Environmental governance in Bangladesh, particularly Ecologically Critical Area governance, is facing multiple challenges due to poor institutional capacity in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. The term Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) is synonymous with Environmental Critical Area (ECA) used in global literature to designate an area of the landscape or seascape of national or global significance whose ecosystem is deteriorating unless immediate measures are not taken to recover the ecosystem condition.
Bangladesh Environmental Conservation Act 1995 under section 5 amendment 2010 under section 3, empowers the government to declare an area as Ecologically Critical Area if the ecosystem in question reaches to seriously depleted condition. For the first time government used this provision of law by declaring 7 areas in Bangladesh as ECA in 1999. Since then no rule was promulgated to operationalize the ECA management. Only in 2016 government promulgated ECA Rule clarifying to some extent some of the vagueness of the law with guidance as to the exercise of power, limits or discretion or procedure for decision making for the ECA area. The Rule empowers government forming committees from National, District, Upazila, Union and Village level with provision for involving government officials, representatives from civil society, NGOs or representatives of the professional societies as its members of the ECA committees of the area.
As per the ECA Rule 2016, it is the responsibility of the national committee to consider among others about the prevailing naturalness and biodiversity status of the area among others and identify causes of deterioration and potential threat. The national committee will recommend to the government about alternative livelihood of the dependent population of the ECA area and also be able to supervise or provide guidance and directives to the nationally executed government development projects. The District committee (DC) functions include for providing directions and suggestions to take mitigation measures to overcome critical environmental condition of the ECA area to the Upazila committee or committees and recommend measures to be taken by DoE. ECA Rule 2016 also empowers the DCs to recommend to the National Committee about restrictive measures which should be taken in the ECA area based on the recommendation of the Upazila committee. The DCs will also take measures for alternative livelihood if the livelihood of the local community is limited by the restrictive measures taken in the ECA area.ECA Rule 2016 has vested dual responsibility as regulator as well as managerial responsibility of the ECA to DoE.
Effective administrative capacity is related to performance outcomes, and “the capability of governing bodies to act and the context within which that action occurs”. ECA management differ from other public resource management of the country due to the legal complexity of ECAs where both public and private property are included resulting conflicts with local community land tenure right and access to use of their land with ECA objectives. The ECAs also encompass urban and rural areas and also overlaps with area declared as Protected Area (PA) under other PA Laws of the country. Limiting economic activity within ECA without good scientific reason is also conflicting with citizens’ economic development aspirations and civic right triggering legal litigation. Any restriction to use any resources or facilities within the ECA area requires to be carefully guided with best available scientific facts aligned with the ECA objectives. Institutional structure for the governance of ECA should take into account all such complexities.
Though formal responsibilities of management of ECA lies with the DoE but many other institutions such as public sector, local government, private sector, civil society, academic and scientific research community etc. are directly or indirectly related in managing the ECA’s. At present the number of ECAs also increased to 13 with an area of 384529 ha covering diverse ecosystems which includes inland wetlands, rivers, coastal beaches, mangroves and marine ecosystems. Besides its regulatory function, ECA Rule 2016 has given DoE a complex role of managerial responsibility of the natural resources of ECA. With the present organizational and financial limitations, DoE appears to be poorly prepared to take such responsibility involving management of a vast area with complex ecosystems. The government needs to develop a specialized institutional environment to maintain its capacity for efficient and effective governance of the ECAs. This environment entails necessary political support, capacity, capability, resources, and cooperation between stakeholders for realizing constructive roles and functions of DoE to improve quality of ecosystems involved in the ECA. The organizational structure to be involved in ECA management should commensurate with the activities such as task allocation, job specific specialization, coordination and supervision of work across functional boundaries, which are directed towards the achievement of environmental goals of the ECA. To secure a level of organizational performance it is imperative to assess the existing structural and human resources or capacity gap of the DoE professionally and take necessary steps in consideration to the assigned function at different level of administration within the functional boundaries of the ECAs.
Various development partners in the past implemented some projects in the name of capacity building in the DoE but this could hardly improve its capacity. Understandably the capacity improvement projects in the past were not based on sound professional analysis of the requirement of DoE as an efficient and effective institution for sound environmental governance. To fill up the institutional deficiency of DoE the Coastal and Wetland Biodiversity Management Project was implemented as follow up of ECA declaration. The project was financed under GEF-UNDP supposed to prepare management plan for selected ECAs and operationalize ECA management by DoE. The project continued for about 11 years from 2000 to 2011with a cost of US$ 15 million. But it failed to come out with any effective institutional structure in the DoE to operationalize the ECA governance. The present ECA Rule 2016 provide provision of committees at various levels of the government from national to villages but the committee personnel has been designated from the ongoing staff of other departments while ECA management is not their regular duty. These committees may be useful for coordination but run short of performing managerial function of the ECA sites. These committees also remain prescriptive only in the absence of full time managerial staff with appropriate professional qualification, training and financial resources to deal with complex issues of environmental deterioration of the ECA.
Although the new ECA rule 2016 mandated DoE for preparing management plan for each of the ECA area, about four years has passed since the Rule was published but no progress has been made. DoE is lagging behind to develop operational management plan for any of the ECA site in the country due to the lack of technical staff resources and necessary finance. Government should take immediate measures to recruit appropriate professional staff with adequate knowledge of environmental management including ecosystem resources. Management function of ECA should be vested to new recruits or staff trained with such knowledge ensuring local community participation as well as coordinating with other government and nongovernment agencies or organizations. The professional staff should also be capable of dealing with “wicked problem” of overall environmental management.
The author is former professor of ecology in the department of botany, University of Chittagong, Bangladesh