Who does the forest belong to? In this day and age when everything is about give-and-take, one must question what the forest gives and what it takes from us. Most people see forests as habitats for trees, birds and wildlife. But humans too find serenity in the woods. An admirer of the Northern Lights, forest fires used to allure me. Now the destruction they have unleased in Nepal tears my heart apart.
Forest fires have led to a huge loss of biodiversity. Their effects are quickly spreading across borders and threatening global ecosystems. Just recall the recent fires of the Amazon and Australia. It was a herculean task to control fire in those roadless forests, and the months-long blazes caused massive destruction of wildlife. Presently, in Nepal, almost all 77 districts have been affected by forest fires. As a result, air pollution has risen to unprecedented levels. Still, no measure seems to control them seems to be in sight. An increasing number of people are reporting eye infections and inflammations from the haze that has enveloped cities across the country.
Forest fires are quite common in Nepal during the dry season, which spans from beginning of April to the onset of monsoon in June. Normally, there are two categories of forest fires: ground fires and crown fires. In Nepal, ground fire (also called creeping fire) is the most common. It can be natural also but most fires are man-made. We all are aware of the careless passersby who toss burning matches into dry leaves amid dry trees.
We know fire is a good servant but a bad master. Controlled burning is sometimes needed in certain patches of forest. The top soil is often filled with litter which ignites easily and when burnt, the ashes help improve soil fertility and help plants regenerate. But this takes place only over a small area to fulfill local people’s needs. But often people living near forests deliberately start fires to induce fresh shoots of trees to use as fodder for livestock. For this petty reason, people set the forests on fire. Is this is an act of stupidity, ignorance or innocent greed, we can’t say?
The destruction people are inducing today is huge. Even breathing has become difficult when there is fire over the whole country. Have people become so blind that they aren’t willing to see the bigger picture? The man-made fires have not only killed thousands of innocent wildlife—from the smallest of insects to megafauna—but humans as well.
One small haphazard step can lead to huge destruction. Though the forest ecosystem is self- sustaining, nature is losing its sustenance due to human interference. Policy level intervention is imperative, but then these policies are seldom implemented at the local level. With scientific forest management being blatantly discouraged, forest officials have limited funds for forest protection.
This year the forest department had to face huge loss in terms of finances, which has slowed down managerial interventions. We can definitely connect the dots. Further, community forests also have struggled to effectively continue previous operation plans. As a result, forests lack a fire line to control fire. Simple efforts could have saved thousands of hectares of forest land.
Several acts, laws, regulations and strategies have been employed to manage forest fires. The Forest Act of 2049 B.S. clearly includes captive punishment and penalties against the crime of inducing forest fires. Community forest operational plan includes construction of a fire line and its maintenance, which is awaiting implementation.
An uphill fire is naturally far more destructive than a down-hill one. Moreover, the loss is irreversible with huge amount of carbon released through smoke and smog, resulting in climate change. Theft of many forest products is a direct economic impact. Wildlife migrates towards the edges of the forest to escape fire, which further causes human-wildlife conflict.
Again, a fire line is one of the most effective approaches to minimizing the risk of wildfires in forest areas, as it creates a gap in forest cover which acts as a natural barrier to slow down wildfires. This issue extends beyond boundaries, henceforth an international level policy and its local level implementation is imperative.
Awareness is the key to prevent forest fires. Volunteer groups for fire management in local communities, and incentives and rewards for people who work to prevent and control forest fired will help. Locals must also be trained to control forest fires.
Every day, when we see flames rising with the night lights, why doesn’t our heart burn? Why don’t we feel a need to act?
Of course, we may doubt the impact of our efforts. But we need to remember that “every single effort counts”. So let’s not hesitate to do what we can. Let’s see to it that our lives are not set ablaze along with our forests.
(The author is a graduate of Institute of Forestry, Hetauda)