On Fires and Forests

As wild fires rage through Simlipal, very controlled burning by slash and burn farmers signals spring in the Southern Odisha districts of Koraput and Rayagada as they prepare their hilly uplands for cultivation. The skies turn a smokey grey and the fresh breath of spring gives way to an acrid smell of smoke and dry heat with the progress of March.

How good or bad is shifting cultivation? It probably does release huge quantities of green house gases into the air. But is it worse than modern agriculture with its mono crops completely predicated on fossil fuels and poisonous chemicals? Through shifting cultivation, tribal communities have preserved a huge bio-diversity of grains that can withstand droughts and floods, and provides a rich and nutritious diet. They have also preserved and nurtured forests that are full of wild foods including tubers, fruits and spinach.

Fire in itself is also not all bad. According to the NY times, it is the United States’ history of suppressing wild fires that has actually made present day wildfires so bad. According to the National Geographic, many eco-systems benefit from periodic fires, as they clear out dead organic material—and some plant and animal populations require the benefits fire brings to survive and reproduce. In the slash and burn cycles of tribal communities fire kills the weeds and pest, while the ash provides rich fertile medium for the plants to grow. The first year of the slash and burn cycle inevitably sees an abundance of produce of several species of grains and pulses.

it is now widely recognised that “wildland fire” which are prescribed man made burns are planned extensively and performed with tight safety parameters. Humans have been performing such burns for thousands of years and for multiple reasons, but, today, they are mainly used to promote ecological health and prevent larger, more damaging, uncontrolled fires.

These debates can perhaps continue without end, but the link between climate change and bigger fires is undeniable. As pointed out by bioclimatologist Park Williams “This climate-change connection is straightforward: warmer temperatures dry out fuels. In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark”.

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