India state’s officials blame pine trees for wildfire severity. Experts say that isn’t the full story.

An article written by The Wire author Hridayesh Joshi breaks down systemic issues facing the wildland firefighting force in Uttarakhand, India.

More than 1,200 forest fires burned this year in Uttarakhand and claimed the lives of at least ten people, including some forest guards. In response, state officials have orchestrated a statewide campaign against pine tree litter, called “Pirul Lao-Praise Pao,” or “Bring Pine Litter, Take Away  Money.” The program incentivizes locals to collect piles of pine needles that litter the state’s forest floor. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami even recorded himself scraping up pine needles to promote the program.

“Under the campaign ‘Pirul Lao-Paise Pao,’ a large number of people are collecting pine needles and selling it to the government at the rate of ₹ 50/kg,” (about 60¢ USD per 2.2 lbs.) Dhami said. “At present, due to this campaign, the incidents of forest fire have reduced significantly and the villagers living near the forest area are also earning income.”

In May, the Uttarakhand government suspended 10 frontline Forest Department employees as nearly 1,350 hectares (3,336 acres) of Himalayan hills remained burning for nearly a month. The decision to suspend the forest guards and foresters followed an emergency meeting of senior government officials with Chief Minister Dhami. He postponed his scheduled engagements to chair the meeting with the Forest Department officials.

“Ten employees have been suspended in different areas,” he said, “five were attached to the forest headquarters and two were issued showcause notices for dereliction of duty leading to massive fire incidents since April 1.”

Trivendra Singh Rawat was the first Chief Minister in the state to start a pine needle collection program by linking it to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) after coming to power in 2017, according to the Statesman.

“Around 25 lakh (~2.5 million) metric tonnes of pine needles are produced annually in the state,” Rawat said. Researchers at India’s  Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering found that pine needles, if heated with an absence of oxygen through pyrolysis, could be converted into a bio-oil and used in blended fuels. Rawat estimates that volume of pine needles could generate nearly 200 MW of power.

Experts, however, say the state’s narrative focus on pine needles as the cause of wildfires misses the mark because pine duff is an easy scapegoat for government officials to focus on rather than the more systemic issues of inadequate forest staff, drought, and a widespread absence of fire breaks.

“One could argue this campaign was the government’s attempt to pivot the blame away from grim ground realities and solely toward these aged pine trees,” Joshi wrote. He said, instead of addressing all these issues together, the Uttarakhand government’s decision to “villainize” one species is a myopic strategy and will prove to be detrimental in the long term. Pine is just one conifer standing among many other species on the Himalayan slopes. Focusing solely on pine shows the government’s misunderstanding of the larger Himalayan ecosystem and is leading to unsustainable solutions to the forest fire issue.

Pine trees have made up an integral part of India’s mountain forest cover since the Himalayas first formed. Collection of pine needles alone won’t be enough to control forest fires, experts told Joshi. Instead, the state should create a more holistic approach that addresses the human causes of forest fires.

Read the full article here.