The cause of Himalayan forest fires

Forest fires have been in the news recently. Some are inevitable and a necessary event in the life of an ecosystem – part of the natural cycle of death and regeneration. But many people now believe that climate change is causing them to occur more frequently and with more devastating consequences.

I’ve recently been editing the video footage from my trip to the Kangchenjunga region of Nepal earlier this year, where we witnessed a Himalayan forest fire that we believe was entirely man-made.

Watch on YouTube

We were sitting at a teahouse finishing off a plate of dal bhat when Edita noticed a small fire in a forest clearing the other side of the valley.

‘Oh, my god,’ she said.

The fire was small, but there were trees all around. It was midday, the air was hot and dry, and it was windy. In other words, conditions were perfect for the fire to spread.

And so it did. It spread so quickly that we could see it move up the hillside like an army. It advanced left and right, and within minutes we were witnessing a scene of total devastation.

But it wasn’t just one fire. We noticed that more had started on other parts of the hillside. They were spreading just as quickly and merging into one. Soon, much of the hillside was engulfed in thick smoke and it looked like a volcano erupting.

‘Many animal dead,’ said our guide, a Buddhist who believed that all life is sacred.

It seemed that animals wouldn’t be the only casualties; there were houses nearby that looked certain to be swallowed up later that afternoon.

For so many fires to break out simultaneously in these ideal conditions, it seemed likely they had been started deliberately. But why?

Cardamom is a lucrative cash crop in the Kangchenjunga foothills
Cardamom is a lucrative cash crop in the Kangchenjunga foothills

We were inside Kangchenjunga National Park, but there were many villages within the park boundaries. The land around houses was cut into terraces so that the residents could grow crops for their own use.

Further down the valley we had encountered farming on a much larger scale. The local cash crop was cardamom, a spice that could be sold for a good price across the border in India. We had passed through many plantations perched upon precipitous hillsides. There is no shortage of water in Himalayan forests, and industrious farmers had rigged up sprinkler systems that made use of what seemed like an inexhaustible natural supply (but of course, nothing in life is inexhaustible).

Had the forest fire that we were witnessing been started deliberately to clear the forest for more of these giant cardamom plantations?

If so, then I had mixed feelings. I know that it’s common practice now to condemn these things outright. We are using up our natural resources more rapidly than they can be replaced, and it’s unsustainable. Some people believe that we have already passed beyond a point of no return.

I have sympathy for this point of view, but I also believe that everybody has a right to earn a living. If cardamom farming is a means to a better life for rural villagers in Nepal, then who are we who live more comfortable lives to complain? We are using up our resources far more rapidly in the developed world.

But I couldn’t help reflecting that there are better ways to clear land than by starting an uncontrollable fire. This could easily swallow up far more land than you can possible farm, destroy wildlife, and take other people’s homes with it.

And then, of course, it was inside a national park where the land was supposed to be protected.

I don’t have all the answers to these difficult questions and there was nothing we could do to stop this particular inferno. We watched enthralled for some time; then we shouldered our packs and continued along the trail. Later that afternoon I looked back and the fire appeared to be burning out. It was a scene of devastation, but it could have been much worse.

We continued our trek and a few days later we were among the beautiful snow peaks. I no longer gave the forest fire much thought. There are still many unspoiled landscapes to be enjoyed. Wonder, tranquillity and a respect for nature can still be found in many places.

But for how much longer?

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