Involving local communities to prevent and control forest fires
Sharing benefits from forests: a powerful incentive to protect them
26 July 2004, Rome -- Involving local communities is crucial to prevent and control destructive forest fires, FAO said today.
"Globally, 95 percent of all fires are caused by various human activities," said Mike Jurvelius, an FAO forest fire expert.
"If humans are the main cause of forest fires, prevention and control have to involve people at local level. The traditional approach of focusing on legislation and expensive equipment alone is not sufficient," he added. "Local communities actively participate in forest fire prevention and control when they have a stake in forest management and benefit from the forests."
Main causes of fire outbreaks in rural areas include: uncontrolled use of fire for agriculture; setting fire to forests and grassland to convert them into agricultural fields; the use of fire to gain access to hunting; and arson.
Some forest ecosystems are adapted to fires, and even benefit from them, but most farmers lack incentives and sometimes the skills to contain them.
Since the 1980s, forest fires have increased in severity in many parts of the world. In 2002, fires destroyed more than 350 million hectares of forests and grassland globally, an area equal in size to that of India. In Europe, according to the Global Fire Monitoring Center, based in Freiburg, Germany, almost 700 000 hectares of forests and bushland were scorched by fire in 2003.
Role of local communities
"Fire management is directly linked with benefits. Only when local communities know they will benefit from protecting their forests, will they do everything to prevent forest fires," Jurvelius said.
A village in China, for example, has had no uncontrolled fires for over 35 years, ever since a policy was adopted that provided benefits and income from the forests to the villagers.
A study in India revealed that the level of rural communities' dependency on their surrounding forests relates directly to their participation in fire management.
In the Gambia, community forestry practices have resulted in a drop in damaging and unwanted fires, as increased participation and access to forest ownership have led to more effective fire prevention and suppression.
Community-based fire control activities in the United States have been highly successful. Some of the awareness-raising activities that have been used include a geographic analysis of potential hazards for fire fighters, educating people on how to protect their houses with fire resistant materials, and warning systems on days with severe fire weather conditions.
In many countries, however, despite legal obligations requiring local communities to participate in fire management, governments have not yet been successful in mobilizing communities, where rural people have little influence on decision-makers and planners.
FAO supports member countries to develop policy, legal and institutional frameworks to strengthen the active role of local institutions in forest fire management.
FAO recommends that each country analyze its fire situation and develop a strategy for preventing and managing wildland fire. In many countries, local communities alone are not capable of managing intense and large fires. Intervention is required from provincial or national level agencies.
In some countries, more effective law enforcement against arsonists is an important part of the solution. In other countries, awareness of fire prevention and control needs to be increased, especially at the edge of urban areas where housing is constructed inside forests. Improved monitoring may be required, and emergency call centres should be established for people to report fires.
FAO also promotes international cooperation among countries affected by forest fires. FAO has developed guidelines for countries to establish agreements so as to assist each other in responding to fire emergencies and to exchange resources. Such agreements may be established at the bilateral, regional, or even the global level.
FAO is currently assisting Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Mongolia, Namibia and Syria in developing forest fire control policies and community-based fire management and awareness programmes.
Information Officer, FAO
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