The vast majority of today’s global vegetation fires are human-caused, and take place in the tropics and subtropics. They are the result of the increasing human population pressure on these areas where fire is being used extensively as a land treatment tool, e.g., for conversion of forested lands into agricultural lands; for maintaining grazing lands; and for facilitating the utilization of non-wood forest products of the seasonal forests and savannas.
In the evolutionary history of the seasonal tropics, lightning fires have significantly contributed to shape savanna and forest ecosystems. In addition, fire influence through traditional burning practices over millennia has strongly favored and selected plant communities that are considered to be sustainable and long-term stable fire ecosystems. However, the contemporarily changing fire regimes, and the alteration of sustainable time-space-fire relationships in the wake of changing land-use practices are often associated with forest and site degradation.
Tropical rain forests can be severely affected by fire. Shortening of shifting cultivation cycles and the increasing occurrence of escaping land-use fires into tropical rain forests cause high ecological damage by reducing biodiversity. Fire-induced loss of soil cover negatively affects hydrological regimes and soil properties, leading to severe erosion and loss of productive topsoil. High economic losses are caused by damaging valuable timber and non-timber resources, natural regeneration, and planted forests.
In addition, burning of forests and other vegetation of the tropics may exert impacts at different levels on local, regional, and global environments. Smoke from large scale tropical fires also reduces safety of air, land and coastal marine traffic; and may cause problems to human health. Fires in the interface of wildlands and residential areas often cause the loss of human lives, property, and other values at risk, e.g., forestry enterprises, sawmills, power lines, other infrastructures, and livelihoods.
On the other hand, fires play a central role in the maintenance of many natural ecosystems, as well as in the practice of agriculture and pastoralism. Tropical moist savannas in many regions are maintained by fire and would return to seasonal tropical forests if fire could be excluded. Some seasonal tropical forests regularly affected by fire produce valuable timber and non-wood forest products.
These ITTO Guidelines on Fire Management in Tropical Forests build on the previously published ITTO Guidelines on Sustainable Management of Natural Tropical Forests, the Establishment and Sustainable Management of Planted Tropical Forests, and the Conservation of Biological Diversity in Tropical Production Forests.
These fire management guidelines are designed to provide a base for policy makers and managers at various levels to develop programs and projects in which the specific national, socio-economic, and natural problems related to fire in tropical natural and planted forests will be addressed. The scope of the guidelines is to assist the ITTO producer and consumer countries to develop programs for reducing damage caused by fire; and to help tropical forest managers and rural residents to safely use and take advantage of the beneficial effects of fire in land-use systems. The Guidelines are in accordance with the UN Resolution 44/236 in which the 1990’s were designated as the International Decade on Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR). One objective of IDNDR is to reduce damage, economic disruption, and loss of life caused by wildfires through concerted international actions, especially in developing countries.
The guidelines recognize that many forest fires originate in the agricultural and pastoral systems; and in degraded vegetation which is outside of forests. Therefore, fire management on former and degraded forest lands may help to re-establish productive forests and to safeguard the success of reforestation programs.