SERVIR’s new science in forest fire management gets wider acceptance

24 Jul 2015

The South Asian Forum for Environment (SAFE) intervention on forest fire,with support from ICIMOD’s SERVIR-Himalaya Small Grants Programme, has two strong mandates: to improve understanding of the causes and impacts of forest fires through the use of geospatial tools and techniques, and to develop forest management solutions appropriate for specific locations that are equal, reciprocal, and participatory. To support this, community awareness and sensitization were used to help mobilize community stakeholder partnerships, while geospatial interventions have supported policy planners as they map a path to a forest fire free future.

Thorong Toiga, left, discusses the impact of forest fire with SAFE Lead Researcher Dr Dipanyan Dey. Toiga, the head of a small village near Bomdilla in Arunachal Pradesh, encountered seven fire incidences in the past two years

In northeast India, shifting cultivation (jhoom), a traditional style of farming in which plots of land are temporarily cultivated then abandoned and left fallow, has provided mountain communities with a source of subsistence for centuries. However, although jhoom farming is well-adapted to climate conditions and can help maintain ecological balance, it is increasingly associated with the degradation of mountain habitats due to reported linkages with fire events and their subsequent impact on forest regeneration. The legal ban of jhoom farming in some parts of Arunachal Pradesh has led to increased migration to urban areas and the disruption of traditional ethnic societies, which has increased the vulnerability of shifting cultivators.

In Arunachal Pradesh, the SAFE team conducted a series of awareness campaigns among Aka, Apataniand, and Miji tribal communities to introduce an innovative form of jhooming that provides safe and sustainable alternatives to the burning of agricultural waste. Thorong Toiga, the head of a small village near Bomdilla in Arunachal Pradesh, says that she has encountered seven fire incidences in the past two years. “We thought fires were curses from the devil, but now we know that it’s us who are responsible. We must burn small, controlled fires, rather than making big fires that can even kill us”, she said.

Decision makers and experts meet in Paro, Bhutan, to discuss ways to support sustainable forest management techniques

According to field surveys and stakeholder meetings, a disconnect between the Forest Department and local communities in Arunachal Pradesh led to apprehension and distrust, with community members sometimes setting intential fires for fear of being disowned from the community forest area by officials. Raising awareness and sensitization of the concerns from both local communities and forest officials, as well as existing government schemes and programmes, led to the formation of a community group called Thembang Bapu Conservation Committee, which has joined hands with the Forest Department to combat forest fires. The committee has adopted the innovative jhoom techniques promoted by the SAFE intervention: the improved management of agricultural waste, controlled burning of dry litter, and use of agricultural waste as mulch. In 2015, the number of forest fire incidences from February to April in the Bomdilla-Darang-Thembang area of Arunachal Pradesh was 40% less than the previous three years, which can be in part attributed to the adoption of new jhooming techniques and greater cooperation between forest rangers and local communities. This initiative, which is in concurrence with ICIMOD’s Shillong Declaration on Jhooming, has been a great success.

Across the Hindu Kush Himalayas, forest fires are devastating to local communities and ecosystems, and are a huge challenge for forest managers. The first challenge to stopping forest fires is getting accurate and timely information, including early warning of forest fire, a fire’s strength, and probable causes, while the next challenges include reaching out to areas at risk and improving preparedness.

The project developed a platform using space-based technologies and applications that provides a one-window solution to address challenges typically faced by foresters. The platform provides information on hazard zones, vulnerable areas, accessibility, affected settlements, mitigation options, and future predictions to support disaster preparedness. The proposed solutions and mitigation plans suggested by the SAFE intervention have been so convincing that 73 forest rangers from Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh have joined hands to explore ways to build on the project’s findings and research inputs.

In Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, decision makers and experts came together during joint stakeholder meetings to discuss ways to support sustainable forest management techniques. Nilayam Tam, Director of the State Forest Research Institute in Tawang District of Arunachal Pradesh commented on the importance of using spaced-based technologies to better understand the how shifting cultivation affects changes in land use in order to inform related policy decisions. ”GIS and remote sensing are such important and empowering tools that they must be integrated into core forest management policies”, he said. The meeting was attended by decision makers in relevant sectors from both the countries.

One of the major benchmarks of this project is a unique partnership formed to develop and employ a mobile application to share alerts from a forest fire detection and monitoring system. Partners from Arunachal Pradesh in this initiative include a local telecom network service provider, the Department of Forest, Indo-Tibet Border Forces of the Indian Army, and the district administration of West Kameng District.