[Commentary] Documenting the flora and fauna of Phalee to mitigate the impact of forest fires

Intentional burning of jhum gone out of control at a forest adjacent to Phalee, during Phalee Luita, a seed sowing festival. Photo by Shemchon Awungshi, Phalee BMC.
  • Phalee, a village in the Ukhrul district of Manipur, lies in the Eastern Himalayas Biodiversity Hotspot. The region is now facing threats with forest fires, mostly caused by human negligence.
  • The forest fires have led to an imbalance in the ecosystem with the local flora and fauna shrinking, which also leads to financial losses for the community.
  • Rainforest Biodiversity of Phalee (RFBP) along with the community, is working to document the flora and fauna in Phalee. Documentation of species and traditional knowledge, along with innovative conservation strategies, can help Phalee mitigate the impacts of forest fires better.
  • The views in the commentary are that of the author.

“Our habitat was once a thick jungle in which trees such as Magnolia sp., Dipterocarpus sp., Pinus sp., Phoebe hainesiana, Quercus sp. and more, as large as three to four metres in circumference, were in abundance. These giant trees were cut with axes and carved for months to make traditional royal beds. Animals howling, insects singing and birdcalls once filled the air,” recalled 96-year-old Ng Yarkao. He is the oldest man in village Phalee, in the district of Ukhrul in Manipur.

Hunting used to be another common activity at Phalee. “Deer, bear, bird, wild boar, monkey and wild cat for bushmeat were hunted and their skulls stored as a display of skill and a trophy,” said Yarteo. By the end of 1968, there was a tremendous increase in forest clearance for jhum cultivation in Ukhrul, he said. Yarteo, 78, is a teacher.

A view of Phalee from Changrimai. Photo by Ng ngalengshim/Wikimedia Commons.
A view of Phalee from Changrimai. Photo by Ng ngalengshim/Wikimedia Commons.

The 2011 census reported that the village of Phalee has a total of 794 households with 3,742 people, of which 1,934 were males and 1,808 were females. Phalee occupies a total area of about 17 sq. km. and stands at an elevation of about 1,533 metres. Agriculture is the primary occupation, with more than 80% of the population involved in the activity. The common agricultural practices are wet paddy, dryland farming and rain-fed terracing, ideal for the red sandy soil. The commonly cultivated neglected and underutilised crop species (NUS) includes Amaranthus sp., Eleusine sp., Coix lacryma-jobiVigna umbellateSorghum bicolorSetaria italica, Chenopodium albumIpomoea batatas, Hordeum sp., Glycine max, Dioscorea sp., Zea mays and Sesamum indicum, according to Somi, a farmer with traditional knowledge of flora and fauna in the village.

The India Biodiversity Portal notes that Phalee receives an annual rainfall of about 2,000-2,400 mm. The mean annual temperature is 17 degrees Celsius. The Restor web portal maps the region’s habitat comprising Mizoram, Manipur and Kachin rainforests, forming a part of the tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests biome. Phalee lies in the Indo-Burma or the Eastern Himalayas Biodiversity Hotspot.

This biodiverse region however, is slowly degrading as a consequence of hunting, wildfires, deforestation and the excessive use of agrochemicals, with forest fires causing a huge impact to the native flora and fauna.

Maising R.N., a farmer, who is also a repository of traditional knowledge, recalls, “As a young schoolboy in 1990, I saw a forest fire blazing on the horizon in the evening and heard the sound of winds generated by the forest fire. The peon was ringing the church bell frantically to signal the villagers about the raging fire and the need for volunteers to extinguish it.” Now, the fires in the district have increased.

Forest fires across India

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) 2020 report, humans are responsible for 75% of all forest fires worldwide. Naturally occurring forest fires (25%) might be caused by lightning, volcanic activity, and coal seam fires, and are relatively rare. Globally, forest fires are responsible for 1.76 billion kilograms (kg), or about five percent of the total carbon emissions of about 36 billion kg.

Bandipur fire, 2019. Representative image. Humans are responsible for 75% of all forest fires worldwide, noted the World Wildlife Fund in 2020. Photo by NaveenNkadalaveni/Wikimedia Commons.

By the end of May 2021, the Indian Forest Survey had sent out more than three lakh (300,000) fire alerts, a number that was nearly triple that of the previous year. Forest dwellers suffered the most, already reeling from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 lockdown. During the peak fire season (November-June) in 2020-2021, there were more than 21,000 large forest fires, of which over 1,500 burned for four days or more. Of these, 24 lasted ten days, and two blazed for two weeks. This year, the Forest Survey of India (FSI) spotted over 7,800 fires in just three days towards the end of April.

Read more: [Explainer] The good, the bad, and the ugly side of forest fires

The situation in Ukhrul

In the districts of Ukhrul and Kamjong, almost all forest fires are caused by humans. Human negligence – often in the form of a carelessly thrown matchstick or a cigarette, a charcoal furnace, or a smouldering campfire left unattended – is reported to start the most fires, and even active arson is suspected. Some fires are started intentionally to burn agricultural land but grow to an uncontrollable scale. A few cattle herders set fires to let grass bud fast for their cattle, in a traditional practice of free ranching.

Global Forest Watch (GFW) has detected 1,794 Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) fire alerts between March 23, 2020 and March 22, 2021, from Ukhrul and Kamjong. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) found that in Ukhrul, 85 sq. km. of land was burned in 2021 and emitted about 968,000 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. However, this information compares fires from one year to another and includes anomalies like small fires or controlled agricultural burns.

Firewood collection is a traditional practice in Ukhrul where each family cuts down more than two basketball court sizes of forest patches for domestic firewood on a rotational basis every year. Culturally, setting fires strictly limited to meeting agricultural needs. However, with traditional knowledge fast disappearing, the new generation does not know how to break fires and clear trees as effective methods of fire management.

Ground fires decimate hemiparasites, reduce tick-borne diseases, and promote the growth of grasses that served as cattle fodder. They curtailed unwanted tree growth, which helped to maintain the pasture lands. The fire-stimulated grass growth also inadvertently supports local herbivores. However, climate change, land-use change and poor land management now enhance the fires to burn longer and more intensely than ever before. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) noted the same in its 2022 report on wildfires.

Between 2001 and 2020, forests in Ukhrul, Manipur, emitted 968 ktCO₂e/year and removed-84 5ktCO₂e/year. This represents a net carbon flux of 123 ktCO₂e/year. The image was generated using the Global Forest Watch web tool.
Between 2001 and 2020, forests in Ukhrul, Manipur, emitted 968 ktCO₂e/year (kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) and removed 845ktCO₂e/year. This represents a net carbon flux of 123 ktCO₂e/year. The image was generated using the Global Forest Watch web tool.

Documenting the local flora and fauna

Since the gradual decrease of fires in Phalee during the last few years, local communities have reported that hemiparasites, ants, white grubs, invasive weeds, snakes, insects and leech populations are now overwhelming. The wild fruit dropping has increased, which our village farmers speculate could be caused by increasing ant populations. Many useful forest products like mushrooms, ground orchids, plantlets, wild fruit trees, medicinal plant leaves, and more flowering herbs and shrubs have increased in population. The local awareness of flora and fauna has improved.

School students of Phalee in a biodiversity mapping exercise. Photo by Shimreishang Ng/Rainforest Biodiversity of Phalee.
School students of Phalee as part of a biodiversity mapping exercise. Photo by Shimreishang Ng/Rainforest Biodiversity of Phalee.

However, there is currently a need to revisit strategies and methodologies concerning the conservation and the sustainable use of medicinal plants and preserve traditional knowledge. This inspires us, the team of Rainforest Biodiversity of Phalee, to document our biodiversity and learn more about the flora and fauna through citizen science, involving the youth. It is a local action with global significance, as it helps meet some of the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The Phalee Biodiversity Management Committee (BMC) and Rainforest Biodiversity of Phalee (RFBP) along with students, youth, and farmers are working to document flora and fauna. We used our microsite within the India Biodiversity Portal to build a dynamic database – called People Biodiversity Register. It currently hosts more than 3,134 species of which 700 are validated. From this data we learnt that there is a potential in our natural resources and we must make use of these resources to improve the livelihood options in the community.

According to our records, our forests host many endangered species like Rhododendron sp., Neogyna gardnerianaVanda coeruleaRenanthera imschootianaPaphiopedilum sp., Phalaenopsis sp., Quercus sp. Blythe’s tragopan, Coelogyne sp., mainland leopard cat, and highly threatened traditionally used medicinal plants like Cephalotaxus sp., Taxus sp., Litsea cubeba, Zanthoxylum simulans, Salix sp., Blumea sp., and wild ginger. Unfortunately, the population of each species is limited to less than 50 and is shrinking further.

Species recorded in the microsite Rainforest Biodiversity of Phalee within India Biodiversity Portal. Photo from the India Biodiversity Portal.
Species recorded in the microsite Rainforest Biodiversity of Phalee within the India Biodiversity Portal. Photo from the India Biodiversity Portal.

Our documentation showed that the areas affected by fire and deforestation in Ukhrul are converging, and some of the rarest flora and fauna are disappearing. The economic damage and costs of forest fires and deforestation are inconclusive to estimate. Beyond the direct costs, there may be financial implications for the entire region. The size of the deforestation and burned areas alone gives no hint of the damage and number of people affected.

The need of innovation in conservation

Setting forest fires is punishable under the Damage to Public Property Act, 1984 and relevant Sections of the IPC, besides under the provisions of Indian Forest Act, 1927, Manipur Forest Rules, 1971, and the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 for protection of plants and animal species. A focussed approach and resources required for sustaining fire break, sustainable resource use, and biodiversity conservation are lacking. In our case, it may be owing to a lack of proper documentation and linkages with mainstream research and policymaking. Some targeted measures that can be taken up include improving regulatory rules, gas distribution system for domestic uses, activity-oriented and assisted natural regeneration, preventive preparation of fire lines, penalties, and defining roles for each community organisation and member.

A firefighter in Ukhrul who was actively involved in controlling the Shirui Peak blaze in 2020 said that timely community-based forest and fire management practices could safely prevent wanton forest fires and deforestation, especially in our steep hills. An example is the pre-emptive burning of vegetation and clearing of dead leaves in fire-prone areas. The risk of forest fires can be reduced by judicious management in fire-prone areas by pre-emptive burning of vegetation to create ‘fire breaks’ and landscape management as a practice by indigenous people such as the Nagas, Arunachalis and Mizos.

While there have been setbacks to such efforts, India is working towards improving its forest firefighting, forest management, and biodiversity conservation capabilities. The Forest Survey of India (FSI) uses satellite imaging technology to set up fire alert systems and analyse fire-affected forest areas to understand the ecology of forest fires. Given that 36% of India’s forests are prone to frequent forest fires, we need comprehensive forest fire mitigation strategies for bio-cultural conservation.

The author is a member of a community-based organisation – Rainforest Biodiversity of Phalee, Manipur.


Banner image: Intentional burning of jhum gone out of control at a forest adjacent to Phalee, during Phalee Luita, a seed sowing festival. Photo by Shemchon Awungshi, Phalee BMC.

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