India: Forest Fire and its Prevention by Generating Environmental Awareness in the Rural Masses (IFFN No. 21 – October 1999)


Forest Fire and its Prevention
by Generating Environmental Awareness in the Rural Masses

(IFFN No. 21 – October 1999,p. 36-47)


Forest fires that are natural or man made play a significant role in ecosystem dynamics. Recurrent fire decreases the green cover through prevention of regeneration and leads to the slow death of the forest. It also increases erosion and alters the physical and chemical properties of the soil, converting organic ground cover to soluble ash and modifying the microclimate through the removal of overhead foliage. The soluble ash is washed away in the next rain. Fires can also make trees more susceptible to insect attack.

Fire is one of the early tools man used in his struggle to master Nature. But when a blaze is out of control it is dangerous. Forest fires cause a lot of damage to the ecosystem. Soil composition is affected, the quality of forest produce declines and wildlife is destroyed. “The incidence of forest fires in the country is high. Trees and fodder are destroyed on a large scale and natural regeneration is annihilated by such fires. Special precautions should be taken during the fire season. Improved and modern management practices should be adopted to deal with forest fires” says the National Forest Policy, 1988 in a special mention about forest fires. These fires cause irreparable loss to both tangible and intangible benefits from forests. Fire reduces the quality of forest produce, renders forests prone to diseases, degrades soil composition, decimates soil microbes, smothers regeneration and destroys wildlife.

A fire causing incalculable damage to the ecosystem as a whole can be termed as a forest fire. Such a fire is common in almost all types of our forests barring some wet evergreen patches. The fire season usually coincides with the hot summer which extends from January to April. The damage depends upon the frequency and intensity and the type of the forest, availability of fuel and the local climatic factors.

Forest fire and its management have long history in Indian Forestry. In 1954, the Chief Conservator of Forests of Madhya Pradesh Mr.C.E.Hewetson stated “the conception of forest fire protection was one of the most creative and far reaching in its effects. Not only was it essential to allow the drier forest to regenerate, but it was and it is the most powerful single weapon in soil conservation. It was a tragedy that this idea of complete fire protection was gradually eroded away by the urge for economy in expenditure.” The most successful method of fires protection in the past used to be an elaborate network of fire lines, block-lines and guidelines, and their early clearing and burning. This system used to work very well and still does when population pressure on the forest is low. With increasing human population in and around forest areas, and their dependence for fodder, fuel wood and other non-timber forest produce, the traditional systems of fire control no longer works effectively. The human resources available with the forest department have not increased with increasing human pressure on the forest. On an average in India, nearly 500 ha of forest have to be patrolled by one guard and one watcher!


Western Ghats in Southern part of India gives a salient fascinating features of the rich biological diversity of the Indian sub-continent. The forests of Western Ghats increasingly well documented and a place of attraction for biologists, tourists, environmentalist, painters for its exceptionally high level of biodiversity, endemic flora and fauna with beautiful landscape. Apart from biological values, the mountains are essential water catchments for large part of Tamil Nadu state for its agriculture, hydro-power and industrial needs.

Since Independence in 1947, India has suffered a rapid depletion of forest resources. Some 75 million ha are officially classified as forest land, but according to the 1987 Forest Survey of India (Ministry of Environment and Forests, 1987), the actual forest cover is 64.2 million ha. This is equivalent to only 19.5% of the total land area, whereas the National Forest Policy (MOEF, 1988) set a goal of at least one-third (approximately 110 million ha) of total land area under forest cover for ecological stability. Moreover the existing resources are subjected to severe biotic pressure, owing to the fact that less than 2 per cent of the forest area in the world, the country supports over 15 per cent of the world’s population and nearly 14 per cent of the cattle (Saigal, 1989)

In India, forest fires are the significant and increasing contributory factor in the degradation process, although the extent of total damage is widely disputed. According to a study made during 1989, during the sixth Five Year Plan (1980-85) 17,852 fires were reported affecting an area of 5.7 million ha or an annual average of some 1.14 million ha (Saigal, 1989). Even this range may be regarded as conservative. Data collected by the Forest Survey of India indicate that the forest area that is affected by annual fires may be as high as 37 million ha (Ministry of Environment & Forests, 1987).

Local people have observed how the tropical forests have been destroyed from their area day by day. Pappammal, a 65 years _ old lady from Thekkampatty village who got the National award for growing trees in her land said fire is the only major factor for destruction of their forests. She said that local cattle graziers often set ablaze grazing areas in the hope of getting new shoots. The head load carriers destroyed vegetation to create pathways through the forests. Encroachers often set fire to forests in order to clear the land and for NTFP collection by the tribals and the villagers. The careless tourists could set off forest fires throwing away lighted matches or cigarette butts. It damages not only the trees and tiny herbs but also wild animals. Venkateswaran (57 years) an old man from the village Mangalapalayam expressed his experience: “If the tree is cut, it can regenerate by means of coppice, if it is fired, it is dead – never grows…It was the terrible day of April 1992, when I was at Kodaikanal, throughout the night I observed the leaping flames of fire. My excellent 5 years old plantations within the forest was entirely ruined. I was helpless, just I could not stop the fire despite of the best effort with our staff“.

Rainfall has direct relation with occurrence of forest fire in the area. Every year we frequently come across fire in our forest during the months of February to May. Two years back in 1994, there was good rainfall. But this year as the rainfall was not enough, chance of getting fire in the forest was too high. But due to our community initiatives till now no fire incidence has been recorded from our forest” said the president of Thekkampatti Fire Protection Committee.

With the collaboration and joint initiative by the villagers and Forest department staff, an innovative forest fire protection movement was started in Coimbatore Forest Division (Fig.1) in 1995. There are 23 such committees protecting 69,347 ha of tropical forests. In the Government record from last 1991 to 1995 there were 119 fire incidences and 486.65 ha of forest area had been destroyed which was about 0.64 per cent of the total area.

click to enlarge (30 KB)

Fig.1. Map of Forest Fire Protection Committees (FFPC),
Coimbatore Forest Division.

The essence of fire prevention is nothing but breaking the fire triangle which is composed of fuel, air (and other climatic factors) and ignition source. A socio-cultural and psychological reorientation is necessary. The actual implementation of fire prevention measures, motives of the local people has to be understood deeply and to appreciate their problems. For this, apart from the knowledge in technical forestry, a sound understanding of the social system is important.

The present case study on participatory fire control strategies attempts to document the local initiatives in collaboration with the Forest department in prevention and management of forest fire which has been an important factor in the forest ecology.

The Site

Land and People

The Irular, a tribal community, settled in the different pockets of forest areas of this region is entirely dependent on the forest and its products for their livelihood.

Ramaswamy, Headmaster of Sirumugai village and the president of Lingapuram forest fire protection committee, recalls how life, in this once-remote area has changed during the past two decades. Sandal trafficking, commercial logging,in-migration and the population pressure have influenced the area and resulted in deforestation, severe soil erosion, poverty among the villagers and fires which have rapidly destroyed the environmental stability and productivity of western Ghats. Many of the villagers still remember the year 1984 when bus service started in the area, they could get the first opportunity to visit district town. That was the beginning of their outside contact and modernization which they are not sure weather has done good or bad to the community, perhaps it has done both.

The area has never got high rainfall. The average rainfall is 750 mm along the plateau and at the foothills. The plains of Nilgiri hills are subjected to very hot and dry climate. In the villages the population has increased ten times over the past fifty years. Though the rainfall is scanty, significant improvement has taken place in agricultural productivity due to the Lower Bhavani river project. Though the rainfall has decreased as compared to early days, the changed land use pattern and the irrigation projects have resulted in better farm productivity.


Historically the area is famous for its growth of teak, rosewood, Vengai, sandalwood and tamarind which were continued for a number of years as a main source for timber and other products, even after the British acquired possession of the forests. During early 19th century at the time of the construction of South Indian Railway, large number of timber trees were extracted for sleepers. In 1960, large scale coup felling was done in this area.

Local villagers were used to collect the entire range of non-wood forest products (NWFP) from this tropical forests. Tamarind used to be the most important forest produce.It accounts for nearly 25 per cent of total revenue from all NWFP’s put together. The barks of Langal (Cinnamomum zetlanicum), Kolamavu (Machilus macrantha), Nellikai (Emblica officinalis), Mohwa (Madhuca latifolia) wild jacks, wild mangoes and a range of medicinal plants was the asset of the forest.

The forests of the area comprises of mixed deciduous species of small girth and medium height growth, which falls under:

  1. The southern thorn forest – 6A/C1

  2. The southern dry mixed deciduous forests – 5A/C3

  3. The phoenix Savannah

  4. The west coast semi evergreen forest – 2A/C2

  5. The west coast tropical evergreen forests – 1A/C4

(Champion and Seth, 1964)

The tree species like Aya (Holoptelea integrifolia), Porusu (Chloroxylon swietenia), Pachala (Dalbergia paniculata), Thani (Terminalia bellerica), Lallangai (Anogeissus latifolia), Palai (Wrightia tinctoria), Vagai (Albizia procera), Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia), Sandal (Santalum album), Konnai (Cassia fistula), Acha (Hardwickia binata), Poochakottai (Sapindus emarginatus), Tamarind (Tamarindus indica), Nellikai(Emblica officinalis) are dominated in the canopy of these forests. There are evidences of excellent teak (Tectona grandis) plantation in few areas.

Natural regeneration is insufficient. Local forest department is giving importance in the plantation of teak, sandal, tamarind and bamboo. Sandal a valuable timber tree of the area is being destroyed by the illicit wood cutters. In the last 30 years there is a significant reduction in the number of sandal trees. Large scale gang smuggling often reported. Human interference consists of felling, lopping, hacking, setting fire and grazing caused havoc. The damage caused by browsing, trampling down seedling and hardening of soil surface by repeated treading is common. Recently the population of wild elephant has increased in this forest and in small/big herds, they often raid the adjoining field crops.

Fire – Ecological Perspectives

Fires in the forests are regular annual feature in the area which occurs usually in the month of February to May. About one per cent area of forest is disturbed by forest fire every year. It causes extensive damage to sandal, bamboo, timber and non-wood forest produce yielding trees.

There are reports of conversion of tropical mixed deciduous dry forests in the slopes to Savannah type with more and more coarse grass by repeated fires. Fire has a tremendous negative impact in growth of trees. The regeneration of tree species is halted in occurrence of fire. There is a quantum loss in the bio-diversity. No study has been done how much loss is occurring in the micro-organism but this is apparent that the microbial ecology is disturbed that is again related with the decomposition of litters and regeneration from seeds. In the process of succession the burnt forest area may take many years to function normally.

Many times fire give a positive results in the production and regeneration of grasses. Probably the influx of nutrient helps villagers to have more fodder in the rainy season. Uncontrolled fires affect forest resources in a variety of ways. Regeneration is killed or dies back thereby delaying the establishment of a new crop and extending the rotation. When newly planted teak plantations are burnt, it is standard practice to cut the young trees down to ground level: this stimulates new vigorous shoot from the base, but at least one year’s growth is lost. Young eucalyptus plantations frequently require replanting and coppice regeneration dies back for (or must be cut back) after fire. Studies indicate that the volume increment of various species of Eucalyptus is reduced after fires and that the effect persists for several years. The cumulative loss of annual increment depends on the severity of the fire, but generally lies in the range of one to three years growth.

No research appears to have been done so far on the potentially far giver intangible effects of forest fires in India. Not only do uncontrolled fires burn down the vegetation, but also the organic matter is adversely lowered, increasing the frequency of flooding and causing soil erosion. In addition, wildlife patterns and habitat may be disrupted. The situation is exacerbated by a lack of fire protection planning knowledge and incentives.

In addition to the weather(temperature relative humidity, rainfall, wind velocity, etc.) the topography, build up of litter on ground, duff/fuel moisture percentage etc also strongly influence the possibilities of forest fires. Besides the short term improvement of forest land for improvement of grazing value through forest fire local people often use fire to facilitate hunting, honey collection travel and shifting cultivation.

Many time people put fire due to non-timber forest product collection like for clearing of the forest floor prior to the collection of flowers, fruits, seeds and in stimulating flush of leaf crop such as tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon), for flowers of Mahua (Maduca indica) in March and April and sal (Shorea robusta) in May for sal seeds.

Rodgers (1986) suggested that the non-burning of sal forest in Dudhwa U.P. since national park status in 1974 has allowed a dense undergrowth of unpalatable shrubs to develop. This prevents swamp deer making movements to drier grasslands in the monsoon, reduces chital forage availability and has prevented much sal seedling regeneration. A programme of occasional controlled burning in the sal was suggested on an experimental basis. Conserving marshes, swampy area and water catchments are essential for forest fire prevention. Forest fire reduces the wild food for the animals as well as for the forest dwelling people. Through their immediate effects on vegetation, fires have a further effect on animals-change in cover and food, on soils loss of litter, deposition of ash hardening of surfaces; and on water-changed permeability, increased surface flow. Many effects are related and interacting, fire ecology is thus both complex to understand and difficult to evaluate.

Emergence and Functioning of Forest Fire Protection Committees (FFPC)

“The forests belonging to us”, this was the answer given by Shri Velliangiri (54) of Narasapuram village when he asked the question “Whose forest is this?“. Now no one seeds the forests as exclusive property of the government or forest department. When Shri Subbiah (65) of Thekkampatti village encountered the questions: “How much do you directly depend on forests for your livelihood ?”, his answer was “less now a days because of diversification of income sources“. The next question asked was “then why do you want to protect forest?“. He readily replied that the forests are absolutely necessary to maintain the ecological balance which is basic for sustaining the life support systems on earth”. The same man said that his perception about forests has changed after he became the member of the local forest fire protection committee. Many localities have shared the view of Shri Subbiah.

Smt.Rangammal (70) of the same village remarked “when we have started growing trees in our farmlands (agro-forestry), how can we allow the trees to be cut in the natural forests?” She firmly opined that fire was the single most important cause for destruction of forests in that region. Many endorsed her view in not only Thekkampatti village, but also other villages where forest fire protection committees were formed. This strong perception was the reason why people have readily cooperated to join hands with the forest department to check the wild fire by forming protection committees.

The President of the FFPC of the village Mangalapalayam recalled their last battle against a major fire in their neighbouring forest four years back. “…it was a big fire. We spotted it in the morning and informed the forest guard. As he was alone, we about 10-12 people went along with him to put off the fire. Only when we approached the spot we could realize how big the fire was. Flame was leaping 50-100m high. We could not go closer than 500 ft. from the fire. We struggled unsuccessfully from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with our limited means to put off the fire. We could only succeed to draw a fire line to prevent further spread of fire. It was burning throughout the night and naturally put off in the early morning. It was the horrible site to see the spot after the fire. It was just like a battle field after the war. At that I was wondering why the nature was curse to itself. How many decades it would have taken for nature to grow a tree and why does it destroy itself in few hours by fire. Later on when I joined in the forest fire protection committee only realized that natural occurrence of forests fire are rare and most of the fire are human made. I had owed to prevent its occurrence. We are planning to build up a task force to check to prevent forest fire through our village committee”. Within a year of their formation, the committees have considerably succeeded in their missions. “Fire in the forests were regular occurrences and frequent in every summer. But in the summer season just after the formation of the committee. There were few or no incidence of forest fires”. This was the observation of the people in almost all the villages.

Every one recalled the mass meetings held by the forest department in the year 1995 at Alanthurai, Thadagam and Lingapuram village functions to create awareness about the destructions caused by the forest fire, around 6000 people attended the meeting. The indirect but the heavy damage caused to their crop fields was highlighted in these meetings. Demonstrations and videos shows on how to control forest fire were also conducted after the meetings. These meetings in fact created a lasting impression on the minds of local people. Particularly the strange fact that forest department has conducted the public meeting (never in their memory such thing happened in the past) itself had attracted their attention. They cannot just resist the invitation to participate in forest protection by the forest department which has so far functioned in isolation, away from the people. In many images people have controlled themselves as the members of the protection committee just after the meeting.

Best thing to happen was the immediate follow-up by both the forest department and the villagers (“opinion leaders”) after the meeting. Frequent group meetings were held in the villages to motivate and enrol other villagers in the forest protection committees. These meetings served as crucial look between the opinion leaders and other villagers and in turn the opinion leaders acted as the link between the forest department and the local people. The role of opinion leaders was to convince the other villagers and enrol as many members as possible. Definitely initial impetus was given by the forest department, but credit goes to these local leaders who had taken initiatives to diffuse the message deep into the community and expand the membership of the FFPC.

Though the villagers were not directly involved in protection or management of forests in the past, there has been an inherent concern among the community about the decline in forest cover. As the Range officer, Boluvampatti has rightly pointed out their concern about forests has been well reflected by the enthusiasm shown by the villagers of Narasapuram and Mangalapalayam during the initial meeting. “All we have done is to appeal to this concern and evoke their favourable response. The support we have been receiving from the community is something beyond our exception”, he said. He further remarked “…now realize that so far by keeping the local people away from forest protection and management. We (forest department) have lost more than we gained. We have failed to utilize the potentials of local people. They would in fact multiply and expand our conservation efforts very effectively with almost no cost”.

In all the villages, wherever we spoke to the villagers they expressed their tremendous concern over the fast declining of forest cover. Particularly elders, over the age of 65 years, could recall the existence of dense, impenetrable forests with lot of wild life movements before 50 years in their neighborhood. Now, they say that they can easily walk deep in the so called without any difficulty as they do in village paths hardly encountering any remarkable wild life activity. Almost all the village elders were unanimous in their opinion that the degradation forests was accelerated in mid 70s when commercial felling through contract system was allowed by the forest department. When commercial felling was stopped, the degradation has also slowed down and now it has stabilized. The general opinion of all generations in the villages is that from the mid 1980s, due to massive social and farm forestry programmes, there is a perceptible increase in forest cover which has to be sustained. This is the precise reason they want to take voluntary measures to protect forests.

Everyone – all sections – are in agreement that forest fire is the single most important destructive factor in forests of this region. Forest fires are regular features in summer. Then why did they not take any measure prevent forest fire so far ? and why there is a sudden resurgence to protect forests from fire?. This question was asked in all villages. This response was common in all the villages. Though there were frequent incidence of forest fires in the past, they were all thought to be natural occurrences and nothing could be sure about it. Of course they were also aware of the deliberate attempt to put fire in forests. But they were perceived to be far less frequent. Moreover, they were not organised earlier. Lonely fights against the grand forest fires were impossible. They helplessly watched the fire destroying the forests. It was thought that it was the responsibility of the forest department to put off the fire. Community action to protect the forests was never in the mind of the people. Earlier the department was also functioning in isolation, distancing itself from the people. It was the unique appeal from the forest department calling for community action, community organization to protect the forests, particularly check forest fires. It was basically appeal to their inherent desire to protect forest which has now been channelised though community forests fire protection committees. Now all the members of the committee,after proper appraisal by the forest department realise that all the forest fire with rare exceptions occur due to human interventions, either intentionally and unintentionally and they are preventable.

They have also realised that through organised efforts, forest fires can be not only prevented, but also checked or put off if detected. They all have been adequately briefed, demonstrated and to some extent trained to check/put off forest fire by the department staff. Most importantly, they have understood that apart form “physical efforts” to prevent/check forest fire there are other effective “social Measures” like community education, social auditing, social and economical sanctions/fines, rewards/incentives etc. which can be adopted by them successfully. All the village committees adopt such measures in varying degrees and forms depending upon local conditions. The result is that there is almost no fire incidence in the summer season preceded by the formation of the sometimes which shows the year wise incidence of fires and extent of damage.

There are six forest ranges covering an area of 64,347 ha in Coimbatore district. As indicated in the map, this area is classified based on the fire occurrence into three categories viz., most vulnerable, medium vulnerable and low vulnerable. So far 23 village fire protection committees have been formed in all these three classified areas. This classification in any way does not undermine the importance of the fire protection committees formed in the low vulnerable areas. In fact though the fire occurrences are comparatively lesser in these areas, it is likely to become medium or highly vulnerable if adequate preventive measures are taken. In that sense, the protection committees in these areas also have equally important role to play.

The table indicates name of all the 23 fire protection committees and corresponding number of members in each committee, from this data, it can be inferred that the average membership of each committee is 14 and implies that only a fraction of village population are the members of the committee. However, the interaction with the villagers revealed that most of them were aware of the activities of the committee. This means that diffusion of information, which is the primary responsibility of the committee, properly takes place within the village social system. At present, the membership of the committee is by and large confined to the well informed few in the village. It is growing as the others in village also take active interest in the activities of the committee.The members of the committee function as opinion leaders to the rest of the community. They in fact multiply the effort of forest department by disseminating information and motivating the other people – young and old – to actively participate in forest fire protection activities.

The primary responsibility of the fire protection committee is to identify and check factors responsible for forest fire. As they now are able to precisely locate the human activities that cause fire in the forests, the committees could work out the strategies also to check such activities along with the forest department. As the first step, they have jointly organised educational campaigns targeting the groups which are likely to cause fire – the graziers, fire wood cutters, NTFP collectors, contract labourers, tribals, casual visitors to the forests etc. Frequent campaigns and meetings are being conducted to make these groups aware of the devastating effects the fire has on forests. The forest department has been supporting such efforts by supplying educational materials like leaflets, posters, video films and sometimes conduct demonstrations. The staff – Range officers and others participate in all the meetings/discussion and offer expert advice. However, the effective method to persuade the offenders seems to be the personal influence by the members. Each member of the protection committee has taken responsibility to personally influence the likely forest fire setters and in few committees even targets have been fixed to each member for this task.

So far, the committee’s educational efforts have been successful among the unintentional fire setters to leave their potentially dangerous habits like smoking inside the forests. They are yet mark their success among the intentional fire setters. Systematic efforts are necessary in this direction. The committees are regularly meeting to frame their strategies, proceedings of every meeting are recorded. The secretary of the committee takes the responsibility to conduct the meeting and record its proceedings. The committee is headed by the president. In many committees the office bearers of protection committee and the village panchayat are common and hence relationship between the tow bodies is almost cordial.Though so far no formal election of office bearers of the committee is held, their functioning is regulated through democratic procedures. Decisions are made in a democratic way in consultation with the forest department. In some committees, the Range officer is also a ex-officio convener. Otherwise, he is invited to the meetings as the special invitee.

At present, the committee just informs the forest department staff immediately if the fire is detected in the forest. Though the members are shown demonstrations by the department how to check and put off the fire, they are not well trained. They, of course accompany the staff to fight against the fire. Now, many committees are planning to build up a well trained special fire fighting squad comprising of village youth. The committees are also in the process of evolving more stringent punishment system comprising monetary fines, social sanctioning, shramdhan (hard physical labour), social boycott etc to enforce on the offenders. Many members opined that the present system of just catching the offenders and handling over them to the forest department is not very effective. Though they appreciate the punishment provisions of the department, say that the legal and administrative systems takes long time to settle the cases and creates less impact on the offenders. Foresters also agree to this point and say that locally evolved legal provisions would effectively supplement their efforts if properly coordinated.

When the point of women involvement was debated with the members, it was pointed out that since the committees were first started as the fire protection committees, and Women were perceived to have no role in fighting against fire their inclusion was not considered so important. Incidentally women also ask “What role do we play in controlling fire? It is men’s job. This kind of misconception also seems to exist among the staff of the forest department. Range officer of the Bolampatti forest range agrees ” Yes we, do miss women in the committee and I realise the lacuna. In fact they are crucial link to reach the whole community. We should take effort to involve them in committee’s activities”. He is true, especially when the committee’s are enlarging their activities from just preventing forest fire to protection and conservation the whole forest resources under the fold of Joint Forest Management. If a community of other group is strongly against setting forest fire, the individuals in the group or community are effectively restrained from such action than by any law.

Role of Forest Department in Implementing the Programme

The institutionalization of the conceptual shift in Forest management from purely state sponsored to Joint Management with people’s involvement has been gradual among the various levels in the Forest department. This has brought a change in their role from mere conservation to development i.e development through participation. Efforts are going on at the national level to reorient the foresters at all levels to the new task. Forest department is no more alienated from the people. They are increasingly accepted by the people as agents of change and are being offered assistance and co-operation in their efforts. It is glaringly evident in this case of Forest fire protection with community involvement.

It is due to the efforts of foresters – right form forest guard to the Divisional Forest Officer – now people have clearly understood the urgent need for forest protection which could be achieved only through their involvement. Forest fire which has been responsible for extensive damage to the forests of this area has came in handy to the forest department to convincingly demonstrative the effects of the of forest destruction to the people. How much people have realized the magnitude of the problem is quite evident from the remark of the elderly person, Mr.Venkatesan of Nathagodenpudur “if a tree is cut, there is a chance for its regeneration. But if it is burnt, it is dead, no question of its regeneration. This statement does not imply that he is for cutting the tree, but it clearly shows that the strategy of forest department by taking up the forest fire – visual evidence of vast destruction of forests – as the major issue and first step in forest protection has succeeded in lagging the community efforts with their own mission.

Reorientation at the grassroots level of the department- shedding the fallacy about their uniform – has helped them to build good rapport with the local people. Though the forest guards and range officers still wear uniform, because of their attitudinal and behaviourial change they are now largely approachable by the people. We observed that in all villages, the people right from school children to old people including women – converge to approach the officers whenever the forest department vehicle enters into the village rather than disperse away as a mark of fear and distaste. This perceptional change on both sides has triggered the mutual dynamism to work together for the common cause of forest protection.

The fringe area of Western ghats coming under Coimbatore territorial forest division is highly prone to fire, especially in summer seasons. Since the whole coimbatore district falls under rain shadow area, its forests are all the more vulnerable to fire. Compared to Irular tribal community, the other neighbourhood rural communities are less dependent on forest. Their main occupation is agriculture and due to industrialization, their focus of dependency for income has gradually shifted from forest to urban centres. In many of the villages it has been observed that number of dwellings have decreased due to out migration. In addition, the diversification in occupation, for example towards brick line (particularly in Thadagam area) also reduces the people’s dependency on forests. Though the brick cline, by and large have a destructive influence over the ecology of this area, one beneficial effect observed is that it has been successful in reducing the biotic pressure on neighbouring forests. The local people now earn many more times than what they used to earn through forest based products earlier. Moreover their working schedule is also highly regulated. Yet another impact of these bricks cline is to be seen in agriculture and its allied activities. Agriculture has adversely affected as many farmers (the farmers of this area were supposed to be highly progressive and agricultural productivity of this region was very high.) have leased out their productive land for brick cline which are more remunerative. Most of the brick cline are managed and owned by outsiders who have only business interest and least bothered about ecological sustainability of the area. They indiscrimately exploit the productive topsoil and have made the large stretch of the area unsuitable for agriculture. Days are not far away when the local people would be forced to pay heavy price for this kind of exploitation of nature.

The reduction in the agricultural activities has resulted in the decline of animal power. The cattle population sent for grazing into the forest has also reduced. Farmers in these villages mostly maintain only productive cattle. Thanks to cattle improvement programme of the Animal Husbandry department, most of the productive cattle are the improved breeds and require stall feeding. Usually the unproductive cattle are sold to the traders who in turn sell them in neighbouring Kerala for slaughter. The elders of the villages recount the drastic reduction (almost 10 -15 times) in the cattle population over the period of 40 years. As the result the grazing pressure on the neighbouring forest has also considerably reduced. Few unproductive cattle of these villages and the cattle belonging to the Irular tribal community go to the forest for grazing.

According to the villagers the requirement of fuel wood collected from the forests also has in these days reduced as they have got access to diversified sources of fuel including the bio-gas and methane gas. Since the cattle are stall fed, the cow dung collected has become the major source of fuel. Under the present circumstances, the major cause for the degradation is the forest fire as perceived by the foresters and villagers. The appreciable aspect of the whole campaign is the systematic approach adopted by the forest department. Before launching the campaign, the department thoroughly studied the area and identified that the forest fire is single most important cause for the destruction of forest in this region.They had also come to the definite conclusion that except rare cases, almost all the fire incidence in this region are caused by human interventions. Though the location is highly vulnerable to catch fire, the factors promoting natural fire are seldom present here.

Through its initial survey, the department has also found out the types of human activities that causes forest fire.

The grazier and the wood collectors who regularly go to the forest, While smoking, unintentionally throw the burning buds inside the forests. When they fall on the dried leaves and the twigs, especially in summer seasons easily catch fire. This is found to be the one of the common causes. Such a casual practice but the destructive one also exist among the labourers who are engaged in large numbers by the contractors for the collection of NTFP’s during the seasons – the summer months starting from the January to April, potentially dangerous in the forest fire point of view.

There are certain locally famous temples and tourist spots inside the forests. Many tourists/local people visit the spots/temples on holidays and festivals. Many of them smoke and casually throw the burning buds inside the forest causing fire during the festivals, many of the neighbourhood communities/tribal communities visit the forest-temples to offer prayers. One of the common rituals is to cook rice with milk (locally known as Pongal) and offer it to God. Many times they do not properly put off the fire after cooking which spread fire in the forests when the wind blows. Such kinds of fire are very difficult to check.

The graziers are also reported to deliberately put fire in the forests in order to get good growth of grass in next seasons. The fire wood collectors do burn the trees to get charcoal. However these incidences are gradually reducing as the dependency of the neighbouring village communities on these products are becoming less. (The villagers almost deny the existence of such practices.)

The tribal Irular are found to deliberately put fire inside the forest to collect grass, dried fire wood, charcoal etc. on which their daily life depends. (This was also verified while talking to the Irular at Sadivayal near Siruvani foot hills. They completely depend on the forest for grazing their cattle and fire wood.They do not practice stall feeding and usually require 8-10 kg of fire wood per day per family for their own consumption. In addition they sell grass and fire wood outside.)

The tribals in this region are the major collectors of NTFP’s. They collect NTFPs for their own consumption and for sale. (They sell the NTFPs either directly in the open market or through the co-operative societies set up by the government depending upon the prevailing price.) They constitute the major junk of the labour force engaged by the private contractors (yearly leasing out by the Government thorough the auction) for the collection of NTFPs. The common complain is that these tribals put fire in order to clear off the forest floors so as to collect the NTFPs easily. (This was denied by the tribals while talking to them at their settlements.)

The entire Coimbatore forest division is infested by wild elephants. The villages bordering the reserve forests are the most affected. Crop damages by these wild elephants is very common, almost a daily affair. Local people adopt many methods to drive away the elephants including crackers and fire. Possibility of forest catching fire during this cooperation is not ruled out. (Now the use of crackers to drive the elephants away is prohibited in the villages adjoining the Range forests falling in Sirumugai and Mettupalayam ranges as it creates confusion the local police task force between the crackers and the gun fire of the Veerappan gang, the notorious poacher group.)

The illegal wood cutters and the poachers (the most notorious of the Veerappan gang) also to a large extent responsible for the forest fires.

Every one in the forest department, right from the guard to the Divisional Forest Officer and even above – has realised that these identified cause of fires can be checked only with the involvement of the local people. However, they did not directly approach the offenders as it was not feasible option. Past attempts to directly deal with these people have not been successful because these people could not identify themselves with the forest department.It is the traditional fear of uniform which has kept them away from the forest department. The change in the approach of the forest department has not yet been properly perceived by them. The best way to approach them is through the opinion leaders of the same village who have been regarded by these people. This is the well proven method of extension , and precisely adopted by the forest department. (Opinion leaders are undoubtedly proved to be more effective in communicating with local communities than the external extension/change agents due to their hemophillous character. The forest department, though not scientifically [socio-metric method], but almost accurately has identified the opinion makers in the villages and utilised their services through fire protection committees to educate the other local community including the offenders.)

Apart from this personal contact, this forest division under the guidance of the District Forest officer (Rajiv.K.Srivastava), has been trying various innovative campaign methods to motivate/inform people about forest fires. Their target group has included all the sections of the community right from school children. The good example is the Government Elementary school in Sirumugai.The head master of this school, also a member of the Lingapuram village FFPC, is impressed by the efforts of the forest department, and has taken extra interest to integrate the school activities of that forest department. The school with the walls bearing full of teachings on environment and forest resource conservation has created lasting impact on the minds of the young children and stands an ideal community education centre. On recommendation of the DFO, the head master Shri Ramaswamy got the state award for the best teacher in 1995.

Not only in Sirumugai, but in all villages, school children have shown significant awareness about the forest conservation efforts by the community and the forest department. This is due to the competitions held by the forest department among the school children and rewarding them in public meetings, involving children in social forestry and afforestation programmes, distribution of uniforms to the children and even conducting regular meetings of the FFCPS in the school premises also create awareness among the children.

The demonstrations conducted by the department staff to show to counteract the forest forests have became very popular as they were most effective means to learn the skill. (Demonstrations have been proved to be one of the most effective extension teaching method over the years among different kinds of population as it engages more number of senses simultaneously while learning taking place). Usually the demonstration are being conducted after the mass/group meetings in the villages. Many times villagers are also taken to the actual forest area prone to fire and demonstrations are shown, particularly how to create fire line and control the fires. such exercise have given them the idea how the human interventions cause major forest fires and dispelled their misconception that the forest fires were natural occurrences and cannot be prevented. Now the villagers even prepared to form a special task force to prevent and control forest fires comprising of village youths.

In addition to the mass meeting and demonstrations, the campaigns of the forest department include many innovative popularization methods like distribution of uniform with a message to prevent forest fire to school children, community feast oath taking to prevent forest fire at the village temple. Since it was realised that the villages in which protection committees were formed alone cannot prevent forest fires in isolation of neighbouring villages who also have equal access to the forests, it was felt necessary to spread the message to them also. The committees themselves had come up with innovative ideas like padayatras (long march) and human chain. Even in some villages like Lingapuram in Sirumugai range, the committee members were suggesting to take up a awareness campaign by autorikshaws when we had interaction with them.

The department, apart from personal and group contact methods, has also used mass media like radio and newspapers effectively for its campaign. These media are being used not only spread the messages on forest fire prevention but also to give wide publicity to the constructive/appreciable works carried out by the village forest fire protection committees. Such kind of publicity gives the committees immense pride and sense of achievement and thus acts as a motivating force for further action. It is also seen to be inducing a competitive spirit among the committees. The media message are being well supplemented by poster and leaflets/pamphlets. They serve to create further interest among the villagers who became aware about the forest fire prevention through the mass meeting and media. Sustained campaign actually creates immense desire among the community to participate in the task and ultimately leads them to conviction and action.

While promoting community action to prevent forest fires the forest departments strict action against the offenders is also being appreciated by the villagers. This is great attitudinal change among the villagers who are ready to support any legal actions such as fines and imprisonment of offenders, even if they are locals. In fact the huge fines inflicted upon the offender in Thadagam village of Periyanakampalayam range and Mangalapalayam of Boluvampatti range had created wide spread awareness among the villagers in those ranges. What could be learnt from this experience is that had the forest department taken only legal action against the offenders, as done during the past, it would have only recovered the hostile reaction from the local communities. But the educational campaign immediately following the imposition of fines, had in fact earned public support.

The forest department has come closer to the local community by taking up non-conventional but needful services such as conduction rural/tribal health camps, non-formal education providing facilities to local schools, prevention of school dropouts, organizing community sports and recreation activities, providing alternative energy/income generation activities and championing the community causes with other development departments/agencies. The forest guard no more just guards the forests but guards the whole community interests. He has become the real extension agent – friend, philosopher and guide to the local people.


Unnatural forest fire causes imbalance to the nature which reflects very badly on the bio-diversity and reduces floral and faunal wealth. Old traditional methods of preventing fire is not playing much role in front of the will to put fire. Forests in developing countries which are adjoining the habitat of rural masses the people are not aware of the importance of the forests. At this juncture, awareness alone can bring down the incidence of forest fire. During campaigning, it was found that people are totally unaware of biodiversity conservation concept. After awareness the committee which was formed has shown progressive result due to interaction between the staff, committee members and local people. Initial period of interaction, on the other hand, has often brought forward the individuals who had long term commitment to the cause.

This case study was documented by a team of scientists, from Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, India along with the then District Forest officer Mr. Rajiv K.Srivastava who launched the innovative scheme in the division.


Rajiv K. Srivastava
Deputy Conservator of Forests
Genetics Division
Bharathi Park Road
Coimbatore – 641 043
Tamil Nadu



Ministry of Environment and Forests. 1987. Annual report of forest survey of India.
Ministry of Environment and Forests. 1988 OEF. National forest policy.
Champion, H.G., and S.K.Seth. 1968. A revised survey of forest types of India. Manager of publications.
Rodgers, W.A. 1985. The role of fire in the management of wildlife habitat – A review. Indian Forester Vol.112, No. 10, 145-157.
Saigal, P.M. 1989. A suggested classification of forest fires in India by types and causes. Paper presented at the National Seminar on Forest Fire Fighting, Kulamaru (Kerala), 2-3 November 1989.

Country Notes
IFFN No. 21

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