Simlipal burning: Tribal adivasis and forest fires ravaging Simlipal National Park

Simlipal Forest Fire

Simlipal National Park, home to Asia’s second largest biospere, the Simlipal Tiger Reserve and countless species of flora and fauna has been ravaged by forest fires for the past fortnight. The dry season is a particularly vulnerable time for all forests, when dry vegetation needs all but a spark to start a blaze. Natural forest fires are even a part of the ecosystem of many forests with seeds of several species of plants requiring exposure to forest fires to come out of dormancy and germinate. This ensures the regrowth of vegetation.

However, authorities and environmentalists interviewed by the media have implicated adivsis for causing the blazes plaguing Simlapal National Forest Reserve, suggesting that they may have human causes like poachers or bootleggers collecting mahua flowers for making a famous type of toddy or other tribals collecting forest produce. The Simlipal forest fires started at some time in the second half of February and have by now been brought under control with intensified efforts by the forest department.

This post is not a news report, rather some opinions after reading the news reports.

While the devastation of Simlipal Tiger Reserve is by no means desirable, and the risk to wildlife from both fire as well as poaching as animals flee to safe ground is very real, I am a bit sceptical about the blame laid on the tribals for causing the fires.

There is a very real tendency in the Indian system to marginalize tribals and blame for such incidents can be used to limit their access to their natural habitat further. In all the news reports of the fires, there aren’t any interviews of any tribals. So the attributing of blame is entirely one side of the story. This is not to claim any innocence on their part. Merely to note that their voice on the events in their backyards is not on record.

While there is no denying that poaching is real or that there may be deliberate fires being set, forest fires are a reality in this season. The early heat wave this year may not have helped either. It is easy to blame tribals for setting fires, but it is difficult to imagine communities that have always lived in harmony with forests causing uncontrolled blazes or even being careless about fires, particularly when those blazes would also threaten their own homes. After all, communities depending on forests are not exactly the same as ignorant tourists leaving campfires unattended.

It is possible that poachers set fires to herd animals to capture them more easily, or those collecting forest produce do so to collect forest produce more easily and so on, but it is not likely that such fires, even while undesirable, would be left to rage unchecked – this would not be very efficient for either livelihoods or safety of their own homes. If this is how tribals operated, the government would not need to marginalize them, they’d go extinct voluntarily.

I think it is a little concerning that no news reports have asked tribals about the fires and almost all news reports make a point of blaming them for the fires as well. It appears that none of the reporters have paused to ask themselves why a people dependent on forests for their livelihoods want to destroy them. Or, for that matter, asked whether there was any actual evidence that the fires did not have natural causes.

If such a story were to be written about any privileged entity, I feel certain that the reporters would have contacted those being accused for a quote before publishing. It is very easy to publish one sided accounts allocating blame and without any need for verification or comment by the accused party when it comes to the underprivileged.

Again, this is not a claim of innocence on their behalf – but where there is a sudden flood of articles now reporting on the Similipan National Forest fires and blaming the adivasis for setting them, I thought it was necessary that there be at least one post noting the absence of voices from one side of the story.

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