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Local women and men key to Syrian fire prevention

Syrian forests are important sources of wood, edible fruits, medicinal plants and other products.

A beekeeper in a Syrian forest [FAO/R. Faidutti]

When the number of forest fires in the Syrian Arab Republic rose five-fold in less than ten years, researchers found that men and women were causing the blazes themselves, mostly through routine activities.

Between 1990 and 1999, the number of fires in Syrian forests increased from 59 to 320, threatening the survival of what little forest cover remained in the country – 2.4 percent.

Syrian forests are an important source of nutrition and income for rural families. Almonds and other edible fruits are key products, beekeeping for honey is a popular form of supplementary income, and various non-wood forest products are converted into medicines, soaps and dyes.

In addition to providing a wide range of products, forests in the Syrian Arab Republic play an important role in combating desertification, protecting soils and water, and conserving local biodiversity. Rainfall after significant fires on steep slopes can wash away fertile top soil, threatening the crop yields of farmers nearby.

Gender-sensitive strategy

As FAO worked with the governments in the region to improve fire prevention and forest management, it became evident that efforts to manage Syrian forest resources sustainably and protect livelihoods would require the direct participation of men and women in local communities.

Ninety-five percent of all forest firesf in Syria were caused by human activities, mainly routine agricultural tasks conducted by women, like the burning of orchard refuse. Men typically were responsible for criminal fires, some of which were related to the unclear demarcation of boundaries between forest areas, and communal and private land.

It was crucial to take into account the role that gender played in the various uses of fire and the management of natural resources, as well as the spread of information about the environment.

Under an Italian-funded project launched in 2004, FAO began by collecting data on the uses of fire by gender and age distribution in Latakia province, near the Turkish border, and later expanded the project to villages in other provinces.

The information gathered included details on literacy rates of men and women in villages, the ways in which people received their information about the environment, and the roles played by women, men, children and the mass media in the improvement of environmental understanding.

Land management and food security

The integrated fire management strategy included training in improved watershed and land-use management techniques, like water harvesting and maintenance of fire breaks. Villagers also learned to produce organic fertilizer to replenish the soil by making compost out of small branches, twigs and bio-degradable plants and fibers.

The initiative also focused on food security and income-generation activities. Working with non-governmental organizations in the area, FAO provided training in the collection, storage and marketing of non-wood forest products like mushrooms and aromatic plants.

Under the initiative, FAO also provided training to engineers, technicians, guards and workers in forest communities on the basic principles and practices in the forest fire management – prevention, preparedness, suppression and restoration.

The initiative was designed on the premise that an effective fire prevention programme must involve the people in the communities most closely linked to the forests, and must be anchored in the sustainable management of natural resources and agricultural livelihoods.