By Pritam Kumar Nanda and Pravat Chandro Sutar; October 2001
Vasundhara 14E, Gajapati Nagar, PO Sainik School, Bhubaneswar- 751005, Orissa, India
In the state of Orissa, India, the vast rural population is very dependent on forests. A substantial part of the livelihoods of these forest-dependent people is obtained from the trade of non-timber forest products (NTFPs). From a commercial viewpoint, the two most important NTFPs are mahua (Madhuca indica) flowers and kendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) leaves. The flowers of mahua are rich in carbohydrates and form the substrate for locally brewed liquor. The new, regenerated leaves of kendu are used in the bidi industry. It is well-known that fire is used in forest areas to initiate the coppicing of kendu plants and to facilitate the collection of mahua flowers.
Unfortunately - and incorrectly - these activities are among the reasons commonly given for forest fires, pointing to the forest-dependent people as the root causes of such fires. What escapes attention, however, is the poverty that these people live in.
This research on community-based fire management (CBFiM) was undertaken in the belief that forest-dependent communities would be sufficiently interested to protect forests and prevent or manage forest fires, owing to the importance of forests to their livelihoods. Cases were studied in the districts of Bolangir, Deogarh and Sambalpur in the state of Orissa. These districts have one of the highest forest covers in the state, and hence a significant proportion of their rural population is dependent on the forest for its subsistence, as well as for much-needed income. In order to generate a full picture of the dynamics involved, elaborate discussions were held with the forest dwellers, grassroots-level workers in a local non-governmental organization (NGO) working in the area and Forest Department officials at all the three sites. At village-level meetings, it was ensured that there was maximum representation of women and village elders.
During the course of the study, it was found that most forest protection initiatives emerged only after the dependent community had started to feel the scarcity of resources. The frequency of occurrence and the management of forest fires seem to be closely correlated to the level of dependency that a community living in close proximity to the forest has over the forest. It was seen that the people at two of the three sites studied were taking a proactive interest in the management of forests. Given that the state Forest Department lacks infrastructure and has poor budgetary allocations, it would be useful to encourage community-based initiatives as the most feasible mode to manage forest fires.