Key to controlling wildfires lies with communities

23 April 2020

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THAILAND – While attention is focused on the coronavirus pandemic, we must also be alert to another fast-spreading hazard claiming lives — wildfires.

Several people died this year fighting fires in northern Thailand. Now, hundreds of fires are burning there, in Laos and Myanmar. We expect more fires soon in Indonesia, where the fire season is just beginning. Without controls, forest fires in Southeast Asia will continue to threaten people’s health and livelihoods while destroying biodiversity and fuelling climate change.

Technology-centred approaches for dealing with wildfire are failing. But research shows we have alternatives that work. And, crucially, in a time of climate change, a deadly pandemic and rising inequality in our region, these alternatives empower and support marginalised people while strengthening local forest management.

The solution to controlling fire is community-based fire management. It can also help Asian countries to achieve the UN sustainable development goals and their national targets under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Indonesia’s experiences show what is at stake. Last year’s fires there as reported by the Asia Times gave more than 900,000 people respiratory problems, and released more than 700 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The fires also caused US$5.2 billion (168 billion baht) in economic damage. Countries already straining under the impact of coronavirus shutdowns can’t afford such hits to their economies. And as climate change is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires, the need for alternative people-based approaches to managing fires grows more urgent.

Fires happen when fuels such as leaf litter and wood ignite and burn in the presence of oxygen, whose supply is determined by local weather patterns. When small fires grow into big ones, the results are generally bad for wildlife and the global climate, and for people’s security, health and livelihoods. While this is all true, it is oversimplistic. It feeds into misconceptions that thwart effective fire policy.

For instance, many policymakers believe all fires are harmful. That’s not true. They believe all fires must be prevented and extinguished. Also not true. And they think forest fires are periodic events best addressed by fighting them when they occur. Again, not true.

These myths ignore that people, forests and fire have coexisted for millennia, and that local communities have considerable knowledge about managing fires. As a result, policymakers throughout the region have tended to think that dealing with fires as they arise is the best strategy. But the emphasis on fighting fires reactively is both expensive and misguided.

The solutions are clear. Governments should recognise that they can’t control all aspects of forest fires and that they can’t and shouldn’t try to stop all fires. Indeed, some fires are necessary and useful. Controlled burning on a small scale can, for example, prevent a build-up of leaf litter that could otherwise fuel fires that grow into life-threatening incidents.

Rather than waiting for fires on which to wage war, governments should define the amount of fire they want, zoning of fire and levels of risk they are prepared to accept. Such a strategic approach must have local people and their knowledge at its heart. And it must address inequality by strengthening the rights of people who depend on forests for livelihoods and incomes, while engaging them in managing fires.

This proactive, people-centred approach can balance the strengths of government and local communities, and enable them to work as partners in forest management and protection. One approach called integrated fire management involves community-based fire management at its core. It operates at a very local level, drawing on assessments of social, economic, cultural and ecological conditions to minimise damage and maximise the benefits of fires.

Local knowledge is paramount. Local people have intimate knowledge of their weather, climate, vegetation and landscape. They understand their communities’ needs and capacities, and are best placed to make judgements about risks and benefits. Crucially, they also have knowledge of how fires have shaped landscapes historically, and of traditional approaches to managing fire.

With formal recognition, communities can play important roles in fire management by monitoring local forests and reporting or stopping fires, including through controlled burning to create firebreaks and prevent the growth of huge wildfires. In some places, communities have substantial involvement in local decision-making processes about preventing, controlling or using fires.

To work, communities need secure rights, including the right to use fire as a management tool. They also need resources and capacity. And they need to be able to make implementable decisions and engage with government agencies as genuine partners.

Community-based fire management can help countries address the underlying causes of wildfires and prevent further losses in areas that have already burned. The first step is for governments, civil society and others to recognise the rights of local communities.

Research has found community-based fire management to be more effective than government management in tempering uncontrolled burns, more beneficial to local ecosystems and more cost-efficient over the long term. The potential benefits are immense because so much is connected to forests and forest fires: climate, health and prosperity. There is even a link to coronavirus. Lockdowns to prevent the virus’s spread are allowing fires to rage in our region, causing great harm and damage. Social distancing is not compatible with controlled burning, training and active fire fighting, which requires crews to work in close proximity. Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence suggests that exposure to fine particles found in wildfire smoke harms people’s immune responses, making them more susceptible to respiratory infections such as Covid-19.

Marginalised forest people, with high exposure to wildfire smoke and limited access to health care, are once again disproportionately vulnerable. While countries are focused on fighting the pandemic, the coronavirus is showing us just how important it is to be proactive and to ensure that policy responses to threats are equitable. The same is true of fire management. People-centred approaches are urgently needed.

David Ganz, PhD, is executive director of RECOFTC, an international non-profit organisation supporting communities and countries to achieve sustainable development and climate change goals by strengthening community forestry.

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