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Prescribed burning in dry ecosystems to reduce emissions

Fighting fire with fire (to restore ecosystem health)
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The Miombo woodlands in northern Zambia, May, 2009. Photo by Jeff Walker/CIFOR

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Watching tongues of flame spread through dry grass or spiral up trees often evokes particular emotions: fear; panic and grief might be some of the most prominent.

But fire is not always a bad thing: in many of the world’s dry ecosystems, a certain level of burning is healthy – and in some cases, necessary. Numerous species are adapted to fire, and many cannot cope without it: eucalyptus trees, for example, will not release their seeds without a burn. What is more, when fires are ignited early in the dry season to burn off fuel loads while they are at manageable levels, it can reduce the likelihood of larger, more intense and out-of-control burns happening later in the season.

That is why, for numerous Indigenous and rural communities, fire is a tool that – if used in the right places at the right times – can replenish ecosystems and mitigate damage. It can also help to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (as early season fires burn less intensely and help manage late season fires by reducing fuel loads), and as such can be a component of countries’ nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) to the U.N. Paris Agreement on climate change.

Australia’s drylands offer a case in point. “Up until about 200 years ago, Indigenous land-owners wandered the country, lighting fires, as they’d done for the last 50,000 years, but when they were removed from their land under colonization, the pattern of fire in the country went from a very nuanced process, to massive late-dry-season wildfires,” said Geoff Lipsett-Moore, Knowledge and Partnerships manager of Cape York Natural Resource Management, at a recent Center for International Forestry ResearchWorld Agroforestry Center (CIFOR-ICRAF) webinar, “Wildfire management, emissions and NDCs in the dry tropics.

Now, Indigenous communities in Northern Australia, in collaboration with organizations like Lipsett-Moore’s, are beginning to turn that ship around. They are mitigating late-season fire using prescribed burning – and claiming carbon credits in the process.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in both managed areas and community incomes since we began this work in 2006, and a fundamental reduction in late-season burns,” said Lipsett-Moore. “It’s been absolutely transformative.”

The webinar, which featured experts from across the globe, explored how practices like this could be employed more widely, and contribute usefully to countries’ NDCs. The event focused on tropical dry ecosystems for a number of reasons: these are areas in which some level of burning is beneficial, but which also seem to be suffering disproportionately from increases in fire frequency and scale.

While media attention on fire in recent years has focused almost exclusively on “charismatic” humid tropical ecosystems such as the Amazon, a recent study carried out by CIFOR-ICRAF with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) showed that the most notable increases in burned area have occurred in lesser-known tropical dry ecosystems, such as Brazil’s Cerrado, South America’s Chaco, southern Africa’s miombo woodlands and Indochina’s dry forests.

“We have a bit of a Cinderella syndrome,” said Rosa Roman-Cuesta, a CIFOR tropical forest ecologist and the facilitator of the webinar, “rainforests are reaching the media, but we’re not seeing how drier ecosystems are being affected.” She advocated for an integrated fire management (IFM) approach to be applied across the dry tropics. IFM is a systematic approach to (forest) fire management, which encompasses both “traditional” approaches such as fire prevention and suppression, as well as prescribed fire, community involvement, and forest law enforcement.

Anja Hoffman, an IFM specialist and international consultant, described the paradigm shift occurring across the globe, from strict fire suppression and zero-burning policies toward more integrated approaches. She explained how these earlier policies emerged from forestry, where “fire was considered an enemy, and firefighting was the main approach for protecting forest resources,” whereas in many places, fire is an essential forest and land management tool for rural people and their resource management systems. She also emphasized that successful IFM involves local communities and coordinates action between a wide range of actors and stakeholders: “It’s cross-cutting: there’s no single department or institution to do the whole thing, so you have to work together.”

In Brazil’s Cerrado – the most biodiversity-rich savanna in the world – some useful examples of successful IFN are emerging. The biome has been negatively affected in recent years by deforestation and frequent late-season wildfires, and while Indigenous communities have traditionally used fire as a management tool, most policies and techniques applied in the area have focused on suppression.

Lara Steil, the coordinator of the Department for Interagency and Burning Control at the Brazilian National Center for Preventing and Fighting Wildfires (Prevfogo), shared some of her experience working with Indigenous communities to explore traditional knowledge about fire, and to trial an IFM approach on Indigenous lands, with notable early success. “Our preliminary results suggest that prescribed burning reduces the likelihood of wildfires, and enables the lowest tree mortality rate when compared with fire suppression and wildfires,” she said.

A joint CIFOR, USAID, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) research project on IFM in the Cerrado offered further evidence of the efficacy of the approach. Jonas Franke, the managing director at German company Remote Sensing Solutions, was tasked with using earth-observation technology to support the research. He showed satellite-based evidence that IFM had shifted the seasonality of fires over the period from 2013 to 2020, reducing the likelihood of mid- and late-season fires by 66 percent and considerably reduced burned areas.

“When we compare hotspots in protected areas with and without IFM, you can see that even big fire seasons were mitigated by prescribed burning,” he said. He also offered some preliminary calculations of emission abatement potential for the shift, such as the estimation that if Brazil were to apply IFM over the entire Cerrado, this would abate almost three megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.

Moving across the Atlantic to the dry miombo forests that stretch across Southern Africa, Roland Vernooji, a Ph.D. student at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, shared findings from his research using drones to capture samples of fire emissions and compare the results of early season prescribed fires versus late season fires in Ngamiland, Botswana. While the research did not show a significant difference in emission factors (grams of GHG emitted for each kilo of dry biomass burned) between the different fire types, “there was a lot more smoke in the late season fire, and the impact on the vegetation was much more severe,” he said.

Nearby, in Mozambique, the story of fire management echoes that of Brazil and Australia: in the miombo woodlands that make up two-thirds of the country’s forest cover, “fire has been part of the ecology for at least 200,000 years,” said Natasha Ribeiro, a forestry engineer at Universidade Eduardo Mondlane. However, contemporary fire management in the country centers on suppression, and there is “no clear mandate on where and when there should and shouldn’t be fire,” she said.

Ribeiro’s hopes for fire management change in Mozambique’s miombo encapsulated many of the key messages from the webinar: “I would like to see more integrated and nuanced policies in place, that take into account both human and ecosystem relationships to fire,” she said.

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For more information on this topic, please contact Rosa Roman-Cuesta at rosa.roman@wur.nl.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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