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Learning from forest-dwelling, tribal communities to fight forest fires

There is much to learn from how their relationship with natural resources is regulated by natural rhythms and cycles.

India’s varied forest habitat is a giant tinderbox that can release vast amounts of carbon dioxide, imperilling lives and livelihoods. But, if safeguarded and thoughtfully expanded, these very forests could be vital in slowing down the world’s warming by drawing down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. In combating wildfires, we can no longer continue to ignore the critical role of our allies — the forest dwellers and tribal communities.

Inaction on forest fires would have grave consequences for the country. In 2021 alone, large blazes in Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha and Uttarakhand destroyed ecosystems of species from the microscopic to the magnificent, releasing thousands of tonnes of carbon. This trend is increasing across our planet — a new UN report describes a “global wildfire crisis” primarily because of climate change. In India, data on this issue — and forest cover more broadly — are either scarce or sketchy and will be critical to guiding decision-making.

India’s ecosystems are closely intertwined with several state and societal goals. As part of the Paris Climate Accord, the Indian government committed to adding forests and tree cover as “carbon sinks” to absorb 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalents by 2030. On the livelihoods front, 300 million Indians depend on forests for their subsistence and jobs, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Given that these tribal and local communities live in forests or on their fringes, in the blame that follows the blaze, those who have the least power and voice are often cast as the villains. However, an emerging understanding from ecologists and grassroots organisations indicates how communities can be allies in arresting and preventing fires. In Simlipal, for instance, tribal people were on the frontline of battling fires last year and as this summer looms, women’s self-help groups have been clearing the brush and creating fire lines.

For centuries, forest-dependent communities across the world have fine-tuned a balance between their needs and the natural world’s regeneration. Their thoughtful practices are the principal reasons for the health of large parts of our planet’s ecosystems, research has found. However, in India, longstanding mindsets from a colonial forestry model have transitioned into a fortress-style conservation model that keeps communities out. This marginalisation manifests itself in an energy poverty that leaves many tribal communities dependent on firewood for basic needs like cooking in the 21st century.

At the same time, fire is central to communities’ culture and socio-economic cycles. On cool late spring mornings in the sal forests of central India, Baiga and Gond communities light fires under mahua trees while they wait to gather the pale yellow flowers that fall on the ashen earth. These small blazes keep them warm and keep potential rivals like bears away from the mahua harvest.

As conservation science fuses with social disciplines like anthropology, these traditional practices, which may have once been derided as primitive, could be seen as prescient. After ignoring Native Americans’ knowledge about periodic controlled burns, the US is experiencing the consequences of allowing a massive build-up of flammable stock that combusts in mega blazes like in California in 2021. “Good fire” of low to moderate intensity may reduce the fuel for larger blazes and aid germination of plants whose seeds need fire to crack open.

These complexities require fusing contemporary knowledge with contextual needs. For instance, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi have tested an intervention that makes the alpine forests of the Himalayan foothills less susceptible to forest fires and provides local livelihoods. Based on these studies, communities in Himachal Pradesh have set up businesses that gather and process highly flammable dry chir pine needles into bio-pellets that can be fired with or instead of coal in industrial processes.

To combat forest fires, India will also need to improve coordination between ministries and agencies at the union and state levels to ensure contextually appropriate interventions that can be delivered by the forest department and local administrations. Technical knowledge should also be decentralised so that people on the ground have access to information that helps them respond to disasters and build resilience in the long term.

A fundamental shift in making India’s forests less vulnerable will also require being clear-eyed about problematic community practises. Apart from accidents and negligence, flames can leap over into wooded areas because of stubble burning in forest-adjacent fields. Occasionally, there can be sinister issues like intentional arson to clear forest land for agriculture. However, tackling these challenges should move past blaming communities to addressing root causes of issues like incentives for unsuitable farming.

Even Indians in concrete jungles are not removed from the fate and fecundity of the country’s diverse and wondrous ecosystems. Forests continue to be central to our civilisation by shaping our air and rivers and to how pollinators give life to the fields that feed us and are a source of immense aesthetic and spiritual value. Tribal communities have a strong intuitive understanding of this. There is much to learn from how their relationship with natural resources is regulated by natural rhythms and cycles. Communities’ knowledge and customs should be central to how we deal with forest fires in a warming world.