As India, and the rest of the world, grapples with the increasingly menacing rate of wildfire, AHANA BAG writes about how these destructive events can be traced back to the pyrophobic forest management laws enacted during a colonial rule that persists in present-day India.
IN early March this year, a wildfire smouldered a third of the Similipal biosphere reserve, nestled in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district. Among the hapless spectators were members of numerous particularly vulnerable tribal groups, whose livelihoods had been sustained by the forest for centuries, now mired in deep financial distress.
Similipal is not the only place on Earth that has been burning. Last year, several countries grappled with some of the worst wildfires they had ever suffered in all of their recorded histories. The first months of 2020 saw the fires in Australia seize international headlines, as millions of acres of forest were lost, thousands of homes burned, and a billion animal and thirty human casualties. Brazil’s wildfires in the summer were especially shocking as the Amazonian forests are not prone to widespread blazes.
Yet, last year the Amazon recorded its worst fires in 13 years, and the blazes in the Pantanal wetlands in Brazil’s south were the most terrible in recorded history. Similar scenes were witnessed in other parts of the world, ranging from Argentina to the Arctic and Indonesia. Then in September, it was the turn of the state of California in USA, where wildfire rendered hundreds of homes to ashes. The sheer intensity of the fire baffled many experienced firefighters, with blazes traveling over 40 kilometres in a single day.
Similipal is not the only place on Earth that has been burning. Last year, several countries grappled with some of the worst wildfires they had ever suffered in all of their recorded histories.
None of these came as surprise, as hotter days and drier seasons, coupled with the excessive burning of fossil fuels, have practically rendered the forests of the world into tinderboxes. Stephen J. Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University, and an expert on wildfires and their history, noted in a New York Times article that “we don’t have a fire problem, we have many fire problems”.
Forest fires, for centuries, have been regarded as destructive forces of nature, and in many ways, they are. A threat to human life and property, economy and health, they leave behind in their wake blackened and charred fields where once forests stood.
However, naturally occurring wildfires are an integral part of the health of many forest ecosystems and prevent larger and uncontrolled fires. Native Americans, to this day, use controlled burning or ‘good fire’ to sustain their coniferous ecosystem. The US government had outlawed this practiced until 1968 when the authorities realised that giant sequoias had stopped growing in California’s unburned forests.
Flawed Forest fire Management in India?
India is no stranger to wildfires, but the intensity and wrath of the blazes have drastically increased in the last few years. February 2018 saw the mobilisation of the Indian Air Force to douse the fire at Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, which claimed 4800 hectares of forested area. The State of Forest Report, 2019 by the Forest Survey of India, recorded over 30,000 incidences of forest fires in that year.
Climate change is the obvious culprit, but our forgotten fire management skills may be a significant contributing factor.
Naturally occurring wildfires are an integral part of the health of many forest ecosystems and prevent larger and uncontrolled fires. Native Americans, to this day, use controlled burning or ‘good fire’ to sustain their coniferous ecosystem.
Much like the Native Americans, indigenous Indian tribes had evolved customary practices that reduce the risk of uncontrolled fires. The active presence of forest communities helps suppress the prevalence of inflammable materials, like dry leaves and twigs, in the jungle. A study by the Centre for People’s Collective, which focuses on environmental issues in Maharashtra, revealed that areas of Gadchiroli, Maharashtra where community forest rights were granted reported 70% fewer incidents of forest fires.
However, Gadchiroli stands as an isolated example, as forest departments largely exclude tribal forest-dwelling communities from their fire management practices, which continue to focus on detection and suppression, rather than prevention. This short-sightedness can be traced back to colonial-era forest policies.
The crucial flaw in colonial forest laws
In an attempt to centrally control land that they had no knowledge of, the British did what seemed the easiest to them: they criminalised burning forests.
The intention behind the legislation was two-fold: it protected the valuable timber trade, and it visibly protected the forests from burning to the ground. In doing so, however, they snuffed out traditional knowledge going back for millennia.
The State of Forest Report, 2019 recorded over 30,000 incidences of forest fires in that year. Climate change is the obvious culprit, but our forgotten fire management skills may be a significant contributing factor.
To the colonial rulers, all fires were ‘bad’. No distinction was made between the necessary and the destructive. The same ideal had been applied in 1850 in California when the US Government outlawed intentional incineration. The National Forest Service officials of the past, considered the Indian way of light-burning to be a primitive and destructive theory as it did not fit the colonial definition of what they perceived as ’natural’. Fire, to them, was an enemy to be feared.
Miscreants or conservationists?
While the US altered its fire policy in 1968, India still has legislation criminalising the intentional burning of forests.
Setting fire in a reserved forest is illegal, according to Section 26 of the Forest Act, 1927, and if one is found to have done so done wilfully, one can lose all right to pasture and forest produce in that area. Section 79 of the Act also mandates that individuals assist the Forest Department in case of a forest fire.
The Wildlife (Protection) Act also binds, through its Section 27, any person residing in a sanctuary to extinguish any fire, within or in the vicinity of the sanctuary. Section 30 of the Act prohibits setting fire, kindling fire, or leaving any fire burning in the sanctuary so as to endanger it.
A National Action Plan on Forest Fires, was launched in 2018 to minimize forest fires through the strengthening of forest communities, by enabling and informing them, and incentivizing them to work in tandem with the forest departments. Unfortunately, nothing of note was done to grant the communities the right to manage their own land.
In 2019, six leading scientists, in an open letter, highlighted the necessity of controlled fires for forest management. Adivasi leaders echoed this view, insisting that fire was used by them as a tool to purify and clean forests and to pave the way for lush green vegetation and fresh foliage.
A study by the Centre for People’s Collective, which focuses on environmental issues in Maharashtra, revealed that areas of Gadchiroli, Maharashtra where community forest rights were granted reported 70% fewer incidents of forest fires.
Centralised control of ecological resources, and suppression of traditional knowledge, in the era of a climate crisis, are actively turning our forests into potential infernos.
Tarsh Thekaekara of The Shola Trustnoted that colonial laws turned villagers practicing controlled burning into miscreants. Regrettably, the same notion is being blindly carried forward by the legislators and authorities of today.
(The author is a student at the Department of Law, University of Calcutta. The views expressed are personal.)