Wildfires are increasing in their frequency and ferocity worldwide – they consume forests and destroy lives. Is there a more effective way to fight them?
Fighting fire with fire
Traditional fire management practices hold many answers. Controlled fires, which were widely banned by colonialist authorities, had long been used by indigenous peoples to maintain their land and forests and to protect their peoples from large-scale wildfires.
In recent years, the Brazilian Environment Ministry has been working in partnership with indigenous communities. They have been learning from elders about fire management, employing indigenous firefighters and investing in the application of these practices on a vast scale. This approach has evolved into the Integrated Fire Management strategy, using prescribed burns at particular times of year so as to prevent large-scale destruction when the hot and dry wildfire season arrives. Traditional knowledge is the basis for all the work of prescribed burns in indigenous territories and is already being carried out in 7 Brazilian states (Mato Grosso, Roraima, Mato Grosso do Sul, Goias, Maranhao, Tocantins, Amazonas) throughout roughly 11 million hectares of indigenous territories.
See it in practice in this short film Burning the Bananal.
Societies across the world will struggle to deal with the increasing impacts of climate change – at this crucial juncture in our humanity we need to listen, learn, respect and support indigenous traditional knowledge.
Interesting facts & key figures
- The Bananal Island is the largest fluvial island in the world, covering almost 2 million hectares or 20,000 square km. It is situated in the Brazilian savannah, on the edge of the Amazon region, and is one of the indigenous territories that most burns in Brazil.
- Fire is part of the natural cycles of savanna ecosystems, constituting a factor of environmental disturbance that increases its biological diversity.
- Fire is a key tool in traditional practice for promoting fruit production. It takes away the competition of the grass around the fruit tree, it does not affect the flowering when the low-intensity prescribed burns are undertaken and then during the wildfire season, when they are producing fruit, they are protected from the large-scale wildfires.
Traditionally community members would also burn during specific points of the lunar cycle to promote the growth of different plants.
- In 2007, a project attempting to introduce a zero-fire rule to the Paresi Indigenous people in Mato Grosso was rejected by Paresi elders. They stressed the importance of fire management for the conservation of the savannah ecosystem. In response, the project investigated the objectives, principles, and methods of traditional practices, leading to a joint fire planning exercise with the indigenous community. However it was not until 2014 that a full pilot program in Integrated Fire Management was begun within the Xerente indigenous territory.
- Today it is understood by IBAMA that managing some areas with this low-intensity fire, burning at different times, in the form of ‘mosaics’ to allow regrowth at different times, is the best way to protect these ecosystems. Within one area they will burn different sections at different times, to guarantee food in that area during the whole period of burning. This is opposite to a wildfire that burns the whole area in one go. Animals then do not have anywhere to go or anything to eat.
REPORT: Partnerships Forged in Fire
With wildfires becoming more deadly worldwide, fire management agencies and traditional peoples are combining their expertise to reduce the risk of catastrophic landscape fires and support cultural practices. By Andrew Davies, PRISMA Foundation.
Cases from California, Guatemala and Brazil.
Read the REPORT HERE
Stages of Integrated Fire Management
- Retrieval of traditional knowledge – gather the holders of traditional knowledge and those who are currently using the lands (where, when and why do you burn?)
- Zoning the areas – divide up the areas and identify conservation priorities
- Map areas with accumulation of dry grass (wildfire fuel)
- Carry out prescribed burns during the given timeframe
- Evaluation – were the burnings effective?
The timings of these stages depend on seasons and climate of each region.
In the case of the Bananal Island, much of the area is flooded during the wet season, December – May, then it rapidly dries becoming a hotspot for wildfires between August and November. The window for prescribed burns in this case is between May and August when the grass is still damp.