Sunday, April 4, 2010

To Burn or Not to Burn

That is the question.

If you should drive to our property in the months of March and April, you will see the villagers harvesting sugarcane, wheat ripening, bullocks plowing fields, blackened hillsides and a hazy sky. If driving at night, you might even see a glow of grass fires, a common feature of the hot season in Maharashtra as farmers ready their fields for planting. The land is at its driest now and most easily set ablaze to clean the fields of last year’s debris and, in the villagers’ view, renewing them for the growth of new grass.

Last week the annual fires marched across our property, scorching the hills above our new housing cluster before creeping down to burn the grassy areas below. It was an impressive display, eliciting more than a few worried calls from Sangha members. The fire passed through the land in a couple of hours, leaving blackened ash in its wake but doing no long-term damage. As the fire approached, some asked if we “should do something about it.” Should we muster a crew to stop it? Were we in danger? I didn’t think so and discouraged firefighting as a waste of time and, to my mind, as too dangerous. Other than removing flammables from around the houses, I felt the best course was to simply get out of the way and let the fire take its course. In the end, I think this proved to be right, but the question remains, “Is the annual burning of the hillsides a good or bad thing?”

I’m of two minds about it. The major arguments against burning are:

1. Burning destroys the biomass that would otherwise decay to build topsoil, leaving the hillside soils devoid of organic matter and organisms.

2. Denuded hillsides are prone to erosion during the monsoon. Organic matter, grass and debris cushion the soil from the beating rain. Without organic matter, soil is less able to absorb water, resulting to heavy runoff.

3. Burning biomass is a major contributor to the “Asian Brown Cloud”, an unhealthy, atmospheric phenomenon of dirty air that hovers over the Indian subcontinent for much of the year. (The politically correct term is now "Atmospheric Brown Cloud") Many suffer from respiratory problems caused by the smoke that lingers in the air until the onset of the monsoon. Swami Kriyananda is a good example of this.

4. Fires hinder the natural reforestation of denuded slopes by killing seedlings. Once a forest is reduced to grassland by human harvesting and fire, it is difficult to regenerate a replacement forest in the presence of continual burning. Deforestation is a national problem as villagers chop trees, alive and dead, to supply their cooking fires. Deforested land holds less moisture, leads to failing springs and all the ills of reduced ground water.

If after reading the above, you wonder what could possibly be positive about burning, you might consider the following:

1. Annual fires prevent an unhealthy buildup of dead brush and debris. Because the hills are regularly burned, fires are fast and grass-fueled only, as opposed to the hotter, more intense fires that result from many years’ of unburned brush. Annual fires do not usually kill established trees whereas hot brush fires do. Where a regenerating forest has established a foothold, annual fires allow the trees to reach maturity. In fact, many of the first generation trees of the local forests protectively shed their leaves during the hot season, making them less subject to burning. Because burning is a fact of life in these parts, sooner or later all the hillsides will catch fire. Perhaps it is better to have multiple small, benign fires rather than occasionally large, destructive ones.

2. The villagers say that the ash from the fires acts as a fertilizer to promote better growth of grass after the monsoon for their cows and buffalo. This is probably so as it is known that potash has a stimulating effect upon germination in some soils. I notice the villagers will typically spread dead grass and small brush on a small portion of their rice paddy and set it afire. The resulting ash acts as a fertilizer for the rice seeds that are tightly planted on the spot of the fire. The seedlings will grow to about twelve inches by the time the entire paddy is flooded in the monsoon. They are then transplanted in small clumps about twelve inches apart throughout the field.

3. The local farmers prefer to keep the edges of their fields clean of debris to deprive snakes, rodents and critters from taking up residence and disturbing their crops. Clean borders are considered more aesthetically pleasing and eliminate wild seeds from competing with their rice, wheat and pulse crops. This translates into less time spent weeding. The problem is that burning of the paddy fields inevitably spreads to the hillsides.

My personal preference is for hastening the reforestation of the hillsides above the developed portion of our land. Now it is a mix of grass and scrub forest and, given time, I suppose second and third generation trees will eventually reestablish themselves. It will be slow going to say the least, but perhaps we can hasten the process through deliberate planting but how do we keep the trees alive during the burn season? I notice teak and other tall trees along the highways but not on our land. A tall forest with a full canopy would shade the land, build humus, cushion the monsoon rain, inhibit brush formation, promote wildlife, possibly increase spring flows and, ideally, be able to withstand grass fires. In such a managed forest, fire would move under the branches to keep the forest floor clean. The problem is that seedlings would have to be nursed and protected until they rose high enough to fend for themselves against the grass fires. This is highly labor intensive and with so many other things to do, it’s unlikely we can make more than a token effort to do this now.

I doubt we can change the pattern of annual burning, so I think it best to adapt to it. How can we do that? What might the best course be? For one thing, it means being prepared and not allowing a buildup of flammables next to buildings, orchards or anything we want to remain undamaged. It might even be in our interest to start the fires ourselves so they can be managed according to our needs, wind direction, dryness and timing. I’d much rather see the fires move down the slope than up. That way, like our neighboring villagers, we could make fire our friend rather something to be feared.

What do you think? I've turned the "Comments" option on for this post if you care to chip in with your thoughts.