A burning problem

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A series of major forest fires in various States comes as a reminder of the devastating impact of a combination of climate change and unbridled human intervention, including shifting cultivation, mining and construction. Lack of soil moisture as a result of rainfall deficiency during monsoons is another important factor contributing to forest fires. Since the beginning of this year, there has been a string of forest fires in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland-Manipur border, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat, including in wildlife sanctuaries. Forest fires can have multiple adverse effects on the forest cover, soil, tree growth, vegetation, and the overall flora and fauna. Fires render several hectares of forest useless, making it unfit for any vegetation growth. The forests of the Northeast and central India regions are the most vulnerable to forest fires. The dry deciduous forests, which receive low rainfall, face prolonged dry months and have nutrient poor soil, such as those in tropical and subtropical latitude, and are more vulnerable to fires. Emerging studies link climate change to rising instances of fires globally, especially the massive fires of the Amazon forests in Brazil and in Australia in the last two years. Fires of longer duration, increasing intensity, higher frequency and highly inflammable nature are all being linked to climate change. In India, with 1.70 lakh villages in close proximity to forests, the livelihood of several crores of people is dependent on fuelwood, bamboo, fodder, and small timber.

Around 95% of the forest fires in the country are attributed to human activity. They wreak havoc every year, aggravating pollution, turning streams dry or adversely affecting their water quality, damaging soil nutrients and increasing the risk of soil erosion. They kill wildlife, including endangered species, and destroy their habitats, damage national parks and sanctuaries, driving the wild animals towards human settlements, thus aggravating the human-animal conflict. Quite often, lack of effective control and monitoring on the part of the government machinery are primarily responsible for the loss of rich biodiversity. The focus of fire management should be more on prevention. In this regard, tribal communities living in forests should be roped in and their traditional knowledge must be used to manage the forests more effectively. Studies have shown that the local communities can play a better role in the restoration of lost or degraded jungles. India is uniquely placed in empowering communities to manage and restore forests, thanks to the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006, popularly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The Act empowers locals to reap benefits by ascertaining their right over minor forest produce, which also encourages them to protect the forest that is responsible for their survival.