Fire practices of Indigenous peoples could combat the increasing frequency of devastating fires in tropical forests and savannas, according to research by Royal Holloway geographer Jay Mistry.
In a paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Dr Mistry (Royal Holloway, University of London), with colleagues Dr Bibiana Bilbao (Simón Bolívar University, Venezuela) and Dr Andrea Berardi (Open University), call for the support and promotion of Indigenous fire practices to provide low-tech, sustainable solutions to wildfire threats.
Analysis of satellite imagery suggests that Indigenous lands have the lowest incidence of wildfires, and yet Indigenous approaches are rarely used to inform fire management policy and practice. Instead, current fire policies and associated institutional structures strongly emphasise suppression and fire-fighting, in many cases leading to an increase in inappropriate and damaging fire occurrence.
Focusing on examples from tropical forest and savanna ecosystems in Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana, the research shows that many Indigenous people have detailed knowledge on fire management that could help prevent large-scale and destructive wildfires, while at the same time maintaining biodiversity and local cultures.
Fire is used by Indigenous peoples for a variety of purposes that have interconnected ecological, social and spiritual importance. For example, the Mebêngokrê (Kayapó) of the Capoto-Jarina in Mato Grosso, Brazil, use fire to hunt for land tortoises which form part of an extended yearly traditional festival with implications for social processes including courtship, community cohesion, youth initiation and inter-generational knowledge transfer. For the Pemón of Canaima National Park, Venezuela, the practice of Mayú -- a system of mutual cooperation in the elaboration of large-scale tasks in traditional farming e.g. cutting trees and burning the felled biomass -- is not only essential for the survival of individuals, but also for social bonding and inter-generational knowledge transfer. Therefore, savanna and forest ecosystems are being protected within Indigenous lands not because they are being 'managed' in a direct and active way, but as the indirect outcomes of a healthy social-ecological system.
However, the researchers warn that much Indigenous knowledge is gradually being lost and the combination of a breakdown of social relationships and cohesion, and conflicts (particularly of worldviews) between Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders is leading to an increased risk of damaging fires.
Dr Mistry said: 'There is a growing recognition across the world that current approaches to combatting landscape fires is ecologically, socially and economically unviable. Traditional Indigenous fire management could be a useful lens through which to find both practical fire management solutions, and also lessons on how environmental governance could be structured and implemented more widely.'
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