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Local fire fighter mopping up peat fire – South Sumatra, Indonesia 2015.

Integrated fire management and community based fire management

Over the last ten years, evidence and results of Community Based Fire Management (CBFiM) from different regions of the globe has led to a paradigm shift to approaches in fire risk management. This shift has focused on better equipping people and agencies with knowledge and skills to manage fire with perceived benefits to communities that are developing alternatives to managing landscapes with and without fires.

A closer look at the principles of CBFiM and implementation of these in South East Asia shows a consistent gap between these original outcomes being achieved. Effective CBFiM and Integrated Fire Management (IFM) requires a balanced approach between the participating community, government agencies and private companies to draw together the strengths of each group.

This integrated approach is reflected in the Fire Management Voluntary Guidelines published by FAO in 2006. Ideally, this approach would lead to landscape-scale fire management or integrated natural resource management, integrating fire as a vital component of a larger more comprehensive approach. Yet, despite numerous case studies and synthesis documents, the implementation of both CBFiM and/or IFM on the ground has failed to recognise and understand that fire management cannot fully be shouldered by one party or other, nor should it be viewed in isolation of other natural resource management efforts. A balanced approach between communities, government and private sector must be sought and worked upon to achieve a sustainable long term approach.

IFM is akin to the now popular Landscape Approach to land and natural resource management, and is aimed at larger landscapes. CBFiM is a small part of the IFM wider coverage, and can be thought of as a nested set of principles and tools that can be used to better work with communities and properly engage them in fire management within the IFM framework.

Peatfire under strong winds – Riau, Indonesia 2016.

Peatfire under strong winds – Riau, Indonesia 2016.

The underpinning principles of CBFiM were established in 2001 and have since been tested and further refined with documented examples in tropical, temperate and savannah climatic environments. These principles are:

  • Fire Management should provide a focus on people and organising them to facilitate fire management, not on equipment or legal constructs.
  • Fire Management requires a sense of ownership with people to play an active role. Absence of a sense of ownership erodes interest and motivation to play an active role.
  • Fire Management can be adapted to use local and indigenous knowledge, taking caution to ensure that the adaptations can fit within a rapidly evolving environment.
  • Fire Management benefits from a focus on prevention actions over suppression actions, and it is recognised that communities tend to facilitate a stronger focus on prevention actions in preference to suppression actions. This is a reflection of human nature to tend toward avoidance damage.
  • Fire Management benefits from a balanced approach between the community, private sector, and government agencies participating to draw together the strengths of each group.

Evidence and results of CBFiM implementation in different regions of the globe is invigorating efforts to better equip people and agencies with the knowledge and skills to manage fire. To date, CBFiM has been perceived to offer the greatest benefits to communities, private sector and government agencies that are within developing countries. However a closer look at the principles of CBFiM and IFM adaptation of these principles in developed regions will likely achieve substantial positive benefits as well, including for climate change adaptation.

For instance, in Northern Australia, savannah ecosystems are now providing a model of CBFiM and IFM that has global significance and climate change mitigation. Savannahs constitute one of the most fire prone ecosystems on earth and contribute significant greenhouse gas emissions globally, yet relatively little attention has been given to them. Despite the minimal attention given, savannahs are a biome with globally significant mitigation potential.

In Northern Australia, the International Savannah Fire Management Initiative has worked to explore further this potential by linking to an emissions abatement program with a direct buyer of carbon offsets. The International Savannah Fire Management Initiative has shown that the strategic reintroduction of traditional, early dry season burning practices can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30 percent compared to late season wild fires. These efforts are also supporting biodiversity from destructive wildfires and creating meaningful employment and income opportunities for Indigenous communities in remote settings.

With its focus on traditional knowledge and the use of robust methodologies to quantify emission reductions, this is the type of emission reductions that lends itself to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation and Forest Conservation (REDD+). As with REDD+, the conditions required to establish CBFiM and/or IFM projects are not unique to Australia, given the similar landscapes and histories of traditional use of fire among savannah landscapes around the world, including across Australia, Asia, the Mediterranean, Southern Africa and South America. The aim of the International Savannah Fire Management Initiative has three main elements:

a) Raising awareness of the Australian experience internationally;

b) Developing a knowledge base to create a better understanding of the potential of emissions abatement fire management in fire dependent landscapes globally, including through regional feasibility assessments in key savannah regions. These assessments would explore where fire management that draws from traditional knowledge and applies emissions abatement methodologies would be scientifically applicable, as well as the preconditions that would need to be in place for governments and communities to initiate emission abatement fire management projects;

c) Linking interested communities and governments with international experts, raising awareness amongst the international policy and donor community and exploring demand side dynamics.

Haze in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia 2015.

Haze in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia 2015.

This example from Northern Australia demonstrates that the nature of the implementation of CBFiM is dynamic. The definition should also be dynamic until the concept matures, and the breadth of work on and experience in CBFiM enables a static, certain definition to be developed. The identification and analysis of CBFiM to date has been in the context of developing and emerging nations. In South East Asia, the identification of cases and best practices has been limited to Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia and recently emerging in Myanmar. Most of these cases are nearing over decade old and deserve a revisit against these baseline assessments. Obviously, there are some key differences between their circumstances and those of developed nations.

In developing countries, the roles of government and private companies and the types of land-use activities differ from those in developed countries. The definition of “community” (“living in a particular locality” or a “community of interest”) is essentially different in developed countries. In developing countries, land-use activities are more often tied to personal livelihood and existence, with no other choices available.

Recent examples of IFM and linked community engagement in developed countries could be seen as an element of CBFiM, as the community is increasingly invited to participate in fire management decision-making, and the importance of local knowledge is being recognised and valued. However, there is little evidence that community engagement ensures community empowerment in the context of land use management. In fact, there is no clear, common understanding of community engagement related to land use management. Of note, in developed countries, if CBFiM requires government involvement, it will require considerable resources and training within the organizations and communities involved for effective implementation.

Understory prescribed fire by local communities in evergreen forest, Chiang Mai, Thailand 2015.

Understory prescribed fire by local communities in evergreen forest, Chiang Mai, Thailand 2015.

Over the past thirty years, the frequency and intensity of fires in South East Asia has increased. Additionally, haze from forest fires often results in significant increases in respiratory conditions, lung function complaints and other related impacts. Whenever adverse fire weather conditions persist, it is almost a foregone conclusion that severe air pollution and haze events, induced by fire-associated smoke, will ensue in South East Asia and elsewhere. Fire, forestry and climate change professionals need to be looking for solutions to these problems beyond conventional fire management approaches. National and community-based solutions are needed, especially those solutions that engage local communities and NGOs and other stakeholders who are critical to the success of such community-based approaches.

There is a need to apply a Landscape Approach wherein all fires; regardless of its purpose (agriculture, land clearing) are managed in an integrated manner that takes into consideration the needs of nature and people. The reality of utilising a landscape IFM and a nested set of CBFiM principles to fire management is beginning to take hold. Early case examples have been developed in Myanmar and these principles are rapidly evolving today in Indonesia. Land managers of all persuasions can adopt the Landscape Approach and, when considering fire, adopt the IFM and nested CBFiM principles to substantively link government, private and community actors in a meaningful manner.

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Dr. David J. Ganz is Chief of Party, SERVIR-Mekong, Asian Disaster Preparedness Center.

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