“How could such a huge calamity be unreported by mainstream media? Helplessness turned to anger. This was a national emergency and no one seemed to care!”
When the Uttarakhand forest fire destroyed more than 1,900 hectares of flora and fauna in India, one young woman took to social media to raise important questions about the lack of media coverage and government response. The post vent viral with more than 60,000 shares and received widespread media attention within India and across the globe. Ela Smetacek, 27, writes for the IPF about how her Facebook post saved India’s Himalayan foothills from burning down.
I was born and brought up in a forest reserve in the Lake District of the beautiful mountainous state of Uttarakhand, located in the Himalayan foothills of India. My family and I have been passionate about forest conservation since the 1940s, when my Czech grandfather, Fredrick Smetacek Sr, settled here with my Indian grandma. The forest reserve, Jones Estate, is a source of livelihood for local villagers who gather fodder and firewood from it.
Fires would sometimes break out in the forest due to a cigarette butt or an errant villager creating bare ground for fodder grass. Rarely would a natural fire occur. Whenever smoke was spotted, fire gongs were rung and villagers would rush to put it out with my grandfather, father and uncles.
However, by 2000, no villagers would show up to fight the fires. We don’t know why. We carried on fighting them alone. The fires killed beautiful, tall trees, which would then be cut down and sold as it is legal for dead trees to be sold.
Uttarakhand forest fire of 2016
Uttarakhand is one of India’s most valuable forested states, measuring 53,566 sq/km and home to thousands of flora and fauna species. Indigenous people call it ‘Dev Bhoomi’ (Land of the Gods) – with good reason! Its beauty and depth is a prayer for the soul. I love it with all my heart and I miss it sorely when I’m in the capital for work.
On 27 April I saw a Facebook post about a spurt of bad forest fires in my home town. My mum told me that the seasonal forest fires had become fearsome and rampant. She called the Forest Department but they didn’t respond (they rarely do, unless human habitation is in danger). My brothers and his friends put out the fires, but the next day it had re-lit.
The news hadn’t covered the fires, so I assumed it was just a few incidents.
But then my Facebook feed began filling with posts mentioning forest fires in other parts of Uttarakhand as well. This worried me – I had assumed our area was the only one targeted by people wanting to sell the trees for wood. We called the Forest Department again but received no response. Our desperation was growing. The Uttarakhand forest fire was huge now and not just small bush fires that we could tackle.
Taking to the Internet to spread awareness
A Google search then revealed an astoundingly high numbers of forest fires across our state. I was numb with disbelief. The Uttarakhand forest fire was not a small incident, but a large-scale torching of the state’s forests. Locals noted thousands of birds and animals being killed, as well as insects and butterflies.This wasn’t the usual practice of burning for better grass growth – this was being done by individuals who wanted the trees to die. They lit the same areas until nothing was left to burn. All the forested hills around our home were blackened for miles.
How could such a huge calamity be unreported by mainstream media? What was one to do? If the Forest Department wouldn’t help us, who would? Helplessness turned to anger. This was a national emergency and no one seemed to care!
With mounting desperation, I searched for photographs that would draw attention to the situation. A set of images by photographer Anup Sah caught my eye, depicting entire hillsides in flames. He wrote that in all his life, he hadn’t seen the likes of such. After a quick message requesting permission to share his images, I posted a cry for help.
I needed the media to report this. We needed support to control the fires as soon as possible.
Within minutes the post was being shared. Soon, news channels began covering the story and my phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Within a few hours, my post had 10,000 shares. A blogger called in to say: “Hey, it’s gone viral!”
Using social media to bring people together
I was dazed with gratitude at the people’s response. People cared. They shared, called and did their bit to get the news out. A social media tidal wave of empathy for the Himalayan mountains reached every news channel and major blog – and the Prime Minister’s office. A probe was ordered into the Uttarakhand forest fire.
Within 24 hours, choppers and fire-fighting teams were deployed and Rs 50 million was despatched to aid fire-fighting operations.
The Environment Minister announced that the fires begun 82 days ago, but promised they would soon be put out. Despite the efforts deployed, the Uttarakhand forest fire continued to rage for three or four days – before the rains arrived and doused the flames.
So many wonderful journalists covered it in earnest, admitting with shock that they hadn’t heard about the fires until my post went viral. I appeared on live TV shows alongside government officials, and was asked to justify my usage of the term “timber and land Mafia” to describe people bribing villagers to set fire to forests for person gain. I was surprised to see the shocked reactions in the media as this is a way of life for us: to observe their shady dealings and illegal occupation of land (including my family’s).
The outpour of support encouraged me to create a Facebook page entitled ‘Uttarakhand Burning Silently’, as well as a Facebook group, which now has more than 800 members. People across India and abroad volunteered to tweet and share news and updates, gathering support for the next step: to reforest, build awareness among locals to protect from future incidents similar to the Uttarakhand forest fire, and, most importantly, change and improve authorities’ attitudes towards the forest and their duty to protect it.
It will be hard to change, but we hope our voices won’t die down.