Satellite survey links tropical park fires with poverty and corruption

Satellite survey links tropical parkfires with poverty and corruption

16 July 2007

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Global — According to the first global assessment of forest fire controleffectiveness in tropical parks, poverty and corruption correlate closely withlack of fire protection in tropical moist forests. A better understanding of thelinks between corruption, poverty and park management will help conservationistsand policy makers create sophisticated strategies to conserve tropicalecosystems.

The survey is published in the July issue of Ecological Applications, reported by lead author S. Joseph Wright, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute; Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa and Carlos Portillo-Quintero from the University of Alberta; and Diane Davies from the University of Maryland.

“Satellite data on fire frequency provides a measure of park effectiveness across countries,” Wright said. “It is strikingly clear from our study that poverty and corruption limit the effectiveness of parks set up to protect tropical forests.”

The survey indicates that parks were most effective at reducing fire incidence in Costa Rica, Jamaica, Malaysia and Taiwan; whereas parks failed to prevent fires in Cambodia, Guatemala and Sierra Leone.

It is strikingly clear from our study that poverty and corruption limit the effectiveness of parks set up to protect tropical forests.
(photo: The photo shows a fire near Soberania National Park, Panama. March, 2007)

“Current integration of state-of-the-art remote sensing databases withGeographic Information Systems is allowing us to better evaluate theeffectiveness of conservation efforts in tropical environments,” Sanchez-Azofeifa said.

While nearly all tropical countries have established parks to protectrainforests, not all have the political and economic means to enforce parkboundaries and prevent illegal extraction of park resources.

To better distinguish functional parks from “paper” parks and tocharacterize the relationship between social factors and park protectionworldwide, the team created an index comparing fire frequency inside and outsideof 823 tropical and subtropical parks.

Low fire frequency within parks was chosen as an indicator of park effectivenessbecause the background level of fire in tropical moist forests is low, so thepresence of fire often indicates that humans are engaged in timber extraction,clearing land for agriculture or other land-use conversion.

The frequency was based on fire detection data from NASA’s satellite-basedModerate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). “The MODIS fireproducts enable us to monitor global fires and see how fire regimes are changing,”said Chris Justice of the NASA MODIS fire team. He noted that information fromthe NASA Fire Information for Resource Management Information System Projectprovides a prototype to provide future long-term fire information from spacetailored to the needs of resource managers.

Wright added that satellite data has limitations. “The satellite data must becarefully screened. Perhaps the clearest examples of this system’s limitationswere a park in Costa Rica and two parks in Indonesia where active volcanoestriggered the MODIS fire detection algorithm,” he said.

With fire frequency data in hand, researchers developed a set of social andeconomic indicators reflecting the level of poverty and corruption in eachcountry. The Corruption Protection Index was provided by TransparencyInternational; other information came from United Nations files and theCIA-World Fact Book.

As part of this publication, fire frequency data from 3,964 tropical reserveswill be posted online. The authors hope that other investigators more familiarwith reserves in particular countries or regions will use these data to betterunderstand the causes of fires in parks and their management implications.


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