Lessons from the Kattunayakan and Soliga tribal communities: Recent studies on better forest fire management – Tamil Nadu & Karnataka

Notes from the Other Side of a Forest Fire

by Tarsh Thekaekara, Abi Tamim Vanak, Ankila J Hiremath, Nitin D Rai, Jayashree Ratnam, Raman Sukumar in Economic & Political Weekly, June 24, 2017
Source: Courtesy Tarsh Thekaekara by email (18 July 2017) | To read the full text, click the download link Notes from the other side of a forest fire EPW 2017 >>

If you do not burn the forest, it will burn.
— A Kattunayakan Adivasi saying

Although widely used as a tool in forest management across the world, causing fires is illegal in Indian forests. This article points out that the present understanding of fire as essentially disruptive has its antecedents in a colonial perspective that came from seeing the forest primarily as a source of timber. However, the practices of indigenous communities as well as the insights of ecological studies point to the importance of using fire in controlled ways to manage dry and deciduous forest ecosystems. […]
Local people used fire as an essential part of land management, where it “converted organic residues into fertilizer, kept woodlands and prairies in grass, assisted hunting, cleansed soil of pathogens, and supported foraging for flowers, bees, tubers, and herbs” (Pyne 1994: 7). India’s mosaic was intricately ordered by fire, where “fresh browse appeared at the proper place at the proper time; deer migrated to those sites; tiger followed the deer” […]
Despite scepticism about the feasibility of completely suppressing fires in India’s forests, most colonial officers zealously pursued a stringent fire suppression policy, in part because of the broader colonial agenda—“to control fire was to control native populations” (Pyne 1994: 12). […]
Indigenous Burning Regimes
“If you do not burn the forest, it will burn” is an often-repeated Kattunayakan saying about forest fires. Adivasis have historically used fires to manage their forests, and these practices—for example, by the Soligas in the Bilgiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (BRT) in Karnataka—have been reasonably well-studied and documented.
We do not of course suggest that uncontrolled, devastating wildfires should be left unchecked. […] We argue that the blanket ban on fires in all forest ecosystems is highly misplaced [and] that India is also able to learn from and contribute to this growing body of work.

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

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