Pushed to the margins: declining fire use in rural livelihoods

Controlled fire use that supports smallholder agriculture, pastoralism, hunting and gathering can reduce wildfire risk and support biodiversity, but our research suggests that it is declining at global scale.

Like Comment
Read the paper

When most people encounter fire in the media it concerns exceptional, devastating wildfire events like those in California, Australia, and the Amazon in recent years. Global scale scientific research about fire also focuses largely on wildfires. Yet, for many people worldwide, fire is an everyday occurrence, being used for smallholder agriculture and pastoralism, hunting, fishing, and gathering. Such controlled fire use not only contributes to cultures and livelihoods but can create more biodiverse landscapes in which there is less risk of devastating wildfires. Yet, most global fire models represent human fire use as a function of gridded population or GDP data. In our research we aim to put livelihood fire practices ‘on the map’. 

We have collated information about fire use within rural livelihoods from over 580 case study locations worldwide to create the Livelihood Fire Database (LIFE). In this study we used the LIFE database to look at trends in these fire practices over recent decades. We found that controlled fire use associated with swidden agriculture, pastoralism, hunting and gathering is declining. Declining fire use is more likely when these activities are oriented towards subsistence rather than mostly for the market. 

Case studies in the LIFE database point to state governance and economic pressures as common drivers of declining controlled fire use. Many countries have strong anti-fire regulations that forbid or severely restrict burning. Reductions in fire use can also be incentivised through Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes and promoted through informational campaigns. Subsidies and land tenure reforms often encourage farmers to adopt permanent agriculture at the expense of swidden agriculture involving fire. Historically, some forms of fire use, such as for hunting or nomadic pastoralism, took place across large swathes of landscapes like tropical savannas. When these landscapes are converted to commercial uses, the remaining areas can be too small for traditional activities and associated fire use to continue.

When people reduce or abandon fire use, this can undermine their livelihoods. For example, for Borana pastoralists in Ethiopia, who have had to stop burning in rangelands, resultant bush encroachment and forage scarcity make it more difficult to graze cattle. Without patchy anthropogenic fire, vegetation becomes more homogenous, supporting less wildlife, as in Australia, where Martu hunting fires support hill kangaroo populations. Without frequent controlled burning, wildfire risk increases, as in those areas of the Brazilian cerrado where Xavante people no longer use fire

Smoke rising from a savanna fire in Belize (photo credit: Cathy Smith) 

Where markets drive increasing fire use this can be on unsustainable scales. For example, in areas like the Indian Trans-Gangetic Plains where smallholder agriculture is intensifying, farmers have adopted crop residue burning as the quickest means of preparing the land after combine harvesting to allow for planting of multiple annual crops. Air pollution associated with widespread burning in these areas poses health and climate risks. Increasing fire use driven by economic pressures, is also less likely to be environmentally sensitive. In Indonesia, for instance, repeated burning to open areas for market-oriented fishing is transforming peatland forests into open floodplains, increasing the susceptibility of these areas to wildfires.

Since the 1970s, ‘prescribed burning’ has been a mainstream approach to fire management by State agencies such as the US Forest Service. More recently, such programmes have explicitly been modelled on Indigenous fire use, or even employed Indigenous people to conduct prescribed burning, as in Australia. Yet, prescribed burning does not necessarily have the same outcomes in the landscape as the contingent, everyday fire use traditionally associated with rural livelihoods. There is need to better understand and support the everyday fire use of communities for whom burning is already of cultural and economic importance. 

The LIFE database is freely available online. As well as the trend data we analysed in this study, the database collates information from the literature about the biophysical aspects of anthropogenic fires (fire sizes, return intervals and seasonality), methods of fire control associated with fire uses, local and national forms of fire governance, participation in fire practices by gender, and more. It is our hope that other researchers will make use of the database for future analyses to synthesise our knowledge of anthropogenic fire at the global scale.

Cathy Smith

Postdoctoral Research Associate in Indigenous and Local Knowledges, Royal Holloway University of London / Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society