“I have never seen this kind of a forest fire before. This year, the fire entered our village, and I could see that it was just 100 meters away from my home. Those three days of fire were horrific for us,” Brind Prajapati, a forest dweller who hails from Bamera village of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve (BTR) in Madhya Pradesh, recounted the fire incident that took place in the forest area around a month ago.
Prajapati and his family usually go to the forest to collect minor forest produce (MFP), but the fire, which went on for some days, hampered their work which in turn impacted their earnings. “My village falls under Pataur range of the forest which was badly hit by the fire. Villagers could not collect Mahua flowers as expected and incurred huge losses,” said Prajapati. His family usually collects three quintals of Mahua flowers in this season, but this time they could not meet the target, he said.
This season was important for forest dwellers as their livelihood was already hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Villagers usually migrate to cities in search of jobs, but due to the lockdown, that option is not available. Mahua flowers and other minor forest produce were our last hope after losing jobs due to lockdown,” added Prajapati.
States like Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Uttarakhand, and Odisha witnessed massive forest fires this year. Increasing fire trends can be seen in data as well with the Forest Survey of India (FSI)’s system sending fire alerts 3,86,031 times this year, till May 28, 2021, which is already twice the number of alerts sent in all of last year.
Fires occurred at the time when tribal people were already facing the brunt of the COVID-19 lockdown. A recent report prepared by researchers, activists and grassroots organisations revealed how tribals and forest dwellers in India suffered during the lockdown. “The lockdown has affected the collection, use, and sale of minor forest produces (MFP), or Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) by tribals and forest dwellers. An estimated 100 million forest dwellers depend on MFP for food, shelter, medicines, and cash income,” the report said.
The report also highlighted an advisory by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) which instructed all states and UTs to restrict entry within protected areas.
“This advisory would immediately impact about 3 to 4 million people living in and around protected areas. These are mostly tribal communities including Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs), nomadic and pastoral communities, fish workers, among others, and are most dependent on the natural resources within and around the protected areas for their livelihoods,” the report added.
This group also sent the report to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. However, the ministry recently claimed that measures are being taken to protect the livelihood of tribals during the pandemic.
During 2020-21, the state government procured MFPs worth Rs 157.51 crore to provide immediate livelihood support to tribal MFP gatherers, said Renuka Singh Saruta, Minister of State for Tribal Affairs, while replying to a question by a member of parliament Mohammed Faizal P.P. in Lok Sabha on March 22, 2021. He had asked a question about measures undertaken by the Ministry to address problems faced by tribal communities because of COVID-19 and the lockdown.
Increasing forest fire alerts: a worrying trend
The Forest Survey of India (FSI) disseminates forest fire alerts obtained from SNPP-VIIRS satellite sensors (Soumi National Polar-orbiting Partnership–Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite). These alerts are based on near real-time fire point data processed by National Remote Sensing Centre, Hyderabad. The frequency of the alerts depends on the number of times the satellite passes around the Earth in a day, which is currently 6 times in 24 hours. This year, till May 24, this system sent an alert 3,85,000 times from India. It is around double the number of alerts in the previous year, 2020, which was 154,032. It was 213,684 in the year 2019.
“The trends are not very pleasing, but it is rising both in terms of number and impact,” said Dr Abdul Qayum, an IFS officer from AGMUT Cadre. Qayum was a part of a study Forest fire trend analysis and effect of environmental parameters on Jharkhand. The study utilised geospatial techniques to analyse the incidences of forest fire events from the year 2005 to 2016 in Jharkhand. The study revealed that the environmental/climate/ weather parameter and their trends are strongly correlated with the forest fire occurrence and its trend over a period of time.
‘No damage’ in Bandhavgarh fire
One percent of the forest area was affected by the Bandhavgarh fire incident that took place in March-April this year, said a report submitted by the committee headed by BTR’s field director Vincent Rahim to the forest department of Madhya Pradesh. The committee also found that no animal or tree was affected by the fire, said media reports.
“There are many loopholes in the report. It was headed by the officer who needs to be held responsible for the fire in the first place. The report is not in the public domain, but I saw media reports based on this report. According to the claims, no animal was harmed by the fire even after one percent area of 1,536-sq km national park area forest was affected,” said Ajay Dubey, a Madhya Pradesh-based wildlife and environment activist.
“Forest department could have carried out a fair inquiry of the fire incident to know the exact cause. It would be beneficial for the forest to know the real cause of fire and act accordingly, to avoid such incidents in the future,” Dubey added.
Dubey’s suspicion about the claim that no human or animal is harmed, seems to hold some validity if we compare the situation to that of the fires in Uttarakhand. According to the Uttarakhand forest department report, as much as 393 sq km (3,963 hectares) of forest and forest village was affected by 2,920 incidents of fire this year. While this area is almost a quarter of the area that came under fire in Madhya Pradesh, yet the fire claimed the lives of 8 people and 29 animals and injured 3 people and 24 animals. These incidents also caused the loss of 222 hectares of plantation. The Forest Department estimated a loss of ten million rupees by fire incidents in Uttarakhand.
The BTR field report said that the negligence of locals, natural causes, and human-animal conflict were a few causes of fire in Bandhavgarh.
Tala (in Bandhavgarh) based wildlife photographer Satendra Kumar Tiwari also speculates that human-animal conflict, especially the conflict with elephants in the area, is a reason behind the fire.
“A few herds of elephants are active in the area. They are damaging the property and crops of locals. These elephants entered in Bandhavgarh forest from Chhattisgarh. Locals may have set fire in the forest to keep the elephants away,” said Tiwari.
“Forest fires can be a natural and seasonal affair in hot, dry summers in most of the dry deciduous forests of India. However, it can also be caused by human beings for reasons including, letting new grass grow for cattle, collecting minor forest produce like mahua or even for poaching small animals,” said Vivek Menon, Founder & CEO, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).
“Negligence in controlling such fires can lead to the devastation of an old forest that has taken decades to grow,” Menon told Mongabay-India.
Dr. Qayum also feels that human activities may cause forest fires.
“Many studies have confirmed these rising number of fire incidences are often linked with climate change issues and increased dependency on forests. Most often, these forest fires are anthropogenic and are created or ignited by human beings. It is also linked with the availability of a lot of fuel load in the form of dry leaves and litter,” said Qayum.
Economic and ecological impact
As with ecological impacts of fires, comprehensive assessments of the economic losses due to fire in India are lacking, said a report jointly prepared by MoEFCC and the World Bank.
“In official reports and statistics, monetary damages due to forest fires are generally assessed only for the loss of standing trees (natural or planted) in terms of their timber value,” the report said.
“Average damages reported per hectare in 2016 ranged from INR (Indian National Rupee) 0 in Chhattisgarh (according to the forest department, because “only ground fires” occur in that state, there have been “no losses so far”) to INR 2,344 in Himachal Pradesh,” added the report.
The impact of forest fire on biodiversity is grossly underestimated. The loss of wildlife was not even being accounted for, found a Parliamentary Committee report, presented to the Rajya Sabha in December 2016. This report also recognizes the loss of livelihood of forest dwellers and those dependent on forest produce.
“The impact of increased fires in India on economic outcomes is significant,” said Jayash Paudel, an environmental economist and assistant professor of economics at Boise State University, in a conversation with Mongabay-India.
“The magnitude of the economic impact of forest fires in India will depend on a range of socio-economic factors, including the distance between fire sites and habitation, land tenure, and land cover type. I do see a large economic impact on the lives of forest dwellers as well. Air pollution can damage crops and trees in different ways,” he added.
Explaining the economic losses, he said, “In a neighboring country Nepal, which suffers from the recurring threat of fires every year, my recent study forthcoming in Land Economics concludes that property values declined by 4.48% for every additional increase in the number of fire incidents over the last year. This indicates that the corresponding economic effect of fires on India will be even larger.”
Dr. Abdul Qayum said, “If we have controlled fire, it helps improve the local ecology and overall quality of the forests. But the kind of incidences we have witnessed in the recent past have quantitatively increased and have led to more qualitative devastations.”
“Forest fires have long term impact not only on the carbon sinks but also on wildlife. The impact on environment is also severe,” he added.
Dr. Qayum is an IIT Kanpur graduate and completed his doctorate from JNU. He is known for introducing ‘eForestFire-Himalayan Forest Fire Prediction’, an e-governance initiative to predict forest fires in Arunachal Pradesh.
Experts believe that fuel load in forests such as shrubs, dead trees, ground litter can ignite, grow and intensify the forest fire. Menon found a way to minimise the fuel load. Indian State of Forest Report 2019 revealed that 21.40% of the country’s forest cover is high to extreme fire-prone. “WTI has provided leaf blowers and our innovatively designed tractor-mounted water sprayer that have shown good results in combating forest fires in Kerala and Karnataka. It has offered the same equipment support to the forest department in Bandhavgarh as well,” he said.
“It’s good to predict any calamity or natural disaster so that you are prepared in advance and damages can be mitigated to a large extent. Vulnerability mappings and predictive models are found to be more effective in it,” said Qayum.
“We demonstrated a similar model using remote sensing and GIS in Arunachal Pradesh and incidentally the number of fire incidences were brought down. This work was later awarded National Awards for e-Governance by the Government of India. I feel it can be easily replicated in all the states of India, and abroad and we can surely reduce the losses incurred due to forest fires,” he added.
(The story first appeared on Mongabay).