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Decentralisation and devolution are dominant concepts in contemporary discussions on natural resource policy and management throughout the world. In forestry, decentralised governance and granting greater decision-making authority to local people has a long history. Recently, innovative and progressive policies and legislation have strengthened and formalised what in many locations were previously informal institutional arrangements for managing local forests.

There are several factors driving these trends toward increased participation of local stakeholders in forestry. In some cases, greater decentralisation and devolution is arising from a realization that central governments often lack the capacity to manage forests effectively. In many places, governments are themselves advocates of increased partnership with local people, recognising that their own forest management resources are inadequate. In other areas, local stakeholders are simply asserting their roles more aggressively than in the past. In nearly all instances, when local people are given a meaningful stake in forest management decision-making, there is a demonstrated improvement in the way forest resources are managed.

As global concern over the fate of the world’s forests has grown generally, so too has specific concern over the frequency and intensity of forest fires, which have increased dramatically as a result of human activities in recent years. The major forest fires of 1997 and 1998 in Asia and elsewhere around the globe inflicted enormous ecological damage and human suffering. A positive result, however, has been an awakening of world attention to the challenges of fire management in the modern era. To some, the massive fires of the 1990s were viewed not just as a local emergency, but rather as a human-induced planetary disaster that should never to be allowed to occur again.

Since the widespread fires of the late 1990s, numerous agencies and organizations have supported various fire prevention, suppression and management initiatives. These efforts have indicated that no single actor, whether government or civil society, can independently solve the serious social, economic and ecological challenges associated with uncontrolled forest fires. Importantly, it is now increasingly recognized that, in many countries, local communities can play significant positive roles in fire management, particularly when working in close collaboration with formal forest and fire management authorities.

In developing appropriate community-based forest fire management systems, much can be learned from the lessons gained in decentralising and devolving forest management. Nevertheless, important differences between managing fires and managing forests exist, and care must be taken in adopting institutional arrangements, approaches, tools and methods designed for different purposes.

Information on involving communities in fire management is still scarce, widely scattered and only slowly emerging. The Communities in flames proceedings provides long-awaited and first-hand insights into community-based forest fire management. The strength of the publication lies in the diversity of the contributions and the recognition that the role that communities can play is not overstated. Other stakeholders, including the government and the private sector, must also play a substantial role in forest fire management.

We hope that this publication will prove useful to those responsible for formulating and implementing fire management policies and programs in better understanding the key issues and challenges of involving local people as effective partners in managing forest fires.

Aban Kabraji
Regional Director for Asia
Bangkok, Thailand

Isabelle Louis
Director, Asia Pacific Programme
WWF International
Gland, Switzerland

He Changchui
FAO Regional Representative
for Asia and the Pacific
Bangkok, Thailand

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