Research Article: New perspectives in fire management in South American savannas: The importance of intercultural governance

Date Published: May 11, 2018

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Jayalaxshmi Mistry, Isabel Belloni Schmidt, Ludivine Eloy, Bibiana Bilbao.


Wildfires continue to cause damage to property, livelihoods and environments around the world. Acknowledging that dealing with wildfires has to go beyond fire-fighting, governments in countries with fire-prone ecosystems have begun to recognize the multiple perspectives of landscape burning and the need to engage with local communities and their practices. In this perspective, we outline the experiences of Brazil and Venezuela, two countries where fire management has been highly contested, but where there have been recent advances in fire management approaches. Success of these new initiatives have been measured by the reduction in wildfire extent through prescribed burning, and the opening of a dialogue on fire management between government agencies and local communities. Yet, it is clear that further developments in community participation need to take place in order to avoid the appropriation of local knowledge systems by institutions, and to better reflect more equitable fire governance.

Partial Text

Wildfires wreak havoc on habitats and peoples around the world. The 2017 Chile wildfires, 2016 Fort McMurray fires in Canada, the regular catastrophic bushfires in Australia, Portugal and the USA, and the annual burning of vast tracts of forest and savanna ecosystems in the Amazon Basin and Indonesia are emblematic of this capacity for impact. Over the decades, scientists have expanded our understanding of fire behaviour and ecology, the effects of burning on landscape dynamics, soils and biodiversity, and fire’s contribution to global warming (Scott et al. 2014, 2016). Yet, the extensive occurrence of wildfires continues to highlight the gap between fire policies largely conceived in classic conservation terms within colonial histories, and local burning practices situated in specific environmental contexts (Eloy et al. 2018).

Fire has been used as a management tool by traditional communities in savanna and forest environments around the world for millennia (Bowman et al. 2011) and some ecosystems such as tropical savannas are dependent on regular burning (Durigan and Ratter 2016; de Carvalho and Mustin 2017). Nevertheless, most countries adopted ‘zero-fire’ policies intended to avoid and control virtually any fires, by focusing on fire-fighting techniques such as fire brigades, technical support in the form of helicopters and trucks, and predictive fire risk modelling, as well as environmental education programmes to dissuade indigenous and local people from burning. Critiques of widespread fire suppression policies underlined the unique role fire plays in the ecologies and cultures in many parts of the world, as well as highlighting the ineffectiveness of these policies (McDaniel et al. 2005; Sletto 2008; Sorrensen 2009; Carmenta et al. 2013; Mistry et al. 2016). This stimulated a turn in the tide as fire managers realized that a different approach was needed; one that addressed the continued occurrence of wildfires with the changing socio-economic situation of countries, the conflict of interests with local communities, and the emerging effects of climate change.

There are advances and challenges associated with the new fire management approaches in Brazil and Venezuela. Here, we point out some of the inherent tensions and barriers faced by fire managers.

Recent meetings in Parupa, Venezuela and in Brasilia, Brazil facilitated by the authors and involving local community representatives, scientists, fire/environmental managers and government officials, have shown the importance of bridging local, technical and scientific understandings of fire and its governance (Rodríguez et al. 2013a, b; Mistry and Berardi 2016). These events have allowed collaborative and reflective dialogue on policy and practice, an opportunity for learning across different communities, as well as between communities and institutions. We argue that supporting processes for integrating multiple perspectives through an ‘intercultural interface’ of institutions and knowledge systems (Goldman et al. 2011; Howitt et al. 2013; Tengö et al. 2014) is critical as Brazil and Venezuela transition towards more participatory forms of fire management and governance. This can be done through:training decision-makers and PA managers in participatory methods that encourage engagement with, and appreciation of, indigenous and traditional perspectives and practices of fire management. For example, in a recent workshop focused on the management of Canaima National Park, we facilitated training for scientists and government agencies on participatory video and community owned solutions approaches to working with indigenous communities.3legitimizing and strengthening indigenous and traditional fire management as a community owned solution grounded in local social–ecological systems. For example, promoting regional participatory workshops and field experiments could help understand fire behaviour, fire propagation and local productive fire uses, and how they could be more effectively included in fire management programmes. We are promoting this in the Jalapão savanna region regarding the burning of fire-sensitive wet grasslands. These areas are simultaneously targeted for fire management by local communities for plant harvesting and cattle raising, and by landscape managers for protecting fire-sensitive riparian forests. Finding common fire management practices of these wet grasslands can improve productive practices, conserve biodiversity and reduce conflicts.creating spaces for continual multi-stakeholder conversations about fire management, where different perspectives and experiences can be shared, and where action plans to improve fire management can be co-developed. Actions have to be aimed at encouraging indigenous and traditional communities more autonomy with respect to implementing policies, including the leadership and funding of fire management programmes. In Venezuela, a plan for joint training between the Pemón indigenous community of Kavanayén, Canaima National Park and Forest Firefighters of INPARQUES is underway. Elders of the Kavanayén community will share their knowledge and train forest firefighters on ancestral practices, and in turn firefighters will train young Pemón on fire combat techniques used to control accidental wildfires. Prescribed fires will be jointly planned, implemented and evaluated, and indigenous representatives hope to share their experiences with other indigenous communities in the park.




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