Md. Ariful Islam
St. Martin’s Island, which is surrounded by immense tourist potential. Every year millions of people flock to this blue water island at the far end of the country for leisure. The rows of coconut trees and the beauty of the Keya forest add to the popularity of St. Martin many times over. Located in Teknaf upazila of Cox’s Bazar district, this island is the only coral island in the southernmost part of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. Geographically St. Martin’s Island can be divided into three parts. The northern part of which is called ‘Uttar Para’ or ‘Narikel Jinjira’. The southern part is called ‘Dakkhin Para’ and the wide tail-like part to the south-east is called ‘Galachipa’. To the south of this island is another small island which is locally known as ‘Cheradia’ or ‘Chera Island’. The deserted island can be reached at low tide, but boats are needed during high tide. However, most of the tourists go to ‘Chera Island’ by trawlers, speedboats etc. Many also use bicycles and motorbikes, which are available for rent in various parts of the island.
Located in such a beautiful geographical environment, the island is currently in a state of disrepair. St. Martin’s environment is being adversely affected by the growing population. The amount of coral is constantly decreasing. The amount of vegetation is decreasing, the naturally growing Keya forest is being destroyed. While the annual number of tourists visiting St. Martin was only 150-200 in 1997-98, now the island is crowded with millions of tourists every year. On the one hand, such tourism potential has developed, on the other hand, it is an environmental disaster.
The island of clear water that has been formed around the coral is now on the way to becoming coral-free. The amount of coral on the island has dropped by about two-thirds in the last four decades. But this island has been formed only on the basis of this coral. The size of the island has also begun to decline as coral recedes.
According to environmentalists, if this continues, the island of St. Martin will become coral-free and sink in the Bay of Bengal by 2045-50. Although we generally think of coral as a rock, it is a kind of invertebrate. Because the outer covering is hard, we mistake it for stone. Several recent reports indicate that, Hotel-motel and residential establishments in St. Martin have grown alarmingly. These facilities are constantly being built to cope with the pressure of extra tourists. As a result, the natural environment is being endangered and biodiversity is being destroyed. The locals are breaking the coral stones and selling them to the hotel builders. Which threatens the very existence of St. Martin. For a small amount of money, they are putting their habitat at an impossibly big risk. These people may not realize as a result of ignorance that their survival depends on this coral, the survival of this island.
Many individuals and private groups are doing research on St. Martin’s environment and biodiversity, but the results of everyone’s research are giving us a glimpse of the island. Although some local organizations and environmentalists have little discussion or protest, there is no cure. Their idea is that some influential quarters are wreaking havoc in St. Martin to expand their business. You will see the same image on the spot. Where in 2012 there were only 16-18 hotel resorts in St. Martin, now there are more than 150 hotels and resorts. Most of these hotels and resorts are owned by big businessmen or influential personalities. Those who are in the game of money are constantly trying to destroy it. Taking advantage of the lack of education and awareness of the locals, a group of human-like eco-vampire in a cunning palace is working.
Other rare marine animals, including the tortoise, were once seen in St. Martin. But these animals are not visible now. Environmentalists are of the opinion that no initiative is being taken as expected by the government to conserve these animals and biodiversity.
Although West Beach in St. Martin has been isolated as a sanctuary and breeding ground for several species of tortoises, the number of tortoises has decreased in this beach as well. Turtles are no longer seen here in normal times. However, during the Corona Lockdown, St. Martin was devoid of tourists, so the mother tortoise came to the beach in flocks and laid her eggs. It is easy to guess that we tourists are also threatening the normal reproduction of these marine animals. Plastics are one of the main causes of environmental disasters in St. Martin. Recently, a group of students of Dhaka University collected about 120 kg of plastic waste from an area of only one and a half kilometers of the island. Most of the plastic waste collected was disposable cups, plates, empty packets of chips, etc.
We deliberately or unknowingly dump these plastics on the island which is by no means desirable. Since we have to rely on packaged and bottled products for food and water, it will be difficult to prevent this deadly pollution if we are not aware of the minimum.
Uncontrolled and excess tourists, stone removal, coral extraction, waste management of residential hotels, dumping of used items by tourists into seawater, etc. are particularly responsible for environmental disasters and biodiversity loss in St. Martin. According to researchers, new-born corals in St. Martin are more likely to be damaged by fishermen’s nets as fishermen cast their nets off the coast of the island. Where most corals grow. Gradually the natural balance is being lost. Rising sea levels around the island, climate change and chemical changes in seawater are among the major factors. The Department of the Environment (DoE) has recently imposed some restrictions on travel by declaring St. Martin’s Island an ‘ecologically critical’ area to maintain balance. “Uncontrolled tourism and the unawareness, irresponsibility, and anti-environmental behavior of tourists are on the verge of destroying St. Martin’s environment and biodiversity,” it said. In order to preserve the island, including the environment and biodiversity, Section 4 of the Environmental Protection Act 1995 (as amended 2010) imposes restrictions on travel to St. Martin.
Among the prohibitions are not to drive any kind of mechanical and non-mechanical vehicles including bicycles and motorcycles on the beach of the island. Do not throw plastic or any other type of waste on the beach or at sea. Not to sail around the island. Do not walk on rocks in tidal areas. Do not move near the place where the sea turtle lays its eggs. Not playing the mic on the beach, not making noise and not playing loud music. Do not go to the island by speedboat, trawler or other means. Not to collect and buy corals, snails, oysters, turtles, crabs, seaweed and keya fruits. Above all, any work that is harmful to the environment and surroundings of St. Martin’s Island should be refrained from.
In addition, various methods can be followed in other countries of the world to make St. Martin tourism-friendly and to prevent its environmental catastrophe. A small number of controlled and quality hotels can be built without building hotels everywhere. Modern sewerage system has to be developed. Above all, the island needs to be made safe and attractive to tourists so that no one wants to ruin that beautiful place. The local administration, coast guard, navy and the environment department should come forward to create awareness among the people. As well as tourists we have to be respectful of the law and love the environment. Only then can we all save our beloved St. Martin’s Island from destruction.
Author is a Student of Computer Science and Engineering Department at Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University