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FEATURE STORYDecember 7, 2022

Preventing forest fires: One flower at a time


Photo Credit: Adobe Stock


  • Incidents of forest fires have reduced by almost 95 percent with the use of nets for collecting the Mahua flowers and creating awareness about protecting the forests and its biodiversity.
  • After the forest department helped the villagers to work together as a collective and demand a higher price, the flowers sell for close to Rs 55-60 per kg, significantly above the minimum support price of Rs 35 a kg fixed by the state.
  • A simple investment such as the nets has not only helped in increasing household incomes and making mahua harvesting truly sustainable but has also protected the forests of central India from devastating fires that, in turn, add to carbon emissions.

Thirty-five-year-old Ram Kishore Yadav walked into the forest bordering his village Kupwa in Betul District of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.  The early morning sun filtered through the canopy of trees as a gentle breeze rustled the leaves around.  As he walked further, he came upon an area ablaze with lemon yellow flowers suspended on green-colored nets strung around the Mahua tree. He checked the nets around the eight trees that belonged to him and, heaving a sigh of relief, he proceeded back home.  He would return at noon to gather the flowers collected in the nets and carry them home.    

Nizakat Khan, a local healer from nearby Khatpura village, in Madhya Pradesh remembers the time-consuming process of collecting the lemon-yellow flowers that fell off the Mahua trees all day from the crack of dawn till late afternoon when the sun was at its peak. His family would spend all day in the forest picking up each flower from the ground as it fell, often missing meals.  “There were snakes, scorpions and bees in the forest to contend with as well.”

Today, for villagers like Khan and Yadav, those days of struggle are over.

Every year, in March and April, the mahua flowers would fall to the forest floor. So, we would light small fires under the trees to clear a patch of ground to collect them easily.
Ram Kishor Yadav
Mahua farmer

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

A Side Enterprise

The Mahua are indigenous trees around about 40 feet tall, found throughout in the natural deciduous forests across central India.  The flowers on this tree bloom in abundance in the months of March and April and for many decades, they are being collected and sold by the villagers to liquor manufacturing companies. For most villagers, whose main livelihood is farming, this trading in Mahua flowers during the lean work months of March and April provided them with an added source of income.

Before the nets came, the flowers would be collected from the ground.  Villagers had to first clean the ground so the flowers could be collected easily.  They lit small fires to burn any dried leaves and shrubs in the landing areas under and around the trees. This practice unfortunately not only destroyed the natural vegetation of the forest, these fires would frequently spread, troubling the animals and releasing harmful gases in the air. Such supposedly innocuous fires were in the long term detrimental to the environment and biodiversity of the forests.  

To contain the fires and encourage villagers to help protect the green cover and biodiversity of the forest, in 2020, the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department started providing villagers with free nets under the World Bank’s Ecosystem Services Improvement Project. The idea to use nets came from the community itself.  These nets are tied to the trees—two to a tree—and suspended to catch the flowers, preventing them from falling to the muddy forest floor. The nets ensure that the flowers don’t get soiled when they fall and are not trampled on by animals.

The nets have helped villagers save time as it is no longer necessary for them to remain in the forest for a large part the day laboriously picking the flowers as they fell. While the flowers get collected in the nets, the villagers go about their daily chores - children go to school,  women complete their housework, and the men take up odd jobs.  At the end of the day, the flowers are easily collected in straw baskets, dried, and stored for sale.

Asha, a former sarpanch or village head from Budhni, in district Sehore, has sciatica in her back and legs and used to find the process of collecting the flowers tedious and painful. Since she has started using the nets, she no longer needs to bend and pick them up all afternoon. She can now come to the forest late in the afternoon and collect the flowers easily from the nets.

Ram Kishore Yadav who also heads the Van Suraksha Samiti (Forest Protection Committee) says that having the nets provides them with a double benefit.   While the flowers are collecting in the nets, “I am free during the day to take up other jobs in the village – like construction labor, work in the forest and earn a double income.”


Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

Increase in income

Villagers have seen their incomes rise over the years since the nets were introduced, as the flowers being sold are of better quality and can fetch a better price.

The flowers earlier sold for Rs 15-20 per kilogram (kg) and they were poor quality, having got soiled from falling on the ground. Villagers also often made distress sales based on their urgent personal economic needs.

Now that the flowers are cleaner and better quality, they fetch a higher price. The forest department through various self-awareness programs has helped villagers work together as a collective to negotiate a better price for the Mahua flowers.  While the minimum support price fixed by the state is Rs. 35/- per kg, the villagers have been able to negotiate close to Rs 55-60 per kg.  with the buyers.

This side enterprise has started yielding substantial gains for the villagers who on average own about  five-six trees per family.  Each tree yields close to 100 kg of flowers over one season.

In the eight Madhya Pradesh villages where nets have so far been introduced, production of Mahua flowers has doubled since 2018. Seeing these results, the District Forest Officer, Ashok Kumar Solanki, claims that many nearby villages that are not part of the project, have also started requesting for nets.


Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

Protecting Green Cover

The protection and preservation of the green forest cover has been a crucial achievement. Over the last two years it is estimated that the nets have reduced the incidence of forest fires by some 18,000 hectares. As Puneet Goel, District Forest Officer, North Betul, in Madhya Pradesh explains, “Incidents of forest fires have reduced by almost 95 percent over the last few years.  Even if there is a small accidental fire in the forest now, the villagers report it quickly because of their increased familiarity with forest officials due to the Mahua nets support and the fires get put out immediately.”

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

Alternate Uses

The Mahua flowers also have high nutritional value and can be used in several products other than just making liquor. For generations the community have been combining them with millets to make local food products like laddoos and puris. The villagers are now being trained to use the flowers to bake biscuits and cookies. “The forest department is setting up a processing unit to make this enterprise more professional and sustainable,” says Puneet Goyal. “We also plan to train villagers to supply Mahua biscuits and cookies to hotels and resorts nearby.”

In addition, under the World Bank project, in 2020, trial samples of food grade Mahua flowers were sent to the United Kingdom for marketing and processing. This led to an export order of 100 quintals (10,000 kg) of flowers in 2021.

A simple investment such as the nets has not only helped in increasing household incomes and making Mahua harvesting truly sustainable, but it has also helped villages contribute towards strengthening forest fire management in India and protecting forests from undesirable fires that contribute to carbon emissions.


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