Scorched earth: What’s causing the spike in Odisha’s forest fires?

Location IconKendujhar district, Odisha

Usually a result of forest land being cleared for farming, forest fires have been extremely common in the Banspal block of Odisha’s Kendujhar district. The average landholding in the region is quite low and a lot of residents of the area are landless. And so they often clear forests through slash and burn in order to acquire cultivable land that they can use to earn a livelihood. At FES, we have been working with the community since 2018 to reduce forest fires by decreasing their dependence on the forest. We’ve worked on building the community’s awareness about the negative consequences of forest fires, identifying the particularly vulnerable sections of the community and linking them with government schemes and programmes, providing them with alternative livelihood options, and promoting low-cost agriculture. These efforts resulted in a significant decrease in forest fires in 2019 and 2020.

However, in 2021 we noticed that the number of forest fires soared again. Upon further investigation we discovered that this sudden increase was an unfortunate consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. As many migrant workers were forced to return home during the lockdown, they had no option but to take up agriculture as an alternative livelihood. Since they had no land of their own to undertake cultivation, they had resort to burning down patches of the forest.     

The situation has since improved. Some of the migrant labourers returned to urban areas in search of work, and the remaining were accommodated under MGNREGS and settled agriculture. Additionally, village-level by-laws were established to manage forest fire incidences. For instance, people are prohibited from lighting fires in the protected patches of the forest, and controlled burning is conducted for patches that need to be cleared. The forest department is also staying vigilant to keep such incidences in check.  

Kartik Chandra Prusty works on facilitating collective land rights over forests and strengthening local democratic processes in Odisha’s remote tribal areas.

Know more: Read this article to learn how villagers in Odisha are reseeding the forest that they collect resources from.

Do more: Connect with Kartik at [email protected] to learn more about and support his work.


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