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1. Introduction

The present voluntary guidelines set out a framework of legally non-binding principles and internationally accepted strategic actions. They address the cultural, social, environmental and economic dimensions of fire management at all levels. In accordance with recommendations of the International Wildland Fire Summit in October 2003, the Ministerial Meeting on Sustainable Forest Management in March 2005 and the FAO Committee on Forestry (COFO), also in March 2005, FAO has been coordinating a multistakeholder process to prepare the principles and actions as part of a global strategy for international cooperation in fire management.

The global strategy also includes: an assessment of fire and its impacts; an assessment of current networks, partnerships and other areas of cooperation among fire management entities; and a plan for implementation. Implementation is seen as a voluntary, open and inclusive process that will benefit people, resources, assets and the environment. The principles will aid in the formulation of policies, laws and regulations, while the strategic actions will enable holistic approaches to fire management.

Preparation of the guidelines involved a core technical group and expert consultations with selected member countries, private-sector associations and non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations. The draft was available on the Internet for public review and comment by all interested parties.

This section presents the international context, potential users and implementation guidance.

1.1 Background

The principles and strategic actions are global in scope and are provided to: all elements of civil society and the private sector; member nations of FAO and non-members; policy level and senior managers of subregional, regional and global organizations, whether governmental or non-governmental; owners and managers of forest, range, grassland and other ecosystems; and all stakeholders concerned with the protection of lives, property and resources from the effects of unwanted, damaging fires and with the use of fire to enhance ecosystems and economic benefits. Other sectors may also find the principles and strategic actions useful in their roles in society: insurance companies, advocacy groups, and specialists in communications, disaster management and public relations.

It is anticipated that the principles and strategic actions will be promoted for use in governance, education, guidance, benchmarking, cooperation and advocacy related to all aspects of fire management. Their various features will provide contexts for social, economic, cultural, environmental and political discussions at subnational, national, regional and international levels. The principles and strategic actions can serve as a checklist to strengthen policies, legal and regulatory frameworks, plans and procedures and, where these do not exist, will be a useful basis for their development and implementation.

The scope of this paper is broad, because the definition of the term ‘fire’ is broad. A fire in the present context is any fire burning living or dead vegetation outside of the urban or structural environment. The scope covers all planned and unplanned fires in natural forests, planted forests, protected natural areas, rangelands, grasslands, shrubs, brush and other vegetation types, including fires in peatlands, swamps, mires and fens. It also covers surface or crown fires in landscaped, planted or tended agricultural vegetation when the fire is not planned and implemented as part of an accepted agricultural technique. In this context, it also comprises a fire that burns from a wildland or other area into a rural, urban environment or cultural or historical area, with structures becoming involved.

The framework presented is applicable to planning, organization and management of a safe, effective and efficient fire management organization or governmental agency. It covers the full range of fire management activities, from prevention, early warning, detection, mobilization and suppression of unwanted and damaging fires, through appropriate use of natural or human-caused fire in maintaining ecological values and integrity of certain ecosystems, to the use of fire to reduce the accumulation of natural fuel and residues from commercial or non-commercial activities and the rehabilitation of ecosystems damaged by or dependent on fire.

A fire may burn across ecosystem boundaries or various types of lands. The techniques, policies and processes outlined are applicable to forest fires, grass fires, fires within settlements or involving scattered dwellings and other structures.

The term ‘fire management’ is also very broad. Fire management is the discipline of using fire to achieve land management and traditional use objectives, together with the safeguarding of life, property and resources through the prevention, detection, control, restriction and suppression of fire in forest and other vegetation in rural areas. This involves planned as well as naturally occurring fires, and includes research and technology transfer.

1.2 Rationale

Over the past decade, many regions of the world have experienced a trend towards excessive fire application in land use systems and land use change – and towards more extremely severe fires. Some of the effects of fires are transboundary, for example smoke and water pollution and their impacts on human health and safety, loss of biodiversity, and site degradation at the landscape level, leading to desertification, soil erosion or flooding. The depletion of terrestrial carbon by fires burning under extreme conditions in some vegetation types, including organic terrain in peatland biomes, is one of the driving agents of the disturbance of global biogeochemical cycles, notably the global carbon cycle. This trend is documented by a wealth of scientific data on the cultural, social, economic and environmental dimensions of fire.

In many fire-dependent ecosystems, the frequency and seasonality of fire determine which species persist and which perish from the ecosystem. Fires at too-short or too-long intervals will lead to a loss of plant species and a reduction in biodiversity, not only for plants, but for animals as well, through the modification of habitats. The invasion of ecosystems by non-native plants can also lead to a significant change in fire regimes, often with negative results.

Human population growth is associated with increasing rates of conversion of natural vegetation to agricultural and pastoral systems, and with the development of residential areas, infrastructure and traffic. Land-use change is occurring in traditionally uninhabited or uncultivated areas, such as extreme mountain slopes, some coastal areas and floodplains. This is often a consequence of poverty, deforestation or vegetation conversion for short-term production of cash crops for the global market. In many regions of the world, the process is associated with the use of fire for land clearing and the increasing occurrence of uncontrolled fires. In many developed areas, on the other hand, fire intensities increase when land is abandoned or left unmanaged, resulting in an increase in potential damage to resources, property and infrastructure.

1.3 Objectives

The voluntary guidelines are intended to serve the following objectives:

Special consideration is given to social and community values and to engaging the community in fire management planning and implementation.

Any effective fire management programme must consider the ecology and fire history of the area. In many cases, maintenance of appropriate fire regimes or the reintroduction of fire is as important as preventing unwanted, damaging fires. The use and benefits of planned fire are not simply for protection and suppression.

Implementation guidance is provided for protective activities in the interface between communities and forest and other areas, with the recognition that ecological values must be considered alongside human values and cultural norms.

1.4 Relationship to other international instruments

Several international instruments, conventions and agreements have relevance for fire management. The present guidelines address key subject areas of these instruments and furnish agencies and organizations with a framework for managing fire.

The principles and strategic actions are intended to be interpreted and applied in compliance with these conventions and declarations, in particular with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Convention on Biological Diversity and United Nations Millennium Declaration. Such application would constitute steps towards achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, particularly Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability; and Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development. Annex 1 contains a list of supported international instruments.

Relying, as well, on many other mechanisms, codes and guidelines, the principles and strategic actions have drawn on the experience of organizations and individuals throughout the world. Several existing documents provide implementation guidance on traditional uses of fire in prevention plans. Some examples are: the International Tropical Timber Organization’s Guidelines on fire management in tropical forests (ITTO, 1997); the FAO Guidelines on fire management in temperate and boreal forests (FAO, 2002); and the Global Fire Monitoring Center’s Wildland fire management handbook for sub-Sahara Africa (Goldammer and de Ronde, 2004). This is just a partial listing. Many countries and other organizations have handbooks, manuals and planning documents that provide information and assistance in establishing a fire management programme. There are other codes that provide a basis for laws or statutes for agencies and organizations interested in establishing the legal basis for a fire programme.

Nothing in the voluntary guidelines prejudices the rights, jurisdiction and duties of individual countries under international law as reflected in international conventions and agreements. The principles and strategic actions support and complement the fire management guidelines, policies, programmes and regulations currently in effect in many organizations, agencies and governments.

1.5 Implementation of the principles and strategic actions

All entities with fire management responsibilities will benefit from collaboration when translating the principles and strategic actions into their policy, legal and regulatory frameworks; fire management strategies, programmes or plans; codes, standards or guidelines for implementation or for monitoring and reporting of compliance. Such entities may include: Member Countries of FAO and non-members; relevant subnational, national, regional and global organizations, whether governmental or non-governmental; and all stakeholders concerned with the management of forests, rangelands, grasslands and protected areas and the interface between any of these and areas of human development.

Governments, international bodies and non-governmental organizations are encouraged to promote understanding of the principles and strategic actions among those involved in resource management, forest resource protection, air and water quality, community protection and ecological restoration and rehabilitation – including, where practicable, by the introduction of processes that would promote voluntary acceptance and effective application. Although the principles and strategic actions are non-binding, governments are encouraged to adopt them in their policy, legal and institutional frameworks and in their planning and implementation standards for fire management.

FAO, in partnership with other agencies, organizations and experts, may revise the guidelines in view of developments in fire ecology and behaviour, social and psychological factors, research and experience with implementation.

1.6 Diversity of contexts and special requirements

The diversity of contexts suggests a wide variation in approaches to applying and implementing the principles and strategic actions. Organizational capabilities range from countries with well-funded and resourced organizations to countries and regions without active fire programmes. Environments and fire regimes range from areas with few fires and little fire impact, to areas in which fire is a key component of ecosystem health, and to areas where fires cause considerable damage to ecosystem functions. Rural, urban, uninhabited and interface areas each have different needs and different potential.

The context in which the current fire management programmes are not safe, effective or environmentally and socially acceptable is particularly relevant. Even in developed countries, the programme chosen may not completely match the current situation. Some areas have people and communities moving into fire-prone areas, causing problems for protection from fire. In other areas, people are abandoning rural areas and leaving large tracts of unmanaged lands, which are becoming at risk for fire.

Of particular interest are areas in which fire plays an important role in the environment, either naturally playing a role in sustaining the ecosystem or providing for livelihoods through agricultural or other uses. As populations increase in these areas, the need to adopt an appropriate fire management programme becomes more important. Thus the need to protect lives, resources and property from the adverse effects of fire must be balanced against the need for the appropriate use and equilibrium of fire in the environment.

The capacity of developing countries to implement the present recommendations should be taken into account. In support of effective implementation, governments, international and non-governmental organizations, financial institutions, landowners and users should fully recognize the special circumstances and requirements of developing countries. Emphasis may be needed in the areas of financial and technical assistance, technology transfer, training and scientific cooperation, and in enhancing countries’ abilities to strengthen and develop their fire management organizations and capabilities. This may be particularly important for the least developed among them – small island developing states and low forest cover countries in fragile ecosystems where damaging fires occur.

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