COMMITTEE ON FORESTRY

 

FOURTEENTH SESSION

 

Rome, Italy, 1-5 March 1999

 

REPORT OF MEETING ON PUBLIC POLICIES AFFECTING FOREST FIRES

Seventy-one participants from thirty three countries and thirteen international organisations, drawn from many different sectors including the private sector and NGOs, and representing a wide range of land use and other disciplines, met at FAO Headquarters from 28 to 30 October 1998 to: This report is based on the outputs of the meeting.

I. PREAMBLE

1. Nearly all countries, in every stage of economic development, and in every eco-region, are suffering the environmental, social and economic consequences of forest fires. These consequences have broader implications beyond the forest itself and beyond national boundaries, including tragic impacts on human health and lives. The recent occurrences of drought associated with the El Niño phenomenon have brought the effects of forest fires to the world's attention.

2. But the effects of fires are not all negative. Fire is a natural process that influences and is integral to many ecosystems which have evolved in response to the effects of fire. Traditional knowledge of fire as a tool is deeply embedded in the cultures of developing and developed countries alike. Fire is still essential for land clearing to meet the food requirements of most developing countries and as part of their development process, while in other countries fire is used to achieve a wide variety of resource management objectives.

3. Reconciling the positive roles of fire as a servant of humankind and the negative effects if fire becomes the master are among the important challenges to policy makers in sustainable forest and land use management.

II. PRESENT SITUATION

4. The present situation of national policy development in response to wildfires is often of ad hoc reaction to a situation that has already developed, rather than proactive mitigation before the emergency arises. Frequently policy development does not consider the underlying causes of fire incidence and spread which may lie outside the forest sector, such as rural poverty and deprivation, or the effects of other public policies related to land use and incentives. Sometimes forest fire incidence and spread may be caused by ill-conceived forest management policies, in particular policies of total fire exclusion that have led to fuel accumulation and catastrophic fire outbreaks.

5. In general, land-use policy development is seldom based on reliable data or information on the implications of forest fire extent or causes, nor has it involved consultative or participatory processes with those most closely involved and affected. Even where policies linked to reducing the incidence and damage of forest fires are in place, there may be institutional weaknesses that do not allow them to be enforced, arising from shortage of public funding due to political instability or economic weaknesses.

III. PRELIMINARY ACTION NEEDED TO DEVELOP PUBLIC POLICIES RELATED TO FIRE MANAGEMENT AND SUSTAINABLE LAND USE PRACTICES

6. There is a need for reliable and up to date systems for national, regional and global fire reporting, analysis and storage of data. Such data, and information on fire causes and socio-economic and environmental effects, are required as a sound basis for policy making. Linked to these is the requirement for international agreement on terms and definitions as a basis for information-sharing and communication.

7. Information on resource management alternatives and their consequences is essential for involvement of all stakeholders in policy formulation and development.

IV. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS TO MEMBER COUNTRIES REGARDING THE PRINCIPLES FOR POLICIES FOR SUSTAINABLE LAND OR FOREST USE RELATED TO THE REDUCTION, MITIGATION AND CONTROL OF WILDFIRES AND THE USE OF PRESCRIBED FIRES

8. No single formula can cover the wide range of ecological, socio-economic, and cultural conditions that exist between and within regions, nor the different objectives that different societies will decide. But there exist certain broad principles common to all situations and objectives, which include the following: 9. Some technical aspects may support policy formulation and implementation. They include: 10. New technologies offer the means to introduce new and more environmentally and socially acceptable land use management policies; particular attention is drawn to "zero-burning" land clearing techniques.

11. Fire research at national and regional levels needs to be strengthened in order to support development of fire policies and fire management capabilities, especially related to investigations into socio-economic and cultural aspects of fire outbreaks. Fire research is needed into a number of topics:

12. Existing accumulated experience should not be neglected, and local indigenous knowledge should be acquired on traditional fire related cultures and customs as a guide for fire management practices and policies.

13. Evaluation systems should be developed to assess fire damage and benefits and to draw attention to the true costs and benefits of fires.

14. Policies and techniques that aim to increase agricultural productivity, while providing and enforcing disincentives for reckless programmemes, will slow forest conversion for unsustainable agriculture and will thus reduce forest fire damage.

V. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS TO FAO AND INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS

15. There are many international organisations, including FAO, other UN-agencies and NGOs, involved in forest fire-related activities at global and regional levels. Continued and improved collaboration and co-ordination are urged.

16. Transboundary or regional agreements for collaboration in fire management need to be developed, with the technical and financial support of international organisations.

17. International organisations are further urged to support the design and implementation of a global fire inventory or reporting system, in close collaboration with the fire science community and end-users. An internationally harmonised fire management terminology is required to support such global or regional fire reporting systems.

18. A global fire information system is needed to provide immediate access to real-time data and information on current fires, archived information, and other sources which are needed by countries to develop fire management programmemes, increase preparedness and respond to outbreaks at national, regional and global levels.

19. FAO and other international organisations should play a catalytic role in the establishment of networks, to promote the sharing of information and knowledge and technical co-operation between developing countries. Sufficient resources should be allocated for these purposes.

20. Guidelines and codes of practice for fire prevention and control are also required, not only in the forest sector but in any sector that could impact on forest fires (e.g. road alignments, power lines).

21. Technical assistance, from FAO or other international organisations, is still required, particularly in institutional support and capacity-building.

1
The perverse effect of provisions of the Kyoto Protocol of the Framework Convention on Climate Change regarding carbon emissions arising from prescribed burning in Annex 1 countries was noted. Prescribed fires are caused by humans and thus count as emissions against a country's carbon balance, while a disastrous fire that arises naturally because of a failure to reduce fuel loads does not.