Left to itself, the Amazon forest is too damp to burn, but two severe fire seasons — one in 2005 and another just five years later, in 2010 – show how drought and human actions combined to wreak havoc on forests that scientists once considered virtually fireproof.
Between 1999 and 2010, fires in the understory — or undergrowth — of the Amazon forest burned more than 85,500 square km (33,000 square miles), according to a study led by NASA.
“There’s no drought that will burn the western Amazon if there’s no human there to start a fire,” said Katia Fernandes, a researcher from Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, who is studying climate and fire in collaboration with scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
So humans — farmers, local government officials and scientists — must work together to ensure that fires do not burn out of control and damage forests, added CIFOR senior scientist Miguel Pinedo-Vásquez. “It has to be a collaborative effort.”
Pinedo-Vásquez, Fernandes and Víctor Gutiérrez, a post-doctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute working in collaboration with CIFOR, took an important step in that direction earlier this year, inviting government officials from Peru’s five Amazonian regions to a workshop in the Amazonian city of Pucallpa, where they discussed fire-related problems and learned about tools for predicting droughts and pinpointing fire risks.
In the three-way collaboration, scientists gather data about climate, fire use and the impact of fires on ecosystems and develop tools for prevention. Government officials can use those tools for fire-control policies. And farmers and landowners can follow policy guidelines for modifying their burning practices, especially during dry spells and joining together with neighbors for better fire control.
“Fire is a problem in the entire Peruvian Amazon, but each region has its own particular issues,” Pinedo-Vásquez said. “The workshop helped officials understand the scope of the problem in each region, share information and strategies, and learn to design surveys to gather social and economic data that they can use as a basis for policy.”
Workshop participants said the recent severe fire seasons spurred them to act.
In Peru’s southern Madre de Dios region, local burning combined with smoke drifting into the area from neighboring Brazil and Bolivia created a health hazard.
“There were a lot of respiratory problems, so we became particularly interested in addressing the issue,” said José Luis Sánchez, a land-use planning expert with the Madre de Dios regional government.
Heavy smoke in Peru’s Ucayali region, where the workshop was held, led the regional government to form a team to raise awareness about fire hazards and create local monitoring committees to draw up a schedule for burning and to alert authorities if a fire escapes control, said Marco Antonio Vela, who heads the team.
It’s important to understand climate data, which is available on the Internet, and changes in vegetation as shown by satellite image
By the end of the three-day workshop, participants had learned to use climate data to predict droughts, combine it with satellite images of “hot spots” to map fire risks, and add social and economic information to determine who is most vulnerable to fire hazards.
Much of the information was based on data gathered from farmers and landowners by Pinedo-Vásquez and colleagues in the Ucayali region.
The research showed that for farmers, fire is the cheapest and easiest way to clear fields and kill ticks in pastures, Pinedo-Vásquez said. It also provides an immediate burst of nutrients, although some studies indicate that it could cause soil fertility to decline in the long run.
“Farmers say that if they don’t use fire, they have to use more fertilizer,” he said. “So, if fire use goes down, their costs go up.”
Around Pucallpa, most farms are fairly small, and in many cases, the owner lives in town, rather than on the farm. Paradoxically, fire risk is greater where the population is more scattered, because there are fewer neighbors to alert authorities to a wildfire and help control it, Pinedo-Vásquez said.
When asked what they do if a fire gets out of control, nearly half the people he interviewed said they just let it burn, as firefighting equipment is scarce and there may be no water nearby. If the fire spreads quickly, families could lose homes, crops and livestock.
Pinedo-Vásquez’s work highlights the importance of the role humans play in causing and controlling wildfires.
“It’s important to understand climate data, which is available on the Internet, and changes in vegetation as shown by satellite image,” Pinedo-Vásquez said. “It’s also important to understand how to analyze this information, but it’s even more critical to understand the farmers and other people involved.”
For more information on the topics discussed in this article – please contact Miguel Pinedo-Vásquez at firstname.lastname@example.org. This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
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