Forest fires that started two weeks ago have ravaged 12 of the 21 ranges of Odisha’s Simlipal Tiger Reserve, Asia’s second-largest biosphere, an official said. It was only on Tuesday that the forest fire task force chief said that the blaze had been contained.

The park is home to 1,076 species of plants, including 96 species of orchids. Forty two species of mammals, including the tiger, leopard and Asian elephant, have been spotted here, in addition to 242 species of birds and 30 species of reptiles.

A complete assessment of the destruction is yet to be carried out.

The forest department and conservationists allege that the collection of mahua flowers and poaching contributed to the wildfire. But this claim is disputed by Adivasis, who depend on the forests for their livelihoods and subsistence.

Wildfire near Dengam panchayat in Khunta block in Odisha's Mayurbhanj district. Photo credit: Abhijit Mohanty

Located on the fringe of Simlipal Tiger Reserve, Mahalibasha village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district is inhabited by the Mankidia, who are classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group.

Their main source of livelihood is collecting siali fibre from the forest and using it to prepare ropes and bags.

Bijai Mankidia carries a bundle of siali rope, which is the main source of livelihood for the community. Photo credit: Abhijit Mohanty

“Our forefathers roamed every nook and corner of Simlipal,” recalled 60-year-old Biswanath Mankidia from Mahalibasha, a relocated village whose residents used to live in the core areas of Simlipal. “For hundreds of years, they survived on forest resources.”

He added: “About 20 years ago, the government evicted our people from the core areas. They told us that wild animals might kill us and our presence might disturb wildlife in the area. If this is the case, then how did our forefathers survive for years?”

Wildfires have been ravaging Simlipal and destroying endangered flora and fauna in the region. Photo credit: Abhijit Mohanty

Like many members of his community, even after eviction, Biswanath Mankidia largely subsists by harvesting a range of minor forest produce for survival.

This has now been put in jeopardy due to restrictions on movement imposed by forest officials, in response to the devastating forest fires.

However, the siali that the Mankidia sell for their livelihoods, is only available at the core area of the reserve, deep within the dense forests. Without access to this area, the Adivasi community’s livelihood is in jeopardy.

Wildfires have been ravaging Simlipal, destroying much-endangered flora and fauna in the reserve for more than a fortnight now. Media reports, alongside the forest department and conservationists allege that these fires were started due to “unsustainable” practices by Adivasi communities in the area.

Forest department and conservationists allege that fires were started because of the unsustainable collection of mahua flowers. Photo credit: Abhijit Mohanty

However, Adivasis ask why they would willfully destroy the very source of their survival.

“Prevention of wildfire should be the top priority,” Sibashankar Singh, Sarapanch, Mankediasahi, Mayurbhanj, said. “Traditional knowledge of our Adivasi communities should be respected and utilised. The forest authorities should develop community wildfire protection plans and ensure their involvement to mitigate wildfire activity.”

Chakradhar Hembram, a former zilla parishad member of Jashipur block, noted that not all fires are bad. “The government should maximise the ecological benefits of wildfire whilst minimising its adverse impacts by promoting community stewardship and recognising their ancestral rights over land, water and forest,” he said.

Rama Mankidia, who hails from Mahalibasa village in Mankidiasahi panchayat of Mayurbhanj district, said, that those criticising Adivasis need to understand that the forest is their home.

“For generations, the forest has provided us with siali leaves and fibres, wild fruits, leaves, mushrooms, tubers, roots, honey and firewood. Now, wildfire is burning all these vital sources of our livelihood,” he said. “We must stop spreading the fire further.”

Basanti Mankidia from Mahalibasha village said the prolonged lockdowns have affected the livelihood of Adivasis.

“Now, the wildfire is further worsening our situation,” she said. “This is the summer season. There are no standing crops now.”

She added: “The forest is the only option for us to supplement our food diversity. But what will we do now? Day by day, the wildfire is spreading to new areas. We are worried.”

Nandalal Mankidia from Mahalibasa village says the community depends on a range of medicinal herbs collected from Simlipal forest. Photo credit: Abhijit Mohanty

Nandalal Mankidia from Mahalibasa village said the community depends on a range of medicinal herbs collected from Simlipal forest.

“We use the roots of atarang [Asparagus racemosus Willd. (Liliaceae)] for treating diarrhoea, inflammation, throat infections and cough,” he said. “Buru kolthi [Atylosia scarabaeoides L. Benth. Fabaceae] is used for abdominal pain. Tarab [Buchanania lanzan Spreng (Anacardiaceae)] is used for asthma.”

As the wildfire is ravaging the forest, he wondered how the community will be able to get these herbs. “People in cities go to hospitals when they are ill, but we Mankidia people go to the forest to find our herbs,” he said. “The forest will take care of our health if we protect the forest.”

Sal forest around Jadidhar village in Dengam panchayat of Mayurbhanj district. Photo Credit Abhijit Mohanty

Abhijit Mohanty is a Delhi-based development professional and a freelance journalist covering issues of Adivasi communities in South Asian and Central African countries.