COMMUNITY-BASED FIRE MANAGEMENT

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Fire Management by Indigenous Communities


Editorial Note by GFMC:
This website is under construction (April 2024). Please revisit!

Introductory remarks by GFMC
Indigenous fire management is a practice based on traditional knowledge to use fire and live with fire in natural and early anthropogenically altered ecosystems. Various terms, such as fire-stick farming, cultural burning and controlled burning, refer to traditional practices around the continents to sustain livelihood by sustainable application of controlled fire, such as those – to name a few:

  • Aboriginal Australians
  • Indigenous populations living in African and South American savanna ecosystems
  • Native / First Nation populations in North America
  • Indigenous inhabitants of tropical rainforest biota

In the early to mid-20th Century, cultural burning practices were widely abandoned. However, in the early 21st Century, indigenous fire management practices were revitalized in some regions, with the intent to support climate change mitigation, biodiversity and sustainable livelihoods. This concept aims to control fires in savannas and other ecosystems to minimize environmental impact, e.g. by revitalizing “early burning”, i.e. application of fire in the early dry season for reducing hazard, risk and impact of high-severity wildfires at the peak of the dry season. For instance, in Australia some indigenous communities are implementing incentive programs for fire management by creating jobs and promoting a low-carbon economy while reducing the cost to the government of indigenous welfare. 

Indigenous fire management aims at contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals by creating jobs, strengthening the carbon economy and protecting the environment. Indigenous fire management is an example of how traditional knowledge and modern approaches can come together to protect our environment and create sustainable livelihoods.

However, the current practices and impacts / results of indigenous cultural burning practices need to be evaluated with regard to

  • Effectiveness concerning maintaining or increasing terrestrial carbon stocks
  • Contribution to reducing the net release of radiatively active greenhouse gases to the atmosphere 
  • Ecosystem and fire regimes changes as a consequence of climate change: Will traditional experience in cultural burning still be valid in ecosystems altered by climate change?
  • Would traditional cultural burning practices need to transit to “prescribed burning”, i.e. to scientific-evidence based application of fire in land management?

In general, traditional cultural burning practices are to be considered by the application of principles of Integrated Fire Management (IFM) – defined by the FAO / GFMC Fire Management Terminology

Integrated Fire Management (IFM): Fire management system which includes one or both of the following concepts of integration, (1) integration of prescribed natural or human-caused wildfires and/or planned application of fire in forestry and other land-use systems in accordance with the objectives of fire management and prescribed burning; (2) integration of the activities and the use of the capabilities of rural populations (communities, individual land users), government agencies, NGOs and POs to meet the overall objectives of land management, protection of vegetation resources, and smoke management including “Community-Based Fire Management” (CBFiM). 

IFM principles include observation and respect of inclusion, gender, religious traditions and human rights.

International and national initiatives, policies and politics

Key websites, references, studies and reports

Scientific journal publications

  • Vázquez-Varela, C., J.-M. Martínez-Navarro and L. Abad-González.2022. Traditional Fire Knowledge: A Thematic Synthesis Approach. Fire 5, 47. https://doi.org/10.3390/fire5020047 
  • Welch, J.R. & Coimbra Jr., C.E.A. 2021. Indigenous fire ecologies, restoration, and territorial sovereignty in the Brazilian Cerrado: The case of two Xavante reserves. Land Use Policy, 104 (December 2018), 104055. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2019.104055 
  • Bilbao, B., Mistry, J., Millán, A. & Berardi, A. 2019. Sharing multiple perspectives on burning: Towards a participatory and intercultural fire management policy in Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana. Fire, 2(3), 1-33. https://doi.org/10.3390/fire2030039
  • Eloy, L., Hecht, S., Steward, A., & Mistry, J. 2019. Firing up: Policy, politics and polemics under new and old burning regimes. The Geographical Journal, 185(1), 2-9. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12293
  • Bilbao, B., Mistry, J., Millán, A., & Berardi, A. 2019. Sharing multiple perspectives on burning: Towards a participatory and intercultural fire management policy in Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana. Fire, 2(3), 1-33. https://doi.org/10.3390/fire2030039
  • Eloy, L., Hecht, S., Steward, A. & Mistry, J. 2019. Firing up: Policy, politics and polemics under new and old burning regimes. The Geographical Journal, 185(1), 2-9. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12293
  • Mistry, J., Schmidt, I.B., Eloy, L. & Bilbao, B. 2018. New perspectives in fire management in South American savannas: The importance of intercultural governance. Ambio, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-018-1054-7
  • Moura, L.C., Scariot, A.O., Schmidt, I.B., Beatty, R. & Russell-Smith, J. 2019. The legacy of colonial fire management policies on traditional livelihoods and ecological sustainability in savannas: Impacts, consequences, new directions. Journal of Environmental Management, 232, 600-606. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2018.11.057
  • Moura, L.C., Scariot, A.O., Schmidt, I.B., Beatty, R. & Russell-Smith, J. 2019. The legacy of colonial fire management policies on traditional livelihoods and ecological sustainability in savannas: Impacts, consequences, new directions. Journal of Environmental Management, 232, 600-606. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2018.11.057
  • Fowler, C.T. & Welch, J.R., eds. 2018. Fire Otherwise: Ethnobiology of Burning for a Changing World. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press.
  • Mistry, J., Bilbao, B.A. & Berardi, A. 2016. Community owned solutions for fire management in tropical ecosystems: case studies from Indigenous communities of South America. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1696), 20150174. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2015.0174
  • Welch, J.R., Brondízio, E.S., Hetrick, S.S., Coimbra Jr, C.E.A. & Coimbra, C.E.A. 2013. Indigenous burning as conservation practice: Neotropical savanna recovery amid agribusiness deforestation in Central Brazil. PLoS ONE, 8(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0081226
  • Sletto, B. 2008. The Knowledge that Counts: Institutional Identities, Policy Science, and the Conflict Over Fire Management in the Gran Sabana, Venezuela. World Development, 36(10), 1938-1955. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2008.02.008
  • Myers, R.L. 2006. Living with fire: sustaining ecosystems and livelihoods through integrated fire management. Tallahassee, USA: The Nature Conservancy, Global Fire Initiative.
  • Sheuyange, A., Oba, G. & Weladji, R.B. 2005. Effects of anthropogenic fire history on savanna vegetation in northeastern Namibia. Journal of Environmental Management, 75(3), 189-198. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2004.11.004
  • Goldammer, J.G., Frost, P., Jurvélius, M., Kammigna, E. & Kruger, T. 2004. Community participation in integrated forest fire management: some experiences from Africa. In: In: Wildland Fire Management Handbook for Sub-Sahara Africa (J.G. Goldammer and C. de Ronde, eds.), Annexure 1, 382-402. Freiburg: Global Fire Monitoring Center, 432 p.
  • Russell-Smith, J., Lucas, D., Gapindi, M., Kapirigi, N., Namingum, G., Giuliani, P. & Chaloupka, G. 1997. Aboriginal resource utilization and fire management practice in Western Arnhem Land, monsoonal Northern Australia: Notes for Prehistory, Lessons for the Future. Human Ecology, 25(2), 159-195.

Center of Excellence

In South America, fire has been used in the Cerrado for millennia to prepare land for agricultural and pasture management purposes as well as for hunting, pest control and various other land management reasons. For rural people fire is a viable economic tool to attain land management objectives and local communities often have traditional knowledge on how to manage and prevent fire. In the past, fires set by local people have contributed to the creation and preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity across the Cerrado. Today, however, the balance between people, fire and the natural environment has been upset due to changing demographics, unsustainable land management practices and conflicting policies. In addition, the breakdown of traditional knowledge used in natural resource management as well as impractical no-burn policies and fire permit systems led to indiscriminate use of fire. In a changing environment and climate these fires increasingly get out of control and are detrimental to ecological and economic assets in the Cerrado, also threatening rural livelihood opportunities.

The Center for Environmental Monitoring and Fire Management (Centro de Monitoramento Ambiental e Manejo do Fogo – CeMAF; also serving as Fire Management Resource Center – South America Region – FMRC-SAR of the Global Wildland Fire Network (GWFN), Federal University of Tocantins, Gurupí, Brazil, has a focus on inclusion of the indigenous expertise in fire management. 

At the Regional Seminar on Integrated Fire Management in Tocantins, Gurupi, Tocantins, Brazil, 22-23 November 2016, the Center for Environmental Monitoring and Fire Management (Centro de Monitoramento Ambiental e Manejo do Fogo – CeMAF was inaugurated – along with a cultural presentation of indigenous fire culture. ©Photo: CeMAF.

Protection of Religious and Other Cultural Assets against Wildfires

Many religious and other cultural heritage sites are embedded natural ecosystems that are subjected to wildfire risk. Within the regions of the Global Wildland Fire Network emphasis is given to support religious communities to protect temples, churches, mosques, monasteries, seminars, worship sites, including holy trees and groves. Examples of from Europe and the Near East reflect the dedicated work of the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC):

Audience and briefing with His Beatitude and Eminence Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir Patriarch of Antioch and the Whole Levant (center), with GFMC Director Johann Georg Goldammer (left) and Joseph Kreidi (UNESCO Regional Bureau, Beirut), and Mgr. Samir Mazloum, President of Community for the Salvation of the Qadisha Valley (COSAQ) (right), Lebanon, 04 September 2010.

Wildfire-Resilient Landscapes Network

The Wildfire-Resilient Landscapes Network was launched at a reception attended by His Majesty King Charles III, on 30 November ahead of the start of COP28, in Dubai.

The network brings together indigenous and scientific knowledge to develop Living Labs that demonstrate how to create resilient landscapes to deal with the increasing problem of wildfires in fire-prone areas of the world. The initiative will work with the finance industry to develop innovative financial tools (for example around emerging Nature markets) that can generate the necessary investments to support the transition to resilient landscapes.

The Wildfire-Resilient Landscapes Network was launched at a reception attended by His Majesty King Charles III, on 30 November ahead of the start of COP28, in Dubai.

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