By Debendra Kumar Samal; Koraput district of Odisha came into existence when the state became a separate province on 1st April, 1936. Koraput Forest Division came into existence since October, 2003. The Forest Division comes under the Eastern Ghat mountain ranges that include mostly hilly slopes supported with valuable deciduous forests bordering from Rayagada to Andhra Pradesh. In the recent pasts the plateau used to be covered with rich green canopy embedded with flora and fauna of nature.
As per the Odisha Gazette of 1966, about 70 percent of the total areas of the Koraput region used to be covered by forest. The forests in these areas used to retain good moisture conditions of soil that made the area cooler. Koraput Forest Division is thickly populated with the tribal people. They depend highly on forest for their livelihood. It provides them food, fodder, fuel, timber, shelter, medicinal drugs, agricultural implements. Here tribal economy, custom, social fabric and folklore are also neatly interwoven with forest. But due to poor awareness among the tribal people frequent manmade forest fires have been causing harm to the forest of the region. With that, denudation is taking place in such a rate that the hills with bounty of natural resources are now either covered with low shrubs or disfigured with patches due to shifting cultivation of the tribal people. The shrinking forest is indicating the impending danger towards the livelihood of tribal community. The trend of shifting cultivation of the tribal people and frequent forest fires has caused great damage to the forest of the region during the last four decades. Thus there has been a greater need of involving the members of community based organizations of that area in controlling fire accidents in forest.
It has been observed that accidents of forest fire are occurring during the summer season that is from the month of February to June. However sporadic forest fire occurs in other dry seasons. There are some general reasons for fire accidents in the forest. In Koraput Forest Division Podu Culitivation (Shifting Cultivation) is an age old practice of the tribal community. It is a typical system of tribal agriculture where trees and bushes of a patch of sloppy land are cut and burnt. During the collection of these minor forest produces like Mohua and Tamarind people set fire to the dry leaves fallen on the ground. These ripe fruits fall on the ground and cannot be seen properly under the dry leaves so people burn the dry leaves lying under the tree so that they could collect these forest produces easily. At the time of collecting honey in the jungle people use fire to drive away honey bees from the honey combs. Hunting is a part of the tribal festival-‘Chaita Parab’. During this festival when they go for hunting they set fire at one end of the forest and from the other end they chase the animals. In some parts of Pottangi block of Semiliguda forest Range tribal people are used to eat rats. To hunt the rats they put fire in the holes of rocks and earth with the use of dry leaves or grass. Tribal people collect a kind of insect named “Sindhi poka” for their consumption. These insects stay in Sindhi Trees, (look like palm trees but dwarf in size).
These insects are collected in some part of Nayarayanpatna, Laxmipur and Semiliguda Range of Koraput district. To collect these edible insects tribal people burn the Sindhi trees so that the insects can be collected easily. Even today tribal people use Fire as torch during the night which is prepared with rope of hedge. The careless throw of the butt of the burning torch light, Cigarette or Bidi on the dry leaves lying on the forest causes fire accident. While traveling a long distance through forest some travelers cook their food in the forest and they leave the fire without extinguishing. In some parts of Koraput tribal people earn their livelihood by selling charcoals. After preparing the charcoal they leave the burning tree trunk without extinguishing it which causes forest fire.
Forest fire is causing enormous damage to the flora and fauna of the Koraput Forest Division. Repeated fire accidents lead to soil erosion that reduces the productivity of the soil. Young seedlings, coppice shoots and young pole crops are damaged or destroyed and Bamboo clumps becoming malformed. When the surface of the soil is burnt to ash the top soil layer becomes devoid of fertile soil and the recycling of the organic materials of the soil is stopped. Small medicinal plants are also damaged by the forest fire. The forest fire is creating scarcity of fodder day by day. The most serious matter of concern is that the Wild life is also hampered due to forest fire. Many rare wild animals die due to forest fire, which results in the decrease of wild life population.
It has been found that the forest fire occurs frequently in Narayanpatna, Laxmipur and in some parts of Semiliguda Forest Range. Though occasional forest fire occurs in the rest of the forest Ranges but these three Ranges are most vulnerable to forest fire. To prevent forest fire the Forest Department has started involving the tribal villages adjacent to the forests. The department has been instilling the spirit of ownership among the tribal people by creating awareness on how to check frequent fire accidents occurring in forests.
Manmade or natural fires are very common in this tract. Forest Department has been implementing lot of schemes and programmes to regenerate and enrich the degraded forest with the help of the Community Based Organizations like youth clubs, Self Help groups, Vana Surakshya Samiti (Forest Protection Committee), Farmers Associations and Village Panchyats. Forest department has started mobilizing the ignorant and unaware tribal youths regarding the different problems related to environment degradation. It makes them convince about the reasons of fire accidents and the problems arising due to forest fire. The Forest Guards are building good rapport with the youth clubs for creating awareness against forest fire. The Forest Department with the collective initiatives of different NGOs working at the grass root level mobilizes the youths of the community on the ill impacts of forest fire.
Measures against the protection of forest fire have been taken up through Vana Surakshya Samiti (Forest Protection Committee). It is one of the most effective and active committee of tribal villagers promoted by the Forest Department to protect forest. Interested and active villagers are identified for VSS; they are trained and oriented on different measures to check forest fire. These community members create awareness in their own villages.
In Maliput of Peta Gram Panchayat under the Lamtaput Range, there were eight Female Self Help Groups (SHGs) and Two Male Self help Groups formed with guidance of NGOs working at the grass root level. These SHGs with the help of NGOs are facilitating the process of Vana Surakshya Samiti. In this way those villagers are guided to protect their forest from fire accidents. As shifting cultivation (Podu Chasa) is the time bound practice of earning livelihood for some of the tribal people in whole Koraput forest Division, it has been felt that tribal people must be provided some definite alternative land for cultivation as well as they must be trained on modern and stable farming process. It would retard shifting cultivation. The farmers associations and the Panchayat are taking initiatives in that direction.
Alternative livelihood options have been provided to tribal people by the forest department. Under the entry point activity the Forest Department are helping the Self Help Groups, village development committees, forest protection committees (Vana Surakshya Samitee), Grain Banks etc. It engages them in different earning activities like developing nursery, plantation work; earth works (structures for soil conservation etc.). The forest department is also providing them loan in lean season and other necessary helps to improve their standard of living. Loans have been provided to those people who have the skills on making 'Pots', or Handicrafts, blacksmith works, Artisans, on Small Business or Trade of Minor Forest Produces etc. so that their dependency on forest could be reduced. Fire control squads have been formed by the VSS members to control fire accidents. Fire Fighting Teams have been formed from among the active members of VSS or from among the villagers where there is no VSS. These squads have been given proper training and orientation on the causes of fire and on fire protection measures. Besides that the forest department is planning to equip them with some Fire Fighting Equipments like Racker, Shovel, Ruler Key, etc. These squads guard the jungle on a rotation basis. In lieu of all these activities the department has won the confidence of the villagers. As a result the villagers are working for the preservation and protection of the forest and they are co-operating the Forest Department in controlling forest fire.
Hunting has been a part of tribal festival. The festive occasion comes once in a year during 'Chaita Parab' and at this particular time the Forest Department has been taking necessary precautionary measures to create awareness among the tribal people to stop hunting. The forest department is taking the help of Youth clubs to aware the tribal community. The involvement of traditional leaders, local administrators and the Forest Department has been done to stop community hunting.
Diasil village has set a unique example in itself. The establishment of good rapport with the villagers has helped the members of Forest Department in collecting information about the people who regularly visit the forest and also about those people who are in the habit of setting fire in forests. The VSS members of this village have been mobilized in such a way that they are now imposing fine on those people who are responsible for fire accidents. This change has been brought through a unanimous resolution in their VSS meeting with the support of Panchayat. The imposition fine deter others tribal people to set fire in the forest. This decision has been made by the villagers of Diasil village of Toyaput GP under Laxmipur forest Range. The villagers have realized the significance of environmental protection which ensures their economy.
With the help of the members of the community based organizations tribal villagers fire line cuttings have been constructed to control spread of fire. But it has been observed that fire line cutting measures have been taken up only in very limited areas of these forests. In 100 hectares of forest land construction of fire line spreading 1 - 2 kilometers has negligible impact. Construction of fire line in periphery and compartment lines each year last before mid February is suggested. In some of the villages where there are no VSS formed yet.
Hence there is an urgent need to form such committees. In the villages of Maliput of Peta Gram Panchayat under the Lamtaput Range, it has been found that there was no VSS in that village even though the people were interested to form VSS. During discussion with the tribal villagers it was revealed that the fire accidents occur in the nearby forests due to Char Coal processing. But they are unable to protect the forest as the people who are manufacturing Char Coal belong to other villages. To oppose those persons they need unity and the unity could be possible under the banner of VSS.
As per the information received from the six forest ranges, all the forest fire accidents or mishaps are mostly manmade. To create awareness among the poorly literate tribal people different kinds of pictorial sign boards need to be placed at different strategic locations reflecting the causes and dangers of forest fire. These information boards must be put in the forest fringe villages as well as on the road side to create awareness among the travelers who often leave the fire in forest without extinguishing it that sometimes lead to forest fire. In fire sensitive areas engagement of watchers could be more effective. They would be able to alert the villagers regarding any such mishap and extend their help in checking forest fire before it spreads. Regular interaction of the forest staffs with the villages would ensure a collective step for the protection and preservation of forest.
Mr. Debendra Kumar Samal