Community-based Fire Management in Potone Reserve
The terrestrial coastal forests of the proposed Primeiras e Segundas Reserve experience uncontrolled wildfires every year. Nearly all the fires are started intentionally as a land management tool to stimulate fresh growth for livestock grazing, open new areas of forest using slash-and-burn agriculture, control pests, or enable harvesting of natural products such as honey collection.
Once fires are started, however, no one controls them. When fires are started at the end of the dry season in September or October, dry vegetation acts like fuel. A fire started to clear one acre can quickly engulf hundreds of thousands of acres, destroying important plants and trees, killing animals, and harming the structure of the soil.
The solution to this problem is straightforward: carefully managed controlled burns between April and July, shortly after the end of the rainy season. Such burns allow local people to meet their needs, while preventing uncontrolled fires that needlessly destroy vital forest habitat.
Few local people are aware of the damage done by large uncontrolled burns, and even fewer understand how to carry out a controlled burning. The problem is compounded by fragmented and inconsistent fire management legislation and policies that do not adequately address the appropriate use of controlled burning, particularly on communal land. Limited government capacity and weakened traditional institutions have also contributed to a lack of understanding of fire management.
It is estimated that the majority of Potone Reserve and Gile Reserve (a long established partial reserve within the overall Primeiras e Segundas proposed partial reserve) are burned every season, with most fires initiated when farmers are preparing their land for the monsoonal rains. Over more than a 30 year period, this repetitive fire regime has homogenized local ecosystems, reducing spatial and temporal habitat variability. Reduced habitat diversity leads to reduced overall biodiversity. For example, proportions of the ecosystem (flora and fauna) unsuited to high intensity fires have decreased in abundance and distribution. High intensity fires also contribute to greater greenhouse gas emissions.
In response, the CARE-WWF Alliance initiated an Integrated Fire Management Project in the proposed community-based Potone Reserve from 11 July to 19 July 2011. The overall objective is to manage wildfires, land-use and environment to maximize benefits of the Reserve for the community. The approach is based on using controlled burning to integrate existing community skills, knowledge and institutional structures with sustainable fire management strategies and ecological requirements. The objectives of this Project Introduction were to:
1. Introduce and demonstrate fire management activities to the community, reserve rangers and government stakeholders;
2. Commence fire management training of the community, reserve rangers and government stakeholders; and
3. Implement controlled mosaic pattern burning in the reserve to minimize the occurrence and extent of uncontrolled wildfires, enhance land use and maintain ecological processes.
This first attempt at fire management was a great success. Over 75 people participated including men and women leaders from nine communities in and around Potone forest and the Potone Reserve Association, forestry representatives from the District Department for Economic Activities (SDAE), Angoche Bombeiros (fire brigade), CARE-WWF Alliance staff, and rangers from both Potone Reserve and Gile Reserve.
Traditional slash and burn, or swidden agriculture, had a place in the past when local population density was low and resources were plentiful. When soil fertility declined in one area, farmers were able to abandon a field and move to new, more fertile areas. Exhausted soil had three or four years to recover before farmers returned to it. Burning a newly cleared field releases key elements important to plant growth such as potassium and nitrogen, as well as other trace minerals. However, with so little coastal forest remaining, this practice is considered particularly destructive and ultimately unsustainable.
To address this problem, the Alliance has been promoting Conservation Agriculture (CA) in the target area. One of the key principles of CA is that through application of locally appropriate interventions, a farmer can improve soil quality and water retention without shifting the farm each year.
The potential impact of this new approach is clear: when more farmers adopt CA techniques, soil fertility and productivity increase over a much longer period on a specific piece of land. This reduces the need to move onto new fields and, theoretically, results in less encroachment on remaining natural forests. Combined with new fire management techniques, CA techniques can help the community better utilize and protect the environment on which their livelihoods are based.
Based on holistic management principles, the Potone Reserve Integrated Fire Management Project combines traditional burning practices with contemporary land use and environmental requirements. Land use productivity and sustainability is enhanced through use of controlled burning to improve grazing, natural product harvesting and agriculture. The timing, intensity and frequency of burning is determined by specific land use objectives in specific areas. Typically implemented in the early dry season (April – July), controlled burns create an extensive mosaic burn pattern. This minimizes the occurrence and extent of wildfires by reducing and fragmenting fuel loads. Infrastructure and sensitive resource areas are protected by strategic reduction of fuel loads around these assets. The environment is enhanced through reduction of fire intensity and diversification of fire regimes to enhance habitat and biological diversity.
By controlling when, where and how fires occur, rangers and communities minimize negative effects of fire while maximizing the benefits. Extensive knowledge of the area, and of how fires behave, allow for safe and efficient controlled burning is achieved with minimal equipment.
The next step in the development of the Integrated Fire Management Project will be to continue to work with the community leaders to develop a Fire Management Plan for Potone Reserve that meets their objectives and the objectives of the proposed Primeiras e Segundas Reserve. The Alliance recently secured funding from Iniciativa para Terras Comunitarias (iTC), a Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) funded operation, allowing us to help nine communities in and around the Potone Reserve legally secure their land rights, while also supporting sustainable development in these areas. This will enable the continued development of the area. The funding will also allow the project to buy important equipment such as motorbikes, drip torches, GPS tracksticks and camera traps, as well as develop of infrastructure such as roads and ranger stations. It will also allow for the first dedicated capacity building program to enable the local leaders to effectively manage the reserve as an integral part of the overall proposed Primeiras e Segundas Reserve.