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Uttarakhand’s Wildfires—A Colonial Offshoot

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

How colonial forest conservation rules set Uttarakhand's forests on fire decades after independence.

Illustration of Uttarakhand's Wildfires with a snow leopard and deer
The Bigger Picture by Tanishk Katalkar

Every year, India’s state of Uttarakhand experiences massive and destructive wildfires that harm the wildlife, ecology, and human population of the state. The Forest Survey of India maintains a record of these blazes and as per their data, forest fires in Uttarakhand saw an almost 28x increase between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 fire seasons.


The massive spike coincided with a national-level increase in forest fires. While these fires are technically an indispensable part of any ecosystem, they destroy these very ecosystems as they turn into massive long-term blazes.



Recorded Forest Fires in Uttarakhand, and across India between 2019-20 and 2020-21 as per the SNPP-VIIRS detections in the India State of Forest Report 2021



Uttarakhand wasn’t always home to such massive fires. Communities used to protect and conserve these biodiverse forests. Today, both the community control and the diversity of the forest are lost to the British colonial administration’s capitalist and exploitative approach in the past.



Erasure of indigenous ownership


With Indian forests being declared reserved areas in 1878, the local ownership of the jungle and its resources was disrupted and disintegrated. On one hand, it facilitated the use of timber for the expansion of Indian Railways and for meeting the production demand during the two world wars. On the other hand, it started breaking the relationship between the forests and the forest dwellers.


Independent India didn’t bring drastic changes to this setup. In the name of conservation, people were kept away from the forest, and ideas for the revival of the much-required human-nature linkage were ignored by policymakers.


For centuries, these indigenous people have sustainably utilized the forest resources and have in turn carefully managed them through controlled fires and broader forest governance. With the relationship deliberately ruptured, these people gradually reduced their contribution to forest conservation. Over time, the local understanding of ecology was hampered as the disconnect broadened.


The solution lies in reversing this situation. By re-involving local communities and by reinstating community ownership we will not just see the enhancement of fire control but we will also witness an inflow of economic benefits and a reduction in distress migration. The benefits of indigenous ownership of forests are notable in regions like Vidarbha.

With their Community Forest Rights (CFR) recognized, the locals have stepped up forest protection. “For instance, when forest fires engulfed more than 5,000 ha of forest department-controlled forests in Gondia in May 2018, there was not a single incidence in the neighbouring CFR areas”, states independent researcher Tushar Dash in his report titled ‘Securing Climate Justice for India's forest-dependent communities.’



Monoculturalization


After gaining control over the forests and kicking out the indigenous forest dwellers, the colonizers started exploiting the jungle to its fullest for ‘economic activities’. This especially accelerated with the expansion of Indian Railways. As diverse oak, sal, and deodar forests dwindled, forests dominated by a single species—Chir Pine—took over.


While Chir Pine is native to the Himalayas, its presence was relatively low in the pre-colonial period. With the advent of the 20th Century, however, these trees began to dominate the North Indian landscape. Pine’s initial introduction was in a monoculture format. With its mastery of pushing out other species, it quickly accelerated its own monoculturalization.


Bhaskar Sinha, in his report titled ‘Pines in the Himalayas: Past, Present, and Future scenario’, presents data showing how in some areas a 20x increase in the population density of pine was recorded in less than three decades. Today in Uttarakhand alone, more than 7300 square km of the area or about 27.5% of the state’s total forest cover is occupied by the Chir Pine forests, making them the largest shareholder of the state’s forest cover pie.


Pine is notorious for causing ecological problems, all of which it carries as it spreads. The biggest issue with the Chir Pine is its needles, which are locally known as Pirul. In the April to June period, Pine sheds its leaves in copious amounts and the needles spread out on the forest floor. With temperatures as high as 35°C, these needles dry up easily. Dry needles are precisely what induce massive forest fires.


There is also an indirect method by which pine needles lead to forest fires. The blanket of pirul prevents the regeneration of grass. This ultimately hampers the fodder stock supply for domestic animals. To get rid of this blanket, and to clear the ground for fresh grass growth, some locals set the pine needles ablaze. Unless this is not in a controlled environment, it can give rise to forest fires of grand proportions.


The Oak forests, by absorbing water gradually and releasing it slowly, had given rise to Uttarakhand’s springs, along which early villages were established. Pine’s inability to hold water is causing these springs to dry up, which is leading to water scarcity. Not just does this water scarcity threaten livelihoods, but it also makes the region drier. This aggravates the wildfire threat.


When the British replaced Uttarakhand’s pristine Sal, Deodar, and Oak forests with the Chir Pine, they didn’t recognize the issues associated with the tree—they only saw its commercial value and its expertise in conquering the deforested land quickly. The state is now reaping the consequences of this misadventure.


The Chir Pine today, however, is key to many economic activities in the Himalayan region which renders any attempt at its mass removal an unfeasible idea.



Towards the solution


Uttarakhand’s forest fires are a case study on the impacts of environmental colonialism and monoculture plantations. To solve the issue then, we must be cognizant of all these aspects. We also need to recognize the many ways in which the colonial era continues to impact us—because only then will we be able to amend the past wrongdoings.

  • Erasing the indigenous sense of ownership of the forest harms forest conservation. We can solve the problem only once we have rid ourselves of the western notion of forest management, which is premised upon exploiting indigenous people. We need to give the forest back to its original inhabitants. This will greatly enhance forest conservation and revive forest-based economic activities, just as we saw in Vidarbha.

  • Chir pine is troublesome, but their massacre is not the solution—definitely not amid a climate crisis. There is a need to approach these forests with permaculture-based land management and diversify the mountain ecosystem.

  • There is a need to recognize the economic potential of pine needles. By engaging local communities in harnessing this potential, we can reduce the concentration of pine needles on the forest floor and build a sustainable forest economy. In some areas where pine needles were constantly removed from the forest floor for a few years, a natural return of oak trees has also been registered.



Climate Change—the emerging challenge


With 16.75% of Uttarakhand’s total forest cover being highly fire-prone, the state ranks 6th among the top 10 states in the number of fire detections. While the existing ecosystem anomalies significantly contribute to these numbers, a substantial increase in fire incidents has been recorded over the past few years even as ecological changes remain rather minimal.


The blame for this falls upon Climate Change. Drastic environmental changes, shifts in natural cycles, global warming, etc. are aggravating Uttarakhand’s wildfires. Additionally, we have also seen a reduction in rainfall. In the period between January-March 2021, Uttarakhand received only 10.9 millimeters of rainfall against the 54.9 mm that it usually receives. This was a deficit of almost 80%. With pine trees already causing water scarcity, low rainfall sets the ground ready for massive wildfires which besiege the state for months on end.


Solving climate change and solving Uttarakhand's forest fires meet at an intersection. When we give the land back to indigenous communities we let the forest be managed by the true experts of ecology. When we transform forests into permaculture we do not just diversify the ecosystem, we allow for biodiversity to flourish and we strengthen the forest’s carbon-capture capabilities.


References

Forest Fire Monitoring, India State of Forest Report. (2021). Forest Survey of India. https://fsi.nic.in/isfr-2021/chapter-5.pdf


Forest & Tree Resources in States and Union Territories, India State of Forest Report. (2021). Forest Survey of India.


Sinha, B. (2002). PINES IN THE HIMALAYAS: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE SCENARIO. Energy & Environment, 13(6), 873–881.


Dash, T. (2022, January). Securing Climate Justice for India’s forest-dependent communities. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/357909852_Securing_Climate_Justice_for_India’s_forest-dependent_communities


Santoshi, N. (2021, April 8). As forest fires rage in Uttarakhand, spotlight back on colonial-era problem. Hindustan Times.


Forests of fire. (n.d.). Down To Earth. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.downtoearth.org.in/indepth/forests-of-fire-19957


Jones, B. (2021, June 11). Indigenous people are the world’s biggest conservationists, but they rarely get credit for it. Vox.


Bhowmick, N. (2022, February 18). As wildfires increase in Himalayan pine forests, can restoring oaks help? National Geographic.


Still burning: Forest fires continue to rage in Uttarakhand. (2021, April 14). Down To Earth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/video/climate-change/still-burning-forest-fires-continue-to-rage-in-uttarakhand-76487




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