Millennium Post

Playing with fire in the forests

While Uttarakhand is burning, several other states are merely waiting for a similar fate. An analysis of forest fires across India between April 1 and May 5, 2016, shows that Uttarakhand, with 1,395 forest fire incidents, is leading. But a close second is Odisha with 1,346 fires—just 49 fewer incidents—followed by Chhattisgarh with 1,309 fires.

 Both Odisha and Chhattisgarh have a huge dense forest cover. In fact, Pauri Garhwal, which is the worst-hit Uttarakhand district, is in the news with 419 incidents of fires, but it is Bastar district in Chhattisgarh that has reported the maximum number of forest fire incidents this year with 555 fires. Bastar, which has 60 percent of reserved forests, is twice the size of Pauri Garwhal.

Union government data on May 2 suggests that over 20,667 incidents of forest fire have been reported in the first four months of 2016. The Forest Survey of India (FSI) says over 50 percent of the forest areas in the country are fire-prone. It also pegs the annual forest loss because of fires at Rs 440 crore. These estimates only account for the replacement cost of the seedlings and does not include the losses to biodiversity, timber, carbon sequestration capacity, soil moisture, and nutrient loss. The country should have been specially prepared this year. 

There were enough indications for the impending forest fires this year. Both 2015 and 2016 are El Niño years, which is widely known as a trigger for forest fires. In fact, dry El Niño conditions in 1997-98 had resulted in forest fires across the globe. There are also models that show that simple rainfall data, generated regularly by the India Meteorological Department (IMD), can be used to indicate the dry spell and therefore the likelihood of fires. But India does not even have a unified forest fire policy or national plan. A forest fire is covered in bits and pieces under Acts, policies, forest working plans, and various government forest/wildlife schemes. 

The overall management of forest fires is the responsibility of the forest department. But the forest protection division is entrusted with the job of forest fire management work along with NDMA, National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), international organisations, FSI, FRI and six regional offices of MoEF&CC in the country. 

The regional offices are then expected to act as coordinating offices with the state forest departments to look after a forest fire. There is again no uniform process to control forest fires at the state level and most state forest departments are understaffed. 

“There is a complete apathy in fighting forest fires in states. In many instances, forest range offices have failed to act to control fires that have happened in their vicinity,” says Alok Shukla, a forest rights campaigner with Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan. What is equally startling is that the country already has the technology to monitor and warn against forest fires. FSI researchers say that they send daily forest fire alerts to forest departments in all the states on the basis of data collected by satellites. “With the help of satellites, we are able to know how the fire is spreading with details like speed and area,” says FRI scientist Sunil Chandra.   

The institute has also developed an advanced warning system which is correct in 95 percent of cases. But the technology is of little help because of a more fundamental problem that has long plagued India’s forests—the growing distrust between forest officials and forest communities.  In India, policy dictates that the forest department should suppress fires. 

This is against what communities across the world have been doing for generations.  It is now considered more prudent to actively manage available fuel in the forest by controlled burning of litter and dead wood in the region so that even if there is an accidental fire in the area, it is small and manageable. Savita, the first woman director of FRI, says regular clearing up of fire lines and engaging fire-watchers in sufficient numbers is the best way to prevent forest fires in the country.

 And this can only be done by engaging local forest communities. “Village residents play a critical role in detecting fire and limiting its spread. The forest department neither has enough manpower nor robust planning.  The government must recognise villagers’ efforts,” says Subrat Nayak, a development expert from Bhubaneswar.

People problem

“We never ask village communities to participate in managing forest resources, but expect their support at times of crisis. If the present situation of estranging communities from forests continues, there will be fewer forests and more forest officials,” says Bhatt.

Forest officials normally hold communities responsible for the fires, which highlights their distrust in people. Anurag Srivastava, a district forest officer of Bastar, says most fires are caused by mahua flower collectors (normally tribal communities) as the season of the collection begins in February and lasts through April. “In order to collect mahua flowers and initiate coppicing in the stumps, the forest floor is set on fire which on many occasions goes out of control,” he adds. Shukla says this is not true as most tribal communities know how to control fire. 

He, instead, says commercial activities such as mining and plucking tendu leaves are responsible for the fires. “In order to clear large swathes of forest lands quickly, mining companies in connivance with the contractors often set forests on fire, which no one talks about.” He adds that earlier village residents would help forest officials in firefighting but now they fear they might be persecuted for entering reserve forests.

Communities that have managed to receive forest rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, allege officials are unwilling to help them fight the fire. Down To Earth spoke to two Uttarakhand communities that have forest rights under FRA, and both complained of gross government apathy to save their forests. 

Tulsi Devi, sarpanch of Rasiyabgarh van panchayat (forest committee), says, “Forest officials refuse to help us by saying the forest is ours and we have to save it. Every year, during forest fires, we try to contain it with tree branches and by removing dry vegetation. We burn our feet, hands, ears, but the fire does not stop.” Highlighting the apathy of local officials, Devi says the village residents recently caught a man who was trying to set the forest on fire. “We pressured the police at Nachni village to lodge a complaint. But the police set the man free after a meagre fine of Rs 250.”

Uncontrollable destruction, Human-made fires, and changes in the climate are the double whammy
Traditionally, natural forest fires or wildfires were a way to ensure that the forests were functioning normally. Wildfires in earlier days played an evolutionary role in shaping ecosystems and its component species. Humans used it as a tool to reshape and dominate their world. Then there were controlled forest fires which were human-made, but people residing in the forests knew exactly when and how much to burn.

However, the reasons today are largely man-made. People burn forests for collecting forest produce, for pastureland to graze cattle and timber. Accidental fires are caused due to campfires and cigarette butts. Even when the fire is started due to natural causes, the spread is more rapid due to an increase in the fuel load. Earlier, the population density was low and extent of the forest was vast in comparison. The increasing thrust of population pressure makes the relationship between the people and forest more destructive. 

Of late, there has been the issue of dry climatic conditions due to the El Nino and consecutive droughts. The forests and the soil that hold them have a very low moisture content, making it easier to catch fire and to spread it. The water bodies which act as natural barriers for fire are all dry now. Therefore, while the natural causes that started the fire have not changed, the climatic conditions are just right for the fire to spread. And once the fire spreads, it is very cost-ineffective and unsustainable to put it out. Chandrakala Danu, gram pradhan of Bhainskal gram panchayat in Pithoragarh district, too, says that the forest department has failed them.

 “We have asked the forest department to appoint a fire-watcher. We are even willing to pay the salary. But they have not done anything yet,” says Danu. Left to themselves, 40 members of the two van panchayats have formed groups to douse the fires. “The intensity of the fire increased every day. We single-handedly fought for seven straight days after the fire broke out in our forests, but could not even manage to save half of our forests. Sometimes, we feel helpless,” she says.

Sparks of hope

There are several examples within India where empowered communities have successfully saved forests from fires. One such example is of Bilapaka village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district where the community started to keep a check on the forests the moment they realised the summer is going to be warmer and drier this year.  

The 54 tribal families, who received rights over 1,200 ha of forestland last year, have devised a simple and effective mechanism to check small fires in their forest. They first passed a resolution and set up the Bilapaka Jangal Surakshya Parichalana Committee (BJSPC). They then chalked out an effective warning mechanism and a process to immediately stop fire incidents before they become unmanageable. “Two members of the village are assigned the duty of patrolling our forests and alerting village residents in case of a fire. And as per the village resolution, we do not wait for the forest department officers to bring the fire under control. We ourselves curb the fire spread in the particular area,” says proud resident Kurbeli Nayak.
 In March this year, BJSPC submitted the management plan for the forest with Sub-Divisional Level Committee and District Level Committee.

(Views are strictly of Down to Earth.)

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