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Traditional land burning is declining – here’s why that’s a problem

Traditional land burning is declining – here’s why that’s a problem

A fire surrounded by green vegetation.

Greenhouse gas emissions Continue to climb, and so you might expect more of Earth’s surface to be engulfed by fires each year. Satellite data shows otherwise. The reverse is also true: the area of the world’s land burned by fires shrank in recent decades.

This might not be a good thing. Our researchMany of the fires that are not being lit are now controlled fires, which are vital for rural livelihoods.

Some fires can become wildfires that are destructive and large. However, controlled fire use is an important part of smallholder farming and hunting and gathering. It is geared towards subsistence: feeding the household and not making a profit at a market.

Mexico’s Maya people clear forests using fire to allow for small-scale agriculture. Squash, beans, and cornBefore allowing these areas to regenerate, The cattle grazed by Oromo people in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains prefer the fresh growth that Follow burningWhile fire promotes black oak, acorns Native Americans in California value these items.

Fire is closely linked to human culture, but animals and plants in many ecosystems also benefit from the fires they make. The grasslands can benefit from the many small fires that are set frequently by people. This can result in biodiverse vegetation mosaics that include new growth for animals and shelter areas. These patchwork landscapes are firebreaks that limit the spread of wildfires until the vegetation recovers.

A fire surrounded by green vegetation.
A fire in a milpa plot, Belize, where multiple crops are being grown.
Cathy Smith, Author provided

Climate change is increasing the year-to-year period when it is hot enough to allow wildfires to start. Spread the flame!. Only firefighting will not be enough to protect homes and habitats or reduce carbon emissions from wildfires. We must be aware A recent reportThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended how to prevent the worst ravages from global heating and how to support and learn about communities that continue to use fire in traditional ways.

Anti-fire policies

The myth that all fires are dangerous to natural resources and ecosystems has been a reason for laws prohibiting or severely restricting fire usage in many countries over the past century. Fires started by indigenous peoples in Europe and the European colonies were heavily suppressed.

Market forces and economic policies today reduce fire use, particularly in subsistence activities. Some fires, such those that were set to bring fresh growth for game and livestock, used large areas of land in the past, such as the Brazilian Cerrado’s tropical savannas. These landscapes were privatized and converted to commercial purposes. like large soybean plantationsTraditional fire use has been eliminated.

A diagram comparing prevalence of subsistence- and market-oriented fire use on two world maps.

Globally, market-oriented fire use is increasing.
Cathy Smith, Author provided

Subventions from the government and reforms to land ownership encourage farmers to cultivate crops for the markets on fixed and privately-owned plots of ground, rather than subsistence crops on temporary plots that are cleared by fire and then left to regenerate. Traditional fire use can be restricted further by payment schemes that offset carbon emissions and deforestation. This is the case in Mexico, where farmers are paid to Stop farming in certain areas.

People who are forced to stop setting controlled flames can damage their culture, livelihoods, and ecosystems. Borana pastoralists of Ethiopia in Borana have stopped burning in rangelands. This has resulted in encroaching shrubs and scarcity of food. It is more difficult to graze cattle. Without a patchy human-made flame, vegetation becomes more uniformed and supports less wildlife. Hill kangaroos.

The risk of wildfires increasing is increased if there isn’t frequent controlled burning. This is true in Cerrado areas where Xavante people live. no longer use fireHunting. Communities can also lose their fire-use rights if they become stigmatized or decline. Traditional knowledgeThese forms of governance are local and ensure that the fires are controlled.

Our research shows that subsistence fires are being less used due to economic policies and market forces. They are also increasing fire use for commercial agriculture. Farmers have started to grow in areas such as the Indian trans-Gangetic plains that government policies are encouraging smallholder farming to intensify. Burning crop residuesIt is the fastest way to prepare the land for multiple annual crops after combine harvesting. This widespread burning can cause air pollution Climate change and public health are at risk.

See Also
Two fire crew members use axes to chop at burning roots on a charred desert landscape.




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Support for burning in livelihoods

Recognising that controlled fires reduce wildfire risk, state agencies responsible for fire management in the US, such as the US Forest Service, have favoured “prescribed burning” since the 1970s. Some of these programs are based on Indigenous fire use and have even been used to extinguish fires by Indigenous people. AustraliaAboriginal rangers get paid for prescribed burning via net carbon emissions reduction schemes.

Even though they may attempt to replicate traditional burning patterns, most agencies that conduct prescribed burning want control over when and where fires are set. However, livelihood practices are not compatible with standardization and compulsion further marginalizes those who have traditional knowledge about fire.

Fire can sustain both humans and nature. Programs and policies that harness this power must respect the subsistence-oriented and smallholder fire usage, and allow for controlled fires to be used within livelihoods.

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