposed act the Chief wildlife warden is actually the existing Chief Conservator of Forest. Empirically we also know that it is a spineless ‘Yes Sir’ post which actually carries order from the Forest and Environment secretary or the minister. The fear is, the members of those board and committee will also be selected from some ‘yes sir’ experts and ‘friends’ of the ministry and the Forest Department to ratify all they want.
But wildlife laws are for the rights of the wildlife and we have to formulate it in such a way that even if the government one day wish to violate that right – that also become impossible. If we see the structure of the laws of the other countries, we see that ‘what to do’ to protect the wildlife is formulated by a wide range of powerful members from various government and non government organization forming a national body. To avoid the personal preference and the political influence, those committee members are mostly institutional heads. We have to be aware that the government itself can try to do something which can threat wildlife or its habitat for its own interest like mining or military necessity which also should be prevented by the law from the beginning.
Our experience shows, as the proposed pyramid structure, if the Chief Wildlife Warden decides or suggests some action to be taken for the sake of protecting or helping wildlife of the country. If that decision is not pre-ratified by the other involved government departments, or not justified by the non government or individual experts of various discipline, it will be very difficult for him to peruse and execute that error free into reality. As an example, if we see the wildlife act of India [The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, with The Amendment, 2002, http://westbengalforest.gov.in/pdf/the_wildlife_p_act_1972.pdf%5D where the top decision maker of ‘what to do’ to protect wildlife is actually comes from the suggestion and planning from a high power board called “National Board for Wildlife” headed by the Prime Minister as chairperson. The other members are; The Minister, Forests and Wildlife; three members of Parliament; Member Planning Commission; Five persons to represent NGOs; Ten persons to be nominated by the Government from amongst eminent conservationists, ecologists and environmentalists; Secretary, Forests and Wildlife; Chief of the army staff; Secretary of Defense; Secretary of Information and Broadcasting; Secretary, Finance; Secretary, Tribal Welfare; Chief of The Department of Forest; Chief of Department of Tourism; Director-General, Forestry Research; Director, Wildlife Institute of India; Director, Zoological Survey of India; Director, Botanical Survey of India; Director, Indian Veterinary Research Institute; Member-Secretary, Central Zoo Authority; Director, National Institute of Oceanography, and so on. All the members are defined in the order and this body should meet twice a year and formulate the policy and harmonize it with other issues and will submit written recommendation for the necessary task.
The above wide and powerful body suggests and approves the necessary best possible actions for the protection and wellbeing of the wildlife to the government and the Chief wildlife Warden is to execute the approved tasks. It is noticeable that most of the above board members cannot be selected by anybody or any department on personal choice, instead most are institutional heads which is a process to nullify personal influence and political manipulation. If the advice and suggestions and orders do not come from a wide bodied national board including the participation of the Prime minister and the finance department, no advice from the sole proposition from wildlife department neither will be seriously heard nor will get any finance to execute.
The proposed Wildlife Act is seriously flawed in this respect as the provision is there also to form committees by gazette notification of which one is a Scientific Committee and another is Wildlife Advisory board. But the task for both the committee is vaguely defined and mostly its task will be to advise and approve the proposal and reports prepared by the Chief Wildlife Warden. The biggest flaw and weakness is that the members of these committees are not defined. That means, the relevant government authority may select members who are in favor of them, and very likely favoring the political influence of the ruling party. Practically the committees will be the rubberstamp of the Chief Wildlife Warden or the minister himself. For the sake of wildlife, to avoid all the malpractice, all these committees should be predefined in the law and to be formed from the head of the institutions. This institutionalization will reduce the chance of politicizing the system.
In most of our wildlife habitats, people live in and around and share the place with wildlife. From hundreds of years people from the small ethnic groups are living in and around the national parks and protected areas in Bangladesh. In the proposed act new rules has been suggested for the protected areas for the forest harvesting, trespassing or in many cases the punishment has been increased for the violators. The laws did not define how it will deal with the people living inside the national parks and it totally ignored the issue of the small ethnic groups who are living in and around the protected areas. This deliberate omitting of the issue will create serious clash with the daily life and the law and the wildlife management either will be troublesome for a legitimate government official. Or it will strengthen the evil hand of an ill-motivated one to threaten the members of the small ethnic groups living there. So, how the act will deal with the small ethnic groups and other human settlers who are living in and close to the protected areas should be clearly defined.
The proposed act also legitimizes the co-management practice in the protected areas. Already we have experiences some pilot projects of co-management in some protected areas of Bangladesh. Until the co-management areas were under close and effective monitoring of the project, in average it was showing some good impact. But as well as the close monitoring of the project stopped, or the control and association from the central project office loosened, immediately the co-management mechanism has been politicized by the local influential body or the local MP. This will seriously hamper the government’s own activity of forest management as well as the local goons will get a legitimate hold to the forest and the wildlife there. To avoid this politicizing malpractice, a carefully thought, institutionalized (members selected from the local institution heads) co-management structure should be pre-defined in the law.
It is very fortunate that we are living in a very precious biodiversity hotspot of the planet. After all our mismanagement and malpractice, still our Sundarban is getting the pride of the biggest single natural tiger population in the world. Our Lawachara National Park is one of the finest forests with wide variety of biodiversity still thriving. If all these we can save and develop, we can get much of our golden heritage of wildlife back. To make conservation effective and to control the destruction of the wildlife and its habitat, I strongly suggest to revise the proposed act with a stronger conservation philosophy in the background and to make laws for the sake of true wellbeing of the wildlife of Bangladesh. I also strongly suggest forming a National Board of Wildlife to make the measures wise and effective.