Achuge Gowda’s village is ensconced deep inside a thick, hilly forest that has been home to his people for thousands of years. He and others from the Soliga tribe have songs, folklore and cultural rituals about each and every plant and animal species. And they worship a deity who is believed to wear giant sandals and patrol the woods at night.
The Soligas have also traditionally set fire to the forest, because they believe that fires are an important tool for protecting the ecosystem. Since their south Indian forest was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1972, the practice has officially been banned. But that doesn’t mean the Soligas have always obeyed the law.
“We have used fire for generations, and it has many regenerative benefits,” said Gowda, 55, a tall, bony man whose family relies on food harvested from the forest to survive. “The complete ban on fires harms the forests in the long run by reducing the diversity of species. But people like us are beaten and harassed by the forest officers for fires.”
For about 80 years, India has banned fires in national forests in an attempt to preserve wildlife habitats and timber, and to prevent carbon emissions. But that policy might now be changing.
Last month, for the first time in India’s conservation history, senior government officials agreed to reconsider the ban. About the same time that forest fires were ravaging Southern California, the officials at the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi decided to study the role and impact of forest fires, create a database and work to more closely involve local communities in fire management.
“No forest in India is devoid of people, and they set fire routinely and stealthily. We say, ‘Do not set fire,’ and they say, ‘This is our life,’ ” said Rekha Pai, a senior official in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. “So it was easier for us to just ban and say, ‘No fire.’ But now we want to study it and spread the word that not all forest fires are bad.”
Pai also said the government is planning a forest fire awareness campaign similar to the Smokey Bear campaign in the United States.
The government’s ban has often given rise to clashes with communities in and around forests. Many tribal groups believe that regular, planned fires burn weeds and litter, and ultimately allow new vegetation to grow and prevent a buildup of flammable material.
About 20 percent of India is covered by forest, and government reports say 53 percent of the woodland is fire-prone. According to a report from the World Wide Fund for Nature, about 3.5 million acres of forest are affected by fires annually, causing an annual financial loss of $1.1 billion.
Many ecologists say India’s blanket ban on forest fires has continued despite the realization in many parts of the world that some forest fires are beneficial and should be allowed.
Almost all forest fires in India are caused by human beings. Forest-dependent communities burn patches to clear land for cultivation or fodder for their grazing animals, or to burn crop remains or clear out parasitic species. They also use fire to make it easier to collect non-timber forest produce. Forest rangers burn grasslands to maintain wildlife habitats.
Most fires in India are ground fires, which burn shrubs and underbrush but do not become “crown fires” that burn down trees. Accidental forest fires are caused when these planned ground fires get out of control.
Forest dwellers in India often have an intimate knowledge of how to use regular, controlled ground fires. The Soligas say that fire is used to regenerate a fragrant plant known as wild boar grass that pregnant elephants eat during delivery. They also use fire to kill the parasitic plants that attack the Indian gooseberry tree, called amla. They say that periodic fires would prevent the proliferation of lantana, an ornamental hedge plant that does not allow any other plant species to grow under it.
“People have used fire for centuries to structure the forest ecosystem, and they are a storehouse of traditional knowledge,” said Ankila Hiremath, a research fellow with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, a group that is recording the oral histories of the Soliga people to understand their use of forest fires. “The Soligas’ dependence on the forests is their organic link to the ecosystem and is in the interest of conservation.”
In March, huge tracts of the Soligas’ B.R. Hills forests were engulfed in ground fires that lasted two weeks. The forest officers picked up about 100 Soligas for questioning and accused them of starting the fire to protest new policies against collection of forest produce.
“We have kept the forest alive for centuries, but today we are viewed as a threat to the forest,” said Gowda, who was among those arrested. The fire, he said, was an accident.