'Trust building between forest officials and local communities vital to mitigate forest fires'

In the latest episode of Gaon Cafe, experts discussed the reasons which lead to forest fires and the measures needed to prevent them. One of the solutions that was agreed upon by all experts was the imminent need to build trust between the local communities and forest officials. Details here.

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Trust building  between forest officials and local communities vital to mitigate forest fires

The recent episode of Gaon Cafe organised on April 14 discussed the factors contributing to forest fires in the country and the solutions needed to prevent forest fires as we inch towards summers.

The discussion witnessed the attendance of the following experts — Samir Kumar Sinha, joint director at Wildlife Trust of India, Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of Wildlife Society of Odisha, and Divya Gupta, an environmental social scientist.

They were joined by journalists Ashis Senapati from Odisha, Arun Singh from Madhya Pradesh and Sarah Khan from Delhi. The session was moderated by Gaon Connection's Deputy Managing Editor Nidhi Jamwal.

"We need a partnership between forest officials and the local communities to minimise forest fires. This will not happen overnight and we need to build this trust over time," Divya Gupta, stated while suggesting solutions for the menace.

According to the dashboard maintained by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), there have been 246 incidents of large forest fires between April 9 and April 16 with Madhya Pradesh (83) reporting the highest number of forest fire cases, followed by Chhattisgarh (63), Odisha (45), Uttar Pradesh (28) and Uttarakhand (27).

Also Read: Melghat Tiger Reserve's Anghar Mukt Abhiyan has brought down forest fires by involving local communities

Several incidents of forest fires were reported from different parts of the country including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha in the last month. The forest fire season in India stretches from February to July.

FSI in its latest 2021 report stated that 10.66 per cent of forest cover falls in the category of 'extremely to very highly' fire-prone zone.

In 2021, Union Environment Minister Bhupinder Yadav, in his response to a question raised in the Rajya Sabha, had shared that between November 2020 and June 2021, 345,989 cases of forest fires were reported across the country with Odisha reporting the highest cases (51, 968) followed by Madhya Pradesh (47, 795), Chhattisgarh (38, 306) and Maharashtra (34, 025).

What are the contributing factors?

Highlighting the gravity of the situation, environmental social scientist Divya Gupta stated that provided the high incidences of forest fires in March, the most striking feature is how this is going to play out during the remaining summer months.

"Central India is a drought-prone area and if you talk about places like Maharashtra, the temperature sometimes crosses 40 degrees and it becomes really hot. Odisha and Madhya Pradesh are also drought-prone regions and it's surprising that forest fires are being reported so early in the summer season as the peak summer months of May and June are yet to arrive," she added.

Also Read: Climate change induced heat waves responsible for forest fire incidents?

Stressing upon Gupta's perspective, Samir Kumar Sinha (the joint director at Wildlife Trust of India) stated that areas with more biomass and biofuels are prone to forest fires and man-made fires comprise the biggest share of these incidents which endanger a forest's biodiversity.

Explaining why the central Indian region reports high incidence of forest fires, Sinha further explained, "Central India has a lot of dry deciduous (which shed leaves every autumn) forests. From February end, the dry leaves start falling which act as diesel or petrol and if anyone lights them up using even a matchstick, that's enough to turn a large forest into ashes."

Additionally, the expert pointed out that collection of forest produce like mahua gets difficult if it falls on dried leaves so the easiest measure taken up by the forest dwelling communities is to clear the area by setting those dry leaves on fire which quickly spread in the entire forest.

Building further on what Sinha addressed, Mohanty (secretary of Wildlife Society of Odisha) underlined that there has been an increase in the number of dry days accompanied by a shortage of rainfall which he attributed to climate change.

"There are irregular patterns of rain and the summer rain has also reduced, at least in Odisha, due to which the favourable conditions for forest fires are increasing," Mohanty said.

In addition to mahua collection, Mohanty stated that collection of tendu leaves is also a contributing factor to these forest fires.

Suggesting a solution to this problem, he said, "Forest department can buy blower machines and clean the land which is much easier as compared to collecting the leaves and setting them on fire by the local communities".

He also added that it is often seen that the villagers set the forests on fire for poaching purposes so that the animals move towards human habitation and it becomes easier to hunt them.

Meanwhile, Senapati, the journalist from Odisha highlighted that honey collection, poaching and planting of fire-prone plants like eucalyptus have also contributed to increased forest fire incidences in Odisha.

Affect on wildlife

Meanwhile, highlighting how the habitat gets affected because of the change in the habitat Sinha explained, "The animals move out of the forest and they go towards human habitation which increases chances of conflict and even poaching."

He outlined that if these animals, which move out of the forest, are carnivorous then chances of human-animal conflict increase and if they are herbivorous then the chances of them getting poached.

Additionally, he stated how ground-nesting birds like peacocks also get affected because forest fires take place during their nesting time.

"Many species like reptiles, snakes who can't run like birds and other mammals in cases of forest fire get really affected," the joint director at Wildlife Trust of India added.

Solutions suggested

When asked to suggest measures to prevent the incidence of forest fires, Mohanty stated that the forest committees need to incentivise efforts of the local community to prevent forest fires so that if the forest catches fire, the locals can come together to douse it.

Adding on to Sinha's suggestion, Arun Singh, the journalist based in Madhya Pradesh's Panna stated that in his native state's Mandala region, very few cases of forest fire were reported because many local villagers are dependent on their forests for livelihood.

"Close to 24-36 men work as guides in the Mandala region so that benefits them directly. Tourism is also one way through which the locals benefit. If any incidence of forest fire is witnessed, the locals themselves work towards dousing the fire before the forest officials can reach the point of incidence," he said during the discussion.

In a similar vein, Khan, Gaon Connection's Delhi-based reporter spoke about Anghar Mukt Abhiyan in Maharashtra's Melghat Tiger Reserve where gram panchayats (village councils) that ensure no or minimum forest fires are awarded a lump-sum compensation of Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 for their efforts to minimise forest fire.

"This has led to a decrease in the forest fires in the region considerably," she said.

However, Gupta cautioned that while launching such initiatives help in checking instances of fires but they are temporary in nature and it's not a lifelong salary or livelihood support for the local residents.

"Over time, we need to come up with policies that involve people and provide long-term incentives will go a long way as compared to short-term incentives," she added.

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