Tribal Groups Tout 'Regenerative Benefits' of Periodic Blazes
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 16, 2007; Page A33
YERAKANAGADDE, India – 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.
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.