- In March 2023, forest fires in Goa affected 418 hectares of land, impacting the biodiversity and ecology of these forests.
- Three months later there are still various speculations about the cause of the fires. The slash and burn technique by grazers or erroneous human activity are some of the reasons cited for the fire. The Goa forest department, meanwhile, attributes the fires to high temperatures and scarce rainfall in the season.
- Cashew farmers, whose farms were burnt in the fires, were also blamed to have accidentally caused the fires. But many deny their role and have applied for compensation to recover from the damage to their farms.
- Solutions like setting up firelines and constructing rainwater trenches can help prevent the spread of fires in the future, say experts.
With the onset of summer, Goa’s green cover was enveloped in shades of bright orange and red. Forest fires with high flames and smoke lasted for about 10 to 12 days, starting March 5, 2023. About 500 volunteers including personnel from the Forest Department and Fire Services of Goa, aerial support from the India Navy and Indian Air Force and citizen volunteers had to work together to douse the fires.
According to a forest department inquiry report, a total of 74 fire incidents were reported in this period. Of these, 32 fires affected parts of all of the state’s wildlife sanctuaries – Mhadei, Netravali, Cotigao and Bhagwaan Mahaveer wildlife sanctuaries. The most major fires were reported from a few villages in Sattari taluka, that are surrounded by forests and hillocks across Salcete taluka in South Goa. Sporadic incidents of forest fires continued till the month of May.
A total of 418 hectares of private land, reserve forests, comunidade (collectively-owned) land and protected areas, including more than 348 hectares of forest land, were destroyed.
Three months later, there are still multiple speculations about the cause of the fire.
A government press release in March says “long dry-spell, coupled with unprecedented high summer temperature with low humidity” provided a conducive atmosphere for fire, aggravated by high winds. The press release also points to the slash and burn technique, practiced by local people, in grazing lands and grasslands, adding that it “appears that the fires are mostly man-made in nature, cause of which may be inadvertent or otherwise, for which enquiry has been initiated.”
The Goa forest department attributed the fires to unusually high heat and absence of rainfall in the winter. Environmentalists, meanwhile, speculate that there is no natural cause behind the fires and that they are linked to human activities. Additionally, there are allegations against cashew farmers for accidentally causing the fire to spread due to their cultivation techniques.
Most agree that further probes are needed to determine the exact cause of the fires.
Traditional cashew farming methods
According to a report by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), a majority of forest fires in India can be linked to human actions. Kamalakar Sadhale, an architect, environmental activist and author from Ponda, Goa, says that a traditional practice of clearing land for cultivation is practiced in certain parts of Goa. He speculates that there is a “deliberate attempt” to “light fires” and that “high temperatures” alone cannot be the cause of these fires.
However, Sattari’s Zonal Agricultural Officer, Vishwanath Gavas, told Mongabay-India that cashew farmers are precautious about such practices and only use fire to get rid of the weeds, pests or diseases. They do this after 4 p.m. to prevent high day-temperatures from accidentally spreading the fires. “Farmers never burn the forest deliberately. They wait until the fires are doused completely. Rarely, fire may accidentally spread by high wind speeds,” he says. “We have a saying here in Konkani – ‘matiyek suddha uzo laagta’ (even the soil catches fire in summers).”
In May, the Zonal Agriculture Office of Sattari received over 20 applications for compensation, under the state’s Shetkari Aadhar Nidhi scheme, from farmers whose crops were damaged by the season’s fires. Farmers are eligible to apply for compensation within seven days of damage caused by floods, fires, thunderstorms, animal damage and other factors. The maximum compensation provided is Rs. 1,60,000 and the criteria depends on whether it’s a bearing or non-bearing crop. Once an application is filed, an inspection is conducted and a report is sent to the North Goa District Agriculture Office.
Sandip Majik, a Guide Lecturer in the Directorate of Museum at Panaji, who owns a 13,050 square metres (1.3 hectares) cashew farm says that though the fires may have been caused by humans, they are aggravated by high temperatures. About 5,000 square metres (0.5 hectares) of his farm was damaged due to the fires this year. Around 100 cashew plantations, including 10-15 big cashew trees and a few cashew saplings he had planted over the last two years were burnt, he says. Elaborating on the advantages of using shifting cultivation, or Kumeri cultivation, as it is called in Goa, he says, “My forefathers used Kumeri cultivation, wherein fire was used to clear weeds from our land. This method fertilises the soil, thereby accelerating the growth of our plantations in the monsoon. Farmers always try to maintain the balance in nature. I believe it was high temperatures during that time that may have aggravated the fire.”
Yakub Khan, whose 12,000 sq.mt. (1.2 hectares) cashew farm was destroyed by a forest fire in May, had applied for compensation at the zonal agriculture office. “I was going to fetch an income of 1.5 to 2 lakhs from the produce,” he says. “I worked hard on the farm all by myself without any labourers.”
Bharat Sundaram, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Krea University, postulates that people using fire on roads adjacent to forests may also have started the fires. “Forest areas in Goa have a lot of roads like national and state highways passing through them. People cook or throw away their cigarette butts or beedies which becomes the starting point of a lot of fires in India,” he explains.
Micro and macro-level damage
According to the Forest Survey of India, more than 36% of the country’s forest cover has been estimated to be prone to forest fires. Uncontrolled fires not only burn down vegetation but also the surface organic matter, increasing the frequency of flooding and soil erosion.
Forest fires affect biological organisms either directly or indirectly, including microorganisms. Alex Carpenter, is a conservationist, environmentalist, Co-founder and Managing Director of The Tribe, works on ecosystem restoration. He says, “Soil is a living ecosystem by itself. In wet evergreen forests like the Western Ghats, microorganisms have very little resistance to fire or heat because they’ve not evolved with it, which ends up sterilising the soil. This leads to big problems with soil fertility, functions and processes of the forest floor, ability to decompose the material and soil enrichment.”
Loss of vegetation by the forest fires leads to soil erosion and robs the soil of its water retention capacity, decreasing infiltration and increasing streamflow. This then increases the contact between the precipitation and surface, causing soil deterioration, finds a study. According to Sundaram, this can lead to soil erosion. “Goa has a lot of hilly areas. Forest fires on hillslopes are not a good thing in the long term. If trees and understorey grasses die, they won’t be able to bind the soil,” he explains. Environmentalists believe this can also pose a threat of landslides and flooding in the region.
The forest fires that burned down vast tracts of hills inside the protected areas of Goa’s wildlife sanctuaries, belong to the Western Ghats. Around 67% of fish and 50% of amphibian species existing in India are endemic to this stretch of evergreen forests. Carpenter, who surveyed some of these fire-affected areas along with his team, observed that that birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, spiders and even a wide variety of plants were burnt. “We found three dead caecilians. The number could easily be in the thousands. Among amphibians, there could be a lot of frogs that would have died like fossorial frogs and balloon frogs. Birds like great horned owls, great hornbills, malabar pied hornbills, and any bird nesting in that area have been destroyed.”
He further explains that the endemic evergreen forest trees are also affected, as they cannot survive fire. “For example, the tree species Dipterocarpaceae indicus which is endemic to the Western Ghats, has been disproportionately affected because it is not resilient to fire,” he says.
As per the forest department, the most affected type of vegetation from the fires were ground flora and lower vegetation such as herbs and weeds. Officials said that apart from a couple of snakes, lizards and minor insects, not many species were destroyed.
Anastasio Eleuterio Carneiro, former Biodiversity Management Committee member of village panchayat, Navelim, and environmental activist, observed that monkeys come down to the foothills and venture into the villages in search of food, when such fires burn down vegetation. Carneiro, who is also a teacher and former Village Development Community Convener, says he believes that the forest department should conduct a thorough assessment of the post-fire scenario and keep a record of all the flora and fauna present, as well as that damaged in the fires.
The forest department plans to rejuvenate and replant the fire-affected areas by way of aided/assisted natural regeneration (ANR) once the monsoon starts in Goa. Both offline and online methods are being used to keep a watch on the situation. “The FSI has a fire monitoring and alert system which captures a signal indicating fire from any part of India and sends it to the concerned location,” says Praveen Kumar Raghav, Chief Conservator of Forests (Development). “When it comes to prevention and mitigation, we are focusing our efforts on improved surveillance, training the staff, sensitising local communities, creating awareness, providing mitigation equipment and establishing control centres. Fire trekkers or fire watchers are also appointed seasonally to keep a watch,” he adds.
Commenting on the forest department’s plan, Sadhale says, “The issue with reforestation is that you have to be careful not to adopt monoculture while planting the trees. Mixed vegetation is the character of nature and you have to preserve that. They (the forest department) should plant as many local and mixed varieties of vegetation and create a multi-canopy system that includes ground flora and bushes.”
Preventing forest fires
Sundaram and Sadhale suggest that developing firelines can stop fires from spreading. “Firelines are places where vegetation is cut short and maintained so that even if a fire spreads, it stops at the fireline. It is a low-cost, low-tech way of making sure that fires do not spread, as it’s not possible to prevent forest fires from occurring in India. Instead, we should concentrate on limiting the effect of forest fires,” says Sundaram.
Sadhale also suggests building rainwater trenches to reduce the after-effects of fires. “A rainwater trench is a technique that borrows from watershed development practices and stops the fire from spreading beyond trench lines. This will also prevent water from running down the slopes of de-vegetated hills,” he says.
Carpenter says India will witness some significant and extreme weather events in the coming years. “There needs to be some serious planning for disaster response agencies to be able to act quickly. There is a big danger with calling random volunteers to douse forest fires as they might get lost in the forest, potentially sustain injuries, require casualty extraction and so on,” he says.
He outlines the protocol for when a forest fire is spotted. “First, immediately report it to the Reserve Forest Officer (RFO) or forest warden. Forest fires are unpredictable and dangerous, so it is best to not take any measures by yourself, unless you have experience. If not, it’s better to observe from a distance and coordinate with the emergency services, disaster response force, local panchayat or the forest department,” he suggests.
Establishing guidelines for cashew farming is another necessary strategy, says Sundaram. “Educational awareness programmes have worked abroad, where the forest department explains to the local community why fires are so bad for the forests,” he says.
Digital forest monitoring tools blending powerful remote sensing technology is needed to prevent forest fires, opines Rajendra Kerkar, an environmental activist. “Various anthropogenic activities have been responsible for destruction and degradation of forests. It is high time for all of us to plan a strategy for initiating joint forest management and providing incentives to the local communities for the protection and conservation of wildlife, ecology and forests,” he says.
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