If You Can’t Stop the Fire, Make It Safer

If You Can’t Stop the Fire, Make It Safer

5 April 2005

Published by www.ipsnews.net 

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 7 (IPS) – If a problem cannot be avoided, the second-best solution is to reduce its ill effects: this is the philosophy behind the fire management project developed in Brazil to deal with the widespread use of the slash and burn technique in farming.

The project’s methodology was developed 10 years ago by the non-governmental Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), and has been incorporated into the government’s programme to control forest fires in the vast Amazonian rainforest region.

The project in no way signifies acceptance of the slash and burn method, which is highly destructive. Nevertheless, completely eradicating this practice will take a great many years, because of certain socioeconomic factors in Brazil’s rural areas, explained Ricardo Mello, the project’s coordinator at IPAM.

For the majority of farmers, fire continues to be an essential ”tool”, because they have no access to equipment and supplies for tractors, fertilisers and pesticides. For family farmers especially, investing in these alternatives is simply beyond their means.

In the Amazon region, according to official statistics, there are around 750,000 small producers who practice family agriculture, in which basically all of the labour involved is performed by household members. They account for 70 percent of the rural population and 36 percent of agricultural production in the Amazon region, Mello told IPS.

As the price of land in traditional farming areas is driven up by the spread of high-tech agribusiness, and land ownership becomes more and more concentrated in fewer hands, small farmers are being forced onto the cheaper lands of the Amazon forest region, where fire is an indispensable means of clearing them for cultivation.

The fire management project is meant to serve as a transition period that will last at least 50 years, until more sustainable alternatives to the slash and burn method are widely available, Mello said. In the meantime, the goal is to prevent uncontrolled forest fires.

Fire management techniques can contribute significantly to curbing deforestation, he noted. A study conducted in 1998 revealed that half of the total area burned in the Amazon region was due to slash and burn fires that spread out of control.

This means that the elimination of these accidents would cut in half the carbon emissions released by the burning of forested areas in the Amazon, and thus contribute to curbing global warming.

In terms of reducing the damage caused to the forests, the beneficial effects of the programme will be even greater than what is immediately visible.

The monitoring of Amazon forest fires is done with satellite images, ”which don’t capture the fire beneath the tree canopies, which can spread a long distance. The total area burned is probably much larger than what can be observed,” Mello maintained.

Moreover, when forests are accidentally burned and the land is not used for cattle farming or agriculture, the jungle loses 40 percent of its regenerative capacity, according to studies carried out in the Amazon region, he noted.

Forest fire prevention techniques are always valuable, Mello added. During periods when rainfall is scarce, as was the case several years ago due to the effects of El Niño (a warm ocean current that periodically leads to a rise in water temperature in the Pacific Ocean), the Amazon forest is highly vulnerable to fires.

In fact, the risk of forest fire exists around the world, even in industrialised countries where slash and burn farming is not used, he pointed out.

The fire management project was launched just over a decade ago in a community of small farmers in the southern part of the state of Pará in northern Brazil. As a result, 70 percent of forest fires in the area have been successfully controlled.

The initial goal was to verify the viability of fire management in family agriculture. The slash and burn technique traditionally used was identified and evaluated in terms of efficiency.

Local experiments were carried out in different types of landscape — pastureland and primary and secondary forests — to determine the most efficient and least costly techniques for fire management, which were then incorporated into the project.

The methods have been directly taught to 1,300 families in different parts of the Amazon region, but the safe fire handling techniques have now expanded beyond the IPAM project.

The Amazon Working Group, a network of 430 organisations, communities and social movements throughout the region, has adopted the project methodology and will share it with its members, who include small farmers, indigenous communities, and harvesters of natural resources like rubber and cashew nuts.

IPAM, founded in 1995, brings together researchers and educators with the aim of producing research studies, disseminating scientific information and strengthening the capacity of the local population to promote the sustainable development of the Amazon region. (END/2005)

* Amazon Working Group – in Portuguese


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