BRT forests have changed radically. Is the fire ban to blame?

Soligas can no longer recognise the forest they have lived in for generations. It is now colonised by an invasive weed.

Updated - May 13, 2017 07:16 pm IST

Published - May 13, 2017 04:14 pm IST

The history of colonial forest protection begins with the control of fire, which the British saw as a primitive local practice

The history of colonial forest protection begins with the control of fire, which the British saw as a primitive local practice

Bangi Range Gowda is an elderly Soliga man whose lungs, after years of smoking, will only allow him to speak a few words before a bout of violent coughing cuts him short. Although in great discomfort, he speaks to us animatedly about how as a young man he and other Soligas burnt the forest every year.

The burning, he said , nurtured the forest and grassland so people could harvest tubers, animals had enough fodder, and the rulers of Mysore could hunt game. “ Booloka ne sutogtaa ithu (the entire earth would burn),” says Madegowda an adivasi from Hiriambala village on the border of the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve (BRT). Such was the ubiquity of fire here. But everything changed in 1974 when the government notified this forest as a wildlife sanctuary.

Soligas, adivasis who used to practice shifting cultivation until they were banned from doing so, now eke out a living collecting forest produce and farming. We have been collecting oral accounts of the historical use of fire to understand the current hostility in official and public discourse towards forest fires and why setting a fire in a forest is today considered a criminal activity.

Karnataka has taken particular pride in the increase in tiger numbers. Such a successful wildlife conservation campaign has had its costs and this has been almost entirely borne by local people who live within and around sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves.

But the impact of a changing landscape on the lives of Soliga adivasis in BRT has been severe—it is a forest they no longer recognise. Much of the BRT landscape today has trees in the upper layer and a weed called lantana that has colonised the understory. This weed has taken over the forest to such an extent that ecologists are warning that the forest will change significantly if something is not done soon.


Lantana—a flowering shrub native to South and Central America, introduced by the British in India as an ornamental plant—grows so thick that it does not allow tree seedlings to grow through the understory to become adult trees. Other consequences include the lack of fodder for animals and loss of access to humans and animals due to its impenetrable growth.

The intense distrust of burning has had another consequences on local people who live in forests: they now live in constant fear of being accused of setting fire should a fire occur in their forest. In 2007 a fire in BRT resulted in the arrest of 27 Soligas and the beating and eventual hospitalisation of a 60-year-old man. More recently the forest department has put up cameras in the forest to record the movement of people and this has acted as a deterrent to Soligas from walking in the forest, despite the fact that they have received legal rights under the Forest Rights Act to live in and use this forest.

In the early ‘70s, before BRT was declared a wildlife sanctuary it was an open forest with sparse tree growth and grass that ecologists refer to as woodland savanna. This is the kind of vegetation we see in many parts of Africa and that has now largely disappeared from India due to the exclusion of fire. These ecosystems are maintained by fires and have species adapted to frequent fires.

A few decades ago Soligas burnt the forest using flint and stone, which they called chaka muki , until matches became more easily available. “The fires were never too large to affect the trees,” an elderly Soliga told us. “The early season fires were called taragu benki [or litter fire]. The burning began after Sankranti [mid January] continued through Shivaratri [February-March] and completed by Ugadi [end March].” The advantage of such early burning was that the fires were less intense and there was less plant material that could burn in the heat of the summer months.

Colonial baggage

To understand why the forest administration is so opposed to fire we need to look at colonial practice. The history of colonial forest protection begins with the control of fire, which the British saw as a primitive local practice that had to be banned.

Fires were also believed to threaten timber operations that were at the heart of the colonial economic effort. Fire was banned and stories about its destructive consequences were circulated to impress urban and elite society of its adverse impacts on animals, plants and people. These stories have held such sway that even today the mere mention of a forest fire makes us react with shock. Stephen Pyne writing on the history of fire in Indian forests says that as a result of the training that they have received from Europe, Indian scientists ‘continue to distrust burning, as though it were still a stigma of primitiveness, a leprosy on the landscape’.

Today Soligas feel alienated from the BRT forest: “They let our stomachs burn,” Madegowda of Monukai podu tells us.

The authors are with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.

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