Bangladesh's forest law is strict. It dates back to 1927 when the British made the forest government land.

The act was amended in 2000. While long and complex, the act states "Any person who converts trees into timber without lawful authority, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years and shall not be less than six months and shall be liable to a fine which may extend to fifty thousand taka." 

Hassan Miah, 39 years old, cut hundreds of trees. Instead of spending 500 years in prison, he's been given a second chance. He now patrols the forest that he once destroyed to protect it from disappearing.

Walking through the 22 centuries old Madhupur forest, I was struck by the light peering through the thin, but tall, majestic trees.

Then there is the fragrance of all 146 dfiferent plant species that inundate the air.

Madhupur forest was the garden of Queen Bhabani. She ruled over entire regions of Bengal until the British took over in the 19th Century. For the elders here, Madhupur forest is a symbol of resistance against colonial rule.

History fading

During the 1971 war of independence with what was then known as West Pakistan, guerilla fighters hid in the forest to ambush Pakistani soldiers. Madhupur forest offered protection to my relatives who fought to create Bangladesh.

Echoing in the distance is the buzzing sound of the electric saw cutting living trees into pieces. I felt a sense of history fading.

Illegal loggers can earn several hundred dollars for each a tree felled. They sell the wood to nearby brickmaking factories where it is used as fuel to bake bricks. The bricks are used to make new buildings.

For those who can afford it, tin sheds are replaced by brick homes. According to the forest department, six hundred thousand trees are cut down every year.

At this rate, the forest will disappear in less than 10 years.  The wood of Madhupur forest is fuelling the local economy.

Three years ago,  a 53-year-old Forest Department worker Atish Ranjan was sent out to save what remained of it. "It was an uphill battle from the very beginning" says Ranjan with a confident smile curling out of his thick moustache.

He spent the better part of the first year knocking on people's door. Afterall, 35,000 people live here.

"I had to win their trust in order to change their attitude towards this forest".

Captivated audience

It was in the local prison that he found an interested audience. Most inmates are local villagers found guilty of illegally cutting down trees.

Among them was Hassan Miah. "I realized this forest is ours to keep not to destroy," he said.

Ranjan convinced the prison authorities to organize a scheme to get inmates actively involved in forest conservation.

Instead of spending time in cramped conditions indoors, under this new project, inmates are offered the choice to patrol the forest to protect it from wood poachers, and plant saplings in the spaces where taller trees once stood.

Miah was one of the first volunteers:"I care for these trees, I protect them like I would protect a family member."

More than 700 convicts are currently working to protect the forest, and in the three years that the programme has been running, the number of trees cut down has been reduced by half.

The Forest department calls this 'a silent transformation'.