Arnold Jacques de Dixmude
Environmental Science Department,
Natural Resources Institute,
University of Greenwich
Fire environment, fire regimes, ecological role of fire
Fires in Nicaragua are a seasonal event and essentially occur between January and May, coinciding with the dry season. In the context of land management practices, two groupings of fire types can be considered:
Intentional fires: used for clearing of agricultural lands, burning of agricultural residues, forest management, hunting, etc.
Wildfire: escaped intentional fires, lightning, maliciousness.
The ecological role of fire varies according to the type of ecosystem involved. Natural vegetation in Nicaragua can be classified into three broad categories: broadleaf evergreen forest, broadleaf deciduous forest and pine forest.
In the absence of human activity, fire plays a minor role in the dynamics of moist broadleaf forests, where a natural greenhouse climate encourages high rates of decomposition. Under specific conditions, however, such as those caused by unusually long periods of warm and dry weather, catastrophic fire events can occur.
Fire does not play a significant role in the dynamics of the deciduous broadleaf forests. While forests with large trees and a relatively open understorey can tolerate an occasional surface fire, dense forests of young trees suffer extensive tree mortality. These forests become extremely dry during the fire season and are highly susceptible to wildfire.
In contrast to the previous two categories, fire does play a significant role in the dynamics of pine forests. Open, pure pine forests with a grass understorey are maintained by fire episodes occurring at relatively frequent intervals (1-5 years). It has been suggested that the extensive pine forests which occupy the north central mountains may have been largely the result of slash and burn agriculture practised during pre-Columbian times (Denevan, 1961, cited in Ciesla, 1997). If fire is excluded from these areas through effective forest fire control programmes, the first response is the establishment and growth of pine regeneration. In the continued absence of fire, hardwoods will gradually replace the pines. Too frequent fire intervals, on the other hand, will not permit establishment of pine regeneration.
Extensive areas of native forest in the Pacific lowlands and into the Segovian mountains were cleared and the margins of the broadleaf forests were pushed back through an extensive use of fire to support shifting agriculture and to drive game. There has been traditionally little concern about the spread of fire into surrounding forests. In addition, the need for pasture for cattle, sheep and goats has created another reason for clearing forests. Fire remains a primary tool for clearing land, disposing of agricultural residues and improving forage conditions.
Summary of major wildfire impacts on people, property and natural resources in the 1990s
There are not many records of especially large fire events taken individually. Fire impacts are generally considered from a seasonal perspective. In the nineties, 1998 ranks as the most dramatic season in terms of impacts. The overall total of economic losses is estimated at US$ 127,000,000.
Some major events were reported in the press:
3 000 ha were burnt (mainly dry broadleaf forest) near the Cosiguina volcano.
More than 2,000 ha were reported burnt in the municipalities of Dipilto and Mozonte in the municipalities of Dipilto and Mozonte and the fire lasted more than a week (in the Northern pine forest region).
The smoke plume produced by the fire outbreak in April 1998 caused the international airport of Managua to be closed for nearly two weeks. The same happened to the airport of Tegucigalpa in Honduras.
As far as impacts on health are concerned, April and May 1998 were the months during which the highest increases of respiratory problems were reported in the capital city Managua. All the schools had to remain closed on several occasions during those months.
Wildfire statistics of fire numbers and area burned
Table 6-5 National fire statistics from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA).
Number of fires
Area burned (agricultural) ha
Area burned (forest) ha
Total area burned ha
Until 1995: data from the departmental delegations of MARENA across the country (ground observations). From 1996 to date: data from the remote sensing unit of MARENA (NOAA/AVHRR satellite data).
Operational fire management system
Several state bodies deal with fire issues in Nicaragua:
Ministry of Agriculture and Forest (MAG-FOR), which has overall responsibility for forest management and production.
The National Forest Institute (INAFOR), created in 1998, which actually is the former Forest Directorate. It now lies under the Ministry of Agriculture's authority and includes the forest protection department.
The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA), which hosts and manages a NOAA/AVHRR remote sensing unit with fire monitoring capability.
The Army, which is the main provider of logistics for fire suppression operations.
The National Institute for Territorial Studies (INETER), which relies on a country-wide network of meteorological stations, rules air traffic over the country and is the national authority in terms of cartography and geographical reference.
The Civil Defense, the Fire Corps (Cuerpo de Bomberos) and the local councils (municipalities) are the main groups providing fire suppression and prevention actions.
The effectiveness of state programmes may have been somewhat hampered by repeated restructuring within the ministries and state institutes; and by weak communication among institutions. Responsibilities are often diluted among different ministries (MAG-FOR, MARENA, INRA, National Institute for Agrarian Reform) whose interests are not always compatible.
A number of internationally funded forest sector development projects in Nicaragua, mostly locally focused, have included a forest fire management component. Bilateral donors involved include:
Dutch cooperation/FAO along the volcanic range off the Pacific coast.
Danish cooperation in the southeastern rain forest region.
German cooperation in the Bosawas biosphere reserve.
Finnish cooperation in the northern Nueva Segovia pine forest region.
IDB/USAID/FAO in the northeastern Caribbean pine forest region.
UNDP/Italian cooperation in the northern Nueva Segovia pine forest region.
EU (around the Bosawas biosphere reserve in the northeast and the SI-A-Paz reserve in the southeast.
The private sector in privately owned or industrial forests.
The private sector (timber industry) is particularly active in the northern pine forest regions, which are largely private properties and commercially managed. A good level of coordination exists between timber companies such as Pinares del Norte or Pinosa and local authorities for setting up prevention and suppression programmes.
As for the broadleaf rain forests of the eastern Atlantic, there is a great uncertainty about actual forest ownership. Three main forces are present here:
Thousands of individuals emigrating from the West and once settled on formerly forested/pristine areas, claim for entitlement and convert the original forest into a woodland/cropland mosaic. Being poor (individual small slash-and-burn agriculture) or rich (large scale livestock), fire is definitely the main tool used for land management, with a clear lack of concern about controlling fire propagation.
Foreign timber companies who, through concessions from the state, extract as much timber as they can within the period stated in the concession. So far, they do not seem to be committed to an effective control as far as sustainability is concerned. Fire is not directly used, but the altered ecosystems left behind are much more prone to fire and further settlement.
Indigenous people have lived in these remote areas for ages and in opposition to the two former categories, claim a legal demarcation of their territories. Multilateral donors such as WB favour this claim and indicated that government recognition of these rights is a preliminary condition for releasing further aid to development programmes (e.g. Atlantic Biological Corridor). It is uncertain, though, if indigenous people's attitude toward the use of fire is different in their land management approaches.
Both the municipalities and INAFOR are responsible for organising fire brigades on a voluntary basis. The army may intervene in some cases. The brigades are poorly equipped. Unless they benefit from the support of an externally funded agriculture or forest development project active locally, the only fire fighting tools available are machetes and tree branches. Vehicles and fuel for transporting brigades to wildfires are generally not available.
Community involvement in fire management activities
A relevant case of community involvement is the Farmer-to-Farmer Programme active around the Bosawas biosphere reserve. This programme is based on the promotion of frejol abono (manure bean) as the most promising alternative tool to the use of fire. As an intermediate coverage crop, it is meant to prevent the fields from being invaded by unwanted weeds between successive crops.
The main forest fire management and research issues
Need for further international donor assistance to improve forest fire management capacity in selected areas, which should emphasise:
1. Training of fire brigades and technical support personnel in basic map reading skills, fire planning, fire behaviour and fire fighting techniques.
2. Purchase of fire fighting tools, personal safety equipment, vehicles and communications equipment to support fire brigades.
3. Development of an improved communications capacity to facilitate timely reporting of wildfires and dispatching of fire brigades.
Need to encourage the integration of a forest fire management component in all future internationally funded rural or forest sector development projects in Nicaragua.
Need to improve the basic communication infrastructure (e.g. telephone network throughout the whole country).
Need to increase the means of control in remote areas.
Need to harmonise institutional visions and missions according to a coherent legislative framework.
Need to develop a system to reliably assess burnt areas (current NOAA/AVHRR system enables to 'count' the number of fires; yet estimating burnt areas from this is much more difficult).
Need knowledge about the social, cultural, political and economic factors that influence fire activity.
Need to develop a system for fire danger rating; and develop a linkage to the national weather service for fire weather forecasts.
Use of prescribed fire in the region to achieve management objectives
Forestry: Fire is used as a prescribed management tool in pine forest, particularly in the Nueva Segovia department, but no documented description is available.
Other vegetation management (grasslands, bushlands): Livestock occupies a large part of the southeastern departments (Boaco, Chontales, RAAS (Regiσn Autσnoma Atlαntica Sur)) and fire is commonly used as an easy way to rejuvenate fodder.
Agricultural maintenance burning: Besides the "slash-and-burn" scheme accompanying human settlements in broadleaf moist forest areas, fire is also used in intensive cash crops such as sugar cane or maize in the more densely inhabited Pacific plain. The fires occurring there generally are the earliest ones in the season, starting in December, January, or February.
"Let burn" or integration of natural and human-caused wildfires: Other cases of human-caused fire which are mentioned are hunting / driving game, careless practices such as tossing cigarette butts into dry vegetation and abandoned campfires. Also, there is intentional burning which is a criminal offence (political pressure against municipal or state authorities, land tenure conflict between communities, etc.).
Sustainable land-use practices employed to reduce wildfire hazards and wildfire risks
There have been awareness raising campaigns led by MARENA, later by INAFOR, in order to promote the development of fuelbreaks in agro-pastoral activities. However, there is little evidence that these recommendations are actually followed.
Locally, green manure is promoted as an alternative to fire (e.g. Oxfam-funded Farmer-to-Farmer programme, with the support of EU-funded Agricultural Frontier Programme), with a very good rate of community involvement.
Public policies concerning fire
The legal authority to conduct forest fire management in Nicaragua is contained in the Decree No207-DRN about "Regulation for the defence against forest fires" of July 1972. This authorises the government to conduct measures to prevent and suppress forest fires. It also authorises prosecution of individuals whose actions either purposely or as a result of carelessness result in a wildfire. Specific fines are given for various infractions.
A National Forest Action Plan, drafted in 1993, includes a component that specifically addresses forest fire management, covering prevention, detection and suppression.
Initiatives also exist at a regional level in the framework of ALIDES (Alianza Latinoamericana para el Desarrollo Sostenible) with CCAD (Central-American Commission for Environment and Development) as the lead, in order to harmonise fire protection policies.
Ciesla, W. 1997. Forest fire management: assessment of present country capacity and needs for additional inputs. Prepared for: Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich. Unpublished report.