05/19/2016, 13.53
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Arson destroys 1,400 hectares of Nepali forest

by Christopher Sharma

Fires broke out at 44 different sites, endangering biodiversity and local communities. Breeders believe that fires create fresh grassland for cattle, or secretly set fires to prevent elephants and rhinos from encroaching on farmland.

Kathmandu (AsiaNews) – In recent weeks, wildfires have wiped out 1,400 hectares of forest at 44 different locations. Human activity is mostly to blame.

“Jungle fires are not new; they occur every year. However, we are concerned this year about their increase,” Forest Ministry spokesperson Yagya Dahal told AsiaNews. This threatens biodiversity, and “many forest communities are at high risk.”

In recent years, the government has expanded forest cover, funded in part by foreign sources. The policy “has been backed by many countries involving local communities,” Dahal explained, but “if the fires do not stop, this might be at risk.”

One of the problems is fire control resources. “Every year, jungle fires cause huge losses but we don’t have enough resources to deal with them,” said Assistant District Forest Officer Sunil Kumar.

“There is no early preparedness,” he explained. “People don’t realise the significance [of fires] and their effect on their communities.”

In addition to natural causes, like hot summer weather (already underway), fires are often due to arson.

“There are various reasons for forest fires,” said Ramkrishna Niraula, a researcher in forest conservation. However, “People are mainly behind them. Rural communities raise cattle and set fire to the jungle believing that this will lead to new and fresh grassland for grazing.”

At the same time, “the jungle is expanding and so is its animal population. These animals encroach on human settlements seeking food. Sometimes locals find dead goats and sheep. Animals like elephants and rhinos eat crops on farmland located near the jungle.”

Basically, according to the researcher, "there is a conflict between people and animals. For this reason, people secretly set fires.”

In some cases, smokers can cause fires by throwing away their cigarettes without paying attention. In others, lightening can spark fires. But these are rare.

In theory, such problems are dealt with in Nepal’s Forest Act, which imposes sanctions on arsonists with up to ten years in prison.

Sadly, researcher Niraula notes, the law is not being enforced. There is no record of people ever being punished for arson.

What is more, “The government should establish awareness programmes to make people realise how important the forest is to them. It should also be better prepared to cope with such emergencies since fires occur every summer.”

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