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Conservationists Playing with Fire

By Dr. Julie Kunen, Executive Director of the WCS Latin America and Caribbean Program
Published in National Geographic on November 14, 2014

For millennia, tropical civilizations cultivated their crops through a practice known as slash-and-burn agriculture. In this practice, vegetation is cut down and burned to clear land and improve the soil with the resulting organic matter and nutrients. Fire also kills or drives away pests and encourages the regeneration of grasses in natural pastures.

When used over extensive areas in a cycle of planted and fallowed fields, the practice is sustainable. Today, many agricultural communities that lack access to machinery and chemical inputs depend upon fire for their livelihoods, using it to clear and maintain the fertility of agricultural lands and to delimit property boundaries.

Yet, fire is also a great danger to humans and there are many risks associated with the use of fire as a land management tool. Wildfires may occur when agricultural burns escape control, damaging or destroying forests and killing or driving off wildlife. Forest burning is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions; deforestation is a significant source of carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

There are other risks. Smoke from fires is a health hazard, as was evident during a recent El Niño, when smoke from fires plaguing the Yucatan peninsula caused respiratory problems as far north as Texas. Fire is also a tool to seize illegal control of lands, either by clearing land to claim “ownership” or by generating a literal smokescreen to hide illicit activity such as narco-trafficking on the ground below.

Given both the utility of – and threats posed by – fire, how can societies properly manage their lands to support agricultural production and protect forest stocks and the animals that inhabit them while also combating illegal land grabs and avoiding greenhouse gas emissions?

A combination of remote monitoring, on-the-ground early warning systems, post fire-season evaluation of impacts, and territorial control activities has been successful in one globally important forested area vulnerable to fire: Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. There, the Wildlife Conservation Society supports Guatemala’s Protected Area authority (CONAP) and forest-dwelling communities to manage agricultural burns and guard against land invasions.

During the fire season, Guatemala’s Center for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEMEC) keeps tabs on satellite-detected hotspots and provides communities with weekly summaries of fire impacts to date, accumulated rainfall, temperature, and climate predictions for future weeks. Communities implement an “Early Warning System for Forest Fire” using a basic system of green, yellow, and red flags to permit, regulate or prohibit the use of fire depending on conditions.

After the burning season, CEMEC evaluates the success of fire management together with local partners, examining fire scars using Landsat images and tabulating the season’s cumulative hotspot results and associated emissions. These actions are complemented by government monitoring via overflights to prevent illegal land colonization. Other anti-fire strategies include control posts and patrols, installation of fire breaks in vulnerable areas, and fire watchtowers.

Lessons learned from the Maya Biosphere Reserve are relevant for other regions where fire is an important land management tool. Prevention is superior to fire suppression. The engagement of local communities in fire management is key to ensure their ability to continue traditional agricultural activities.

The role of government is paramount, including the ability to respond to illegal incursions and major fire events. Monitoring via satellite data and overflights helps identify high-threat areas prior to the burning season, allowing targeted mitigation activities before fires are set by illegal colonists.

All of these efforts help to explain why work to prevent or mitigate the impacts of fire is becoming another critical tool for conservationists. Guatemala’s experience shows that responsible fire management can protect agricultural livelihoods while reducing deforestation from forest fires and associated greenhouse gas emissions. As our planet warms further, this is a model the rest of the world will increasingly be looking to for guidance.

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