Concerns over meagre financial support to wildfire victimsStakeholders call for revising the relief amount for victims of wildfires that claim 10 lives annually
When Khagendra Bohora, a local resident of Chhatreshwori Rural Municipality-6, Salyan, saw a massive forest fire approaching the settlement, situated downhill of the Bhuwaneshwori Community Forest, he rushed to douse the fire.
The wildfire, which started in the adjoining Indreni Community Forest on May 9, reached Bhuwaneshwori Forest on May 11 and threatened the Tusare Simpani settlement.
While trying to douse the fire and to save Penti Bohara, 65, another local resident, who ultimately died due to the blaze, he got critically injured.
Bohora was soon rushed to Salyan District Hospital for treatment. After his treatment was not possible at the district hospital, he was referred to Nepalgunj. He died on May 14 while undergoing treatment in Kirtipur Hospital, where he was finally brought, because of massive burns he had sustained.
“He lost his own life while trying to save the settlements and the old woman from the locality,” Chudamani Dashaudi, ward 6 chairperson of the rural municipality, told the Post.
“His family comes from a poor background and had been relying on agriculture. Loss of the sole breadwinner of the family has left the family in a difficulty.”
The forest fire engulfed a total of ten houses including some cowsheds. The Chhatreswori Rural Municipality distributed some cash and relief materials to the affected families.
The deceased’s family members got Rs25,000 from the District Administration Office, Salyan for the final rites and other Rs20,000 from the rural municipality. Later the administration office handed over Rs100,000 to the families that lost family member to the wildfire.
“The relief amount means nothing to the family who has lost its head. He is survived by three children,” added Dashaudi.
In the same week, another life—third for this wildfire season in the country—was lost in the neighbouring locality of Chhatreswori Rural Municipality. Gobardhan Pun of Sharada Nagarpalika, Salyan also died in the forest fire.
Besides tens of thousands of hectares of green forest burning due to wildfires across the country, lives are lost every year while either trying to douse the fire or fleeing from it.
Uncontrolled forest fires across the country have killed 10 persons every year on an average since 2005. The deadliest forest fire of 2009 alone killed 49 people, including 13 Nepal Army personnel and local people. In 2016, which saw another massive forest fire season when nearly 1.3million hectare forest was lost, 15 people were reported dead.
With wildfire claiming lives every year, forest conservationists and community forestry activists voice their concerns about the state not doing enough for those who risk their lives protecting the country’s forests.
Bharati Kumari Pathak, chairperson of the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal—the umbrella organisation of 22,226 forest user groups, told the Post that the country has failed to recognise the contribution of the forest protectors.
“First, they grow a forest and when it is burning they jump in to protect it. Without any safety gear or insurance cover, they voluntarily go ahead to conserve the country’s natural resource,” said Pathak. “In return, the state does almost nothing. If the relief amount is given then it is meagre.”
Most of the lives lost to forest fires are because of untrained and ill-equipped locals rushing in to douse fire either to protect the forest or to stop it from reaching the nearby settlements, according to Sundar Prasad Sharma, an under-secretary at the Department of Forest and Soil Conservation.
The Forest Fire Management Strategy, 2010, which envisages developing and strengthening necessary policy and institutions for controlling forest fires, also has the provision of providing compensation for forest fire victims and their families.
The department official says lack of proper guidelines on how the relief amount will be distributed has created confusion and deprived victims of justified financial support.
“There are no directives or separate working procedures for distribution of such amounts. In the absence of such arrangements, victims and their families are relying on small amounts given by local units, forest user groups or other authorities,” added Sharma. “Their contribution to protecting forests should be glorified and given accolade as ‘conservation martyr’.”
Sindhu Prasad Dhungana, spokesperson for the Ministry of Forest and Environment, told the Post that the ministry had once proposed a hike in the relief amount, but the agenda did not pass.
“Since the Home Ministry oversees disaster incidents including fire and compensation issues, the matter is beyond our jurisdiction,” said Dhungana, a joint-secretary with the Environment Ministry. “Last time, we had increased the compensation amount to be given to the victims of human-wildlife conflict because it did not clash with any other agency.”
The ministry official also said that the financial assistance given by any government authorities to the victim and their families should be considered as relief since two authorities cannot provide aid separately for the same incident.
“Wherever the money is provided from, it is going from the state fund,” added Dhungana.
Pathak accused the forest ministry of running away from its responsibilities by making other bodies responsible for helping locals who got injured or died while protecting a forest.
“The forest ministry cannot even speak on behalf of those who gave everything of theirs to protect forest. Then what is the use of the ministry calling itself an agency making laws and doing everything to conserve the same forest?” added Pathak.