Agricultural production and ecological balance are under threat in Moulvibazar as influential brickfield owners are forcing landowners to sell topsoil, the raw material for bricks.
Unless swift action is taken against the brickfield owners, a great swathe of land in the district may gradually turn infertile due to the rampant sale of the most fertile layer of land known as topsoil, said environmental scientists, activists and officials at Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE).
Approximately six inches of the upper portion of land is topsoil that help plants grow with a supply of nutrients, said Dr AHM Mahfuzul Haque, chairman of plant pathology and seed science department at Sylhet Agricultural University.
The fertile portion of soil provides habitat for plants and ensures consistent yield of high-quality agricultural plants, he said, adding that production of crops in the district is on the decline as plants are not getting nutrients due to the loss of topsoil.
Shahjahan Chowdhury, deputy director of DAE in Moulvibazar, said after a piece of land loses its topsoil, it may take around 15 years to regain fertility through application of organic fertilisers.
A local farmer requesting anonymity told this correspondent that brick kiln owners in the area are so influential that landowners there do not dare to refuse selling topsoil to them fearing repercussions.
Salam Mia, a resident of Dakkhinbagh area in Barklekha upazila, said two acres of his farmland has become uneven and less productiveafter he sold topsoil from there three years ago.
Farmer Jibon Mia, from Tilagaon village in Kulaura upazila, alleged that an earth trader had forced him to sell topsoil from two acres of his land and many other farmers in the area are also being forced to sell topsoil from their land.
Echoing the allegations made by locals, Nurul Mohaimin, general secretary of Forum of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh, said many landowners are under pressure from brick kiln owners to sell topsoil from their land. The poor farmers are too afraid to go against the pressure as the brick kiln owners are very powerful.
After the sale, the land remains uncultivable and fallow for years, affecting overall agricultural production. The situation is getting worse due to a lack of monitoring by the district administration, he added.
However, speaking with this correspondent, Mithu Chakrabarty, manager of Monu Brickfield in Tilagaon village, claimed, “We don't force anyone to sell topsoil. [Moreover,] I pay good price when buying soil from farmers.”
Urging the authorities to take immediate steps in stopping the harmful practice, Abdul Karim Kim, general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon's Sylhet chapter, said unabated use of topsoil in kilns will reduce fertility of land and eventually the land will turn absolutely uncultivable.
Tofail Islam, deputy commissioner of Moulvibazar, said, “We are aware of the violation of law by many brick kiln owners. We will take action against the ones violating the law.”