The Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT) have been experiencing significant land cover and land-use changes due to population growth and increasing in-migration. This is exerting significant pressure on agricultural land, transforming traditional cropping systems, affecting hill ecosystems, and disrupting landscape function and integrity. This unregulated development threatens the rich biodiversity, fertile croplands, and traditional settlements of the hill districts.

Although the boom in tourism is bringing new economic opportunities to remote areas, mass tourism and unplanned growth are destroying the natural and cultural beauty of the CHT landscape - the very environmental resources on which tourism depends. Importantly, this haphazard growth does not align well with Bangladesh's Vision 2041.

Haphazard spatial planning raises serious questions regarding sustainability, further complicated by development solutions that do not take a longer-term view of environmental concerns - and future climate change.

Current and emerging issues

Optimum agricultural land use and conservation planning is essential to ensure and sustain food production and ecosystem services. Land suitable for agriculture is limited and cannot be easily created or replaced. Once converted to other use, restoring agricultural and forest land to a productive former state is difficult. Therefore, managing the landscape more sustainably is urgently needed to meet the food and shelter needs of a growing population and sustain diverse ecosystem services.

The widespread alteration in land cover in the CHT region has led to the loss of native vegetation, which is disrupting the hydrological cycle, particularly infiltration and recharge of spring aquifers. Intensive agriculture and changes in forest cover are also leading to soil erosion and sedimentation in springshed areas and rivers downstream. This, together with climate change impacts, is causing springs to dry up. Such landscape degradation is impacting the livelihoods and wellbeing of hill communities that depend on the region's natural resources.

In response to the above challenges, the Bangladesh government has undertaken various development schemes to improve living conditions and reduce vulnerability. However, considering rapid climate and environmental change, the landscape needs urgent restoration using innovative approaches. It requires a comprehensive and integrated approach that includes land use and restoration planning, cropland management, integrated springshed management, and multi-hazard risk assessment and management - involving hill communities at each step of the planning and decision-making process. The strategies to restore the CHT landscape could focus on (a) land-use spatial planning and (b) addressing societal challenges through nature-based solutions.

Participatory land-use and restoration planning

First, local communities and experts must co-develop an accurate picture of the landscape and assess its development and environmental management needs. Land-use spatial planning involves a concerted effort to develop and approve land-based activities and is usually regulated by public authorities for societal benefit. An integrated approach to land-use planning and restoration that engages local communities and stakeholders and is guided by local, national, and international best practices can help ensure the long-term sustainability of the CHT's ecosystems and improve the well-being of the people who depend on them. The plans would help allocate land for various uses and balance the economic, social, and environmental needs and trade-offs. In this aspect, CHT needs integrated land-use spatial planning to help hills landscape development and improve ecosystem resilience, identify likely risks and vulnerabilities, determine land-use site suitability, and consider the needs and demands of different land uses.

Second, based on an officially approved land-use plan, restoration can be undertaken either through natural or assisted regeneration. Nevertheless, it is important to be mindful of the unintended consequences that can result if restoration is rushed and indiscriminate, for instance if trees are planted in the wrong places or the wrong species are planted, or if projects violate the rights of people living on the land or fertile agricultural land is diverted for restoration.

Building on tradition and nature-based solutions

The CHT restoration plan could build on this tradition to support plantations along the expanding road network and settlements in the CHT. Planting of carefully selected native species can also restore springshed function, prevent runoff, and regulate humidity levels. The restored springsheds will provide suitable habitat for wildlife, which can support bird and nature tourism in CHT. Similarly, groundwater levels could be recharged by constructing small retention ponds and the water could be used during the dry season.

Flowering trees can enhance an area's visual appeal for tourists and visitors. Moreover, these plantations can be excellent sites for nature and photography enthusiasts during the flowering season. By using a nature-based solutions (NbS) approach, which emphasises benefits for nature and people, plantations can help in restoration and provide a range of other benefits.

For example, shimul (Bombax ceiba) blooms at the end of winter and heralds the arrival of spring, which can attract nature lovers during the spring festival. In addition to being a source of natural cotton, the flowers are an important food source for birds, pollinators, and small mammals. Likewise, sonalu (Cassia fistula) is known for its bright yellow flowers and is also of medicinal value. Similarly, other species such as hijal (Barringtonia acutangula), jarul (Lagerstroemia speciosa), mandar (Erythrina variegata), and palash (Butea monosperma) have multiple benefits, in addition to being culturally significant.

Finally, it is crucial to involve ecologists in choosing tree species that are well adapted to the local climate and soil conditions and can thrive in the area.

Five takeaways

Finally, as part of the CHT landscape restoration, regeneration, and development, a land-use master plan may help support economic growth and poverty alleviation by controlling haphazard development and reducing adverse impacts on the environment. Specifically, the plan could:

• Facilitate integrated development planning involving government, civil society, research institutions, and the private sector to achieve the Bangladesh Vision 2041 targets for the CHT.

• Leverage regional programmes like the Himalayan Resilience Enabling Action Programme (HI-REAP) implemented through the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) to scale up nature-based solutions for water security and disaster risk reduction and learn from other hill and mountain contexts.

• Support settlement-level spatial planning to balance development and conservation interests and trade-offs and reduce environmental and climate risks.

• Facilitate and support community-led restoration plans for critical springsheds, wetlands, and forests.

• Rigorously test, co-evaluate, and capture the diverse benefits from NbS to support adoption and scaling at the national level and strengthen public-private partnership for sustainability.

Kabir Uddin is a GIS and Remote Sensing Specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

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