The frontier Jessore district of Bangladesh, where the road scheme is planned, is prone to flooding, as seen in this 2000 file picture. (Photo by AFP)
Bangladeshi environmentalists and church officials have called on the government to refrain from chopping down thousands of centuries-old trees to make way for a major road scheme near the Bangladesh-India border.
Nineteen environmental and rights organizations staged a protest rally in front of the National Press Club in capital Dhaka on Jan. 17 to oppose the plan to widen the Bangladeshi part of Jessore Road, which stretches over to West Bengal state on the Indian side.
The government plans to widen the 38-kilometer road by felling 2,312 trees to improve transport for a business boom along the Benapole land border and port zone.
Protesters have threatened tougher action if the decision is not changed within a week.
They have also asked the government to carry out an environmental assessment before starting any development project as Bangladesh is vulnerable to climate change.
"The road is not being upgraded to four lanes. Rather, it is being widened by only five meters. For this, the authorities are planning to cut the trees on green areas," said Iqbal Habib, joint secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), a major environmental group.
Tapas Sarker, disaster management officer at Caritas Khulna, said the government needs to review the plan.
"People are not against development but they also want to keep their heritage. The government needs to rethink how the road could be developed by keeping the trees," Sarker told ucanews.com.
"Maybe you can cover the area by planting more trees, but they would take years to grow. And you could never regain the heritage and memories lost in the development."
Jessore Road, built nearly 150 years ago, and the trees have historical and heritage value for Bangladeshis.
During the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence, millions of refugees fled to India and hundreds of thousands set up temporary camps along Jessore Road to escape a Pakistani military crackdown. The nine-month war saw up to three million Bengali people killed, more than 300,000 women raped and 10 million forced to become refugees in India.
Famous American poet Allen Ginsberg visited the area during the war and composed his famous poem September on Jessore Road to describe the plight of refugees.
M.A. Matin, general secretary of BAPA, said Bangladeshi authorities often put development and business before the environment.
"The problem is an immense business attitude and a serious lack of conservation attitude among the authorities everywhere. That's why we see trees being cut down and canals and rivers being filled out for so-called development. This mindset must change," Matin told ucanews.com.