Dealing with the aftermath of the Simlipal forest fires in India

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Ghasiram Panda, a forest researcher, explains the causes and impact of the Simlipal forest fires in Odisha, and how to move forward.

According to the Ecological Threat Register data, natural disaster rates have skyrocketed since the 1960s. The world experienced 39 disasters in 1960 and around 396 disasters in 2019. These statistics speak volumes about the impact of human meddling on climate change and global warming. Knowingly or unknowingly, we have all contributed to these disasters.

Whether it’s floods, droughts, deforestation or heat waves, all of them have been linked to climate change factors. And guess what? It isn’t just our planet that’s suffering; it’s us too. On the monetary aspect alone, we lose trillions of pounds that could be used to better everyone’s lives. Not just that, millions of people lose their homes, livelihoods and lives.

One such direct effect of climate change is on our forests. In 2020, Australia’s forests were on fire for over 79 days, which destroyed 11.46 million hectares of forest. That wreaked havoc amongst the local animal population and killed millions of them. Forest fires aren’t just limited to Australia or California. Until last week, the Simlipal forests were on fire for over a fortnight.

The Simlipal forests are Asia’s second-largest biodiversity, located in the eastern state of Odisha, India. The forests represent massive biodiversity and are home to Asiatic elephants, the Bengal tiger and Chausingha, among many others. There is no doubt that the forest fires were a threat to all the plant and animal species in the Simlipal forests.

So, what caused the fires, how can it be prevented, what can the Odisha government do to protect the bio reserve? Ghasiram Panda, a forest researcher and the programme manager of ActionAid, an NGO that works to fight injustice and poverty across the world, has some answers.

Panda says forest fires are known to occur in the month of March, owing to dry weather and extreme heat. But due to the impact of climate change, the fires are also taking place in February — usually the end of the winter. If this was common knowledge, why weren’t there any precautions taken by the government and forest department?

Panda says that there had been plenty of predictions of the forest fires on a daily basis: “However, the callousness of the officials and lack of coordination among the locals allowed the fire to spread.” He adds that there are certain rules and regulations that are set in place from the “beat to section to range to division level” in the event of forest fires that had “not been followed effectively”.

But how can the department prevent the impact of dry weather? According to Panda, there are tons of preventative measures that can be taken to avoid or lessen the impacts of forest fires. Some of his suggestions include:

  • More and more water bodies need to be conserved and created.
  • The plantation of exotic species, like the eucalyptus, needs to be banned.
  • The state climate change action plan needs to be reviewed and redesigned.
  • There is a need for increased participation of people in forest governance.
  • It’s important to identify and promote traditional knowledge of forest and water management.

The dangers and consequences of forest fires aren’t unknown. This is resonated by Panda, who says climate change is a major culprit behind increasing the rate of forest fire disasters, which in turn lead to more greenhouse gas emissions.

The Simlipal forest fire was a surface fire. However, it still came with its own demons. “Herbs, shrubs, microorganisms, reptiles and birds [were] mostly affected due to this disaster,” says Panda. The consequences of the fires weren’t just affecting animals and plants, they impacted the lives of the local Lodha tribe. The fire affected the tribe’s livelihood and health, but also brought them under major scrutiny.

According to Panda, the tribe was falsely targeted and accused of being the culprits for the fires by many, which he says is simply not true. In addition, the tribes say that the fires have caused honey bees to leave the areas, which, of course, impacts their livelihoods. The implications don’t just end there; forest areas have been restricted, which deter the tribe’s medicine and herb collection.

The Simlipal forest fires were finally controlled after a fortnight, but they affected many lives. Panda suggests that along with preventative measures, it is also important to interact with the locals, plant local seeds and spread the word about the forest fires.