WORLD FORESTRY DAY – MARCH 21
At a time when activists across the globe are gearing up to celebrate World Forestry Day to raise awareness about the importance of woodlands and their role in sustaining life on earth, back home new records on the number of forest fire cases are set with each passing day. A study suggests that Odisha now holds the undesirable record of having most number of forest fire cases in the country for the second year in a row. Things have come to such a pass that for last few sessions in state Assembly no business has been conducted in the House due to increasing number of forest fire cases putting the credibility of the government at stake.
Ahead of International Day of Forests, a few activists and conservationists shared with Sunday POST their opinions on the issue and the ways out. Here’re the excerpts:
Biswajeet Mohanty, a wildlife conservationist, has been working for wildlife conservation in Odisha since 1996.
He says, “Forest fires have caused a devastating loss of biodiversity. They burn away the seeds and seedlings, which can regenerate into large trees, destroy the food of wildlife species, and destroy the ground-dwelling fauna like reptiles, mongooses, snakes, and frogs. They also evict some bird species.”
Addressing the inefficiency for prevention of forest fires, he said, “The primary issue is lack of stakeholder involvement by the forest department. They do not consult with people who have prior expertise operating in wildlife and forests. Hence, they are unaware of field inputs, which can help them significantly battle forest fires. There is also mistrust from the local communities towards the department, which results in no active participation from them as well. Earlier, the department promised financial rewards to locals if they stopped the forest fire, but they did not keep their word.”
There are NGOs, wildlife activists, and forest conservationists who can lend a helping hand but are unable to do so unless the forest department views them as stakeholders and values their input. Hence, the conservationist believes that when it comes to the participation of stakeholders in decision-making and execution, the department must be the one to make the first move, added Mohanty.
Lamenting the lackadaisical attitude of the authorities, he continues: “In 2021, the government completed a thorough report after scrutinising forest fires. It also established a task group to investigate and tackle forest fires. Neither the report nor the information about the task group was publicly available. With this kind of attitude, I think it is nearly impossible to combat the issue together.”
Mohanty firmly believes that the entire approach needs to be changed in order to reduce harm to people who live near forests and their health.
“The action plan should be to involve the locals with a reward system and strengthen trust. They are the ones on the ground with the ability to react quickly and put out the fire. Locals have frequently stepped forward to put out fires in the past”, he concludes.
‘Make forest protection a mass movement’
Jayakrushna Panigrahi, Secretary of the Orissa Environmental Society (OEC), was a member of the Task Force on Forest Fire constituted by the Government of Odisha. On forest fire prevention, he said, “It should be our top concern because forests are a state’s natural wealth. They provide a variety of goods and services to the populace and regulate our climate. Since most forest fires are caused by people, the answer is to raise awareness among the villagers who live in and around the forests. They must comprehend the value of trees in their lives as a source of sustenance. The Forest Department must set up a network and host a number of awareness gatherings with participation from students, local NGOs, self-help groups, voluntary sustainability standards’ members, and villagers. The people must receive some rewards for serving as forest guardians.”
He adds that the responsibility of the government is to make forest protection a mass movement. The more stakeholders get involved in it, the more success it will bring to the initiative.
“Since human health depends on the environment in which we live and the resources that are at our disposal, and as the forest ecosystem crumbles, those who live close to forests suffer the most,” concludes Panigrahi.
‘Don’t blame government all the time’
Giri Rao is the Executive Director of Vasundhara, an organization working on forests and its dwellers. Although he has a mixed opinion when it comes to the impact forest fires have on environmental health, he still believes that large-scale forest fires are hazardous to the health of the planet and it can be prevented with active measures taken by the government and participation of the natives.
Stressing a few points to prevent forest fire, he opines, “We need the assistance of the locals and the forest management to control the forest fire; make sure no one gathers any dry refuse near the forest. To stop the fire from spreading, the patrolling team should check that the forest has been cleaned up and that it is free of obstructions. People or visitors should be reminded not to light any matches close to the dry leaves. Mahua and kendu leaf workers should be fined by the department for not carefully reading the rules and regulations.”
“The organisation and the individuals were not the only ones at fault. There is no awareness or activism on the topic of fire prevention. We ought to join and have a discussion about how to stop forest fires. The department cannot take all the responsibility. The locals, gram panchayats, and towns are equally responsible for being a part of the government’s action plan to put out the fire”, he said.
‘Controlled fire good for ecosystem’
According to researcher and eminent environment activist Ranjan Panda, wildfires and other threats to natural forest are serious worry.
Sharing his thoughts on the issue, he said, “One of the main reasons for forest fires is the combination of rising temperatures and declining annual rainfall. Another factor that contributes to the spread of fire is degraded woodlands, which also have the added benefit of accelerating the effects of heat. Therefore, a multi-layered, multi-sectoral intervention strategy is required to prevent forest fires. Making sound policies for prevention is just as important as putting out fires. This can be achieved with the help of traditional knowledge and practices from the local communities, the forest department, and other people’s support. Long-term forest fire prevention should be aided by urgent global and national climate action, sufficient state support, and local action at the district and panchayat levels.”
Even as forest fires cause more harm than good, Panda spots a silver lining in them. “‘Controlled fire’ has always been beneficial for the ecosystem. Indigenous and local groups have used ‘controlled fire’ in many locations to improve the soil’s nutrients and the growth of some fruit- and flower-bearing plants that give them food and other supports. However, things worsen and the forest’s biodiversity suffers when fires get out of control for a variety of reasons and reach the crown level,” he explains.
Wildfires not only make widespread destruction inside the forest, but they also pose threat to the communities reliant on forest resources, says Panda.
“As the well-being of local and indigenous communities is closely correlated with the health of the regional ecosystems, including forests, it is crucial to safeguard their lives, livelihoods, and health. Therefore, every attempt should be made to safeguard these communities from forest fires. In reality, providing them with more assistance, resources, technology, and control over the forest’s resources would help to both prevent forest fires and shield them from the effects of this ongoing issue,” he suggests.
In news for all
On a day Odisha recorded 147 large forest fires – the highest for any state on March 7.
The Forest Survey of India data showed forests burning in 22 of the 30 districts of Odisha.
The state has witnessed the most 625 such large fires last week.
Ten of the large fires in Odisha are active for more than three days continuously, which is the highest in the country.
A past report from the Forest Survey of India says that the country witnessed 3,45,989 incidents of forest fire between November 2020 to June 2021, in which Odisha topped the list with 51,968 cases alone.
Major causes of forest fire in Odisha
- By mahua flowers and kendu leaves pluckers
- Poachers during their hunting of wild animals
- Age-old tradition of shifting cultivation
- Setting forests on fire due to personal grudges of some people against forest department officials
- Bidi and cigarette butts are often thrown on dry leaves
- Stubble burning in farmlands near forests
- Burning forest by locals to regenerate grass on the forest floor for grazing of cattle
- Fire not extinguished by picnic parties
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