By André Julião | Agência FAPESP – Brazil faced the likelihood of a fresh wave of wildfires in natural areas as the dry season began in July. Researchers warned that competent management of the areas most susceptible to burning would be crucial to avert tragedies like the wildfire that destroyed almost 30% of the Pantanal in 2020. The recommendation was part of a study supported by FAPESP and published in the journal Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation.
“The Pantanal wildfire was totally unprecedented. It made the urgent need for integrated science-based fire management in Brazil even more evident,” Vânia Pivello, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Biosciences (IB-USP) and first author of the article, told Agência FAPESP.
The study was supported by FAPESP under the aegis of its Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA). Funding was also awarded via a project linked to the FAPESP Research Program on Global Climate Change (RPGCC).
“A number of problems are happening at the same time. In climate, the volume of rainfall is decreasing. Another is the lack of law enforcement by the environmental authorities, which are being undermined because powers and funding have been taken away from the people in the field responsible for policing and penalizing deforestation and combating fires. A third problem is land use. With very little oversight or policing, fire is used to clear forest to plant crops or raise cattle. This is done without proper care, and the fire spreads to other areas accidentally. If measures aren’t taken, more tragedies could happen again this year,” Pivello said. The Ministry of the Environment did not respond to our request for comment.
The authors call attention to the peculiarities of Brazilian biomes with regard to fire, which has appropriate uses in the grasslands and savannas of the Cerrado and Pampas biomes, whereas the tropical forest areas of the Amazon and Atlantic Rainforest biomes are extremely vulnerable to destruction by burning, which should be avoided there at all costs.
In the Cerrado and Pampas, wildfires are frequently started by lightning strikes, and the evolution of the vegetation there has been shaped by fire. The grasses and other herbaceous species that abound in these biomes bloom or sprout after a fire. In this context, the “zero fire” policy adopted in Brazil since the nineteenth century has contributed indirectly to the extinction of species and the occurrence of major wildfires.
The policy began changing in the 1970s, in response to the groundbreaking research of biologist Leopoldo Magno Coutinho (1934-2016), a professor at IB-USP, showing that complete abolition of fire in these locations leads to the accumulation of large amounts of organic matter, which serves as fuel for far larger fires than would otherwise occur naturally.
“In the case of the Pantanal, these grassland areas are typically surrounded by water. Owing to severe drought in the region in recent years, the rivers have less water, and there were too few flooded areas to stop the fire from spreading,” Pivello said.
Since 2014, Brazil has pursued a strategy called Integrated Fire Management (IFM). In some Cerrado conservation units, the amount of combustible material is reduced by controlled burning in May-June, during the wet season, minimizing the risk of wildfires in the dry season from July on. IFM has not been implemented in many parts of Brazil, however, A draft bill was brought before Congress in 2018 to introduce a national IFM policy, but has made little progress since then. In any event, IFM is not used on private property, and 44.2% of the land in Brazil is privately owned. The researchers advocate the development of a clear strategy to manage fire on private property as well, permitting controlled used when it is beneficial.
Sempre-Vivas National Park in the Diamantina region of Minas Gerais is a case in point. Sempre-vivas (“everlasting flowers”) are several species of Eriocaulaceae that have been gathered and sold as dried ornamental plants for more than a century, providing the local inhabitants with a livelihood. They manage the plants with assistance from the Chico Mendes Biodiversity Conservation Institute (ICMBio), using fire to stimulate flower production.
“That’s their tradition, but it’s very important to use fire correctly and harvest the right amount of flowers so as to assure the continuity of all the species involved,” Pivello said.
Other conservation units where controlled burning helps avoid wildfires include the Jalapão Environmental Protection Area (APA) and Serra Geral Ecological Station in Tocantins; Chapada das Mesas National Park in Maranhão; and Chapada das Emas and Chapada dos Veadeiros National Parks in Goiás (more at: revistapesquisa.fapesp.br/en/remaking-the-cerrado).
“Even adapted ecosystems respond differently to fire, and several factors determine whether burning will be good or bad for a particular area. Human interference has altered fire regimes in any case,” Pivello said.
Natural fires occur at intervals of several years and are usually started by lightning strikes during early summer rainstorms, when the vegetation is damp and fires tend not to spread. The resulting mosaics of green and scorched areas are good for biodiversity. When human intervention sets fire to an area every year, especially in the dry season, they can lead to mega-wildfires that endanger biodiversity as well as human health.
The authors of the article aimed to reach beyond the scientific community to policymakers and public administrators. To help prevent more tragedies like the Pantanal mega-fire, they made a point of making the full text freely available in English as well as an executive summary in Portuguese with the necessary information for decision making.
The executive summary in Portuguese is at: https://bit.ly/3ycbhlC.
The article “Understanding Brazil’s catastrophic fires: Causes, consequences and policy needed to prevent future tragedies” by Vânia R. Pivello, Ima Vieira, Alexander V. Christianini, Danilo Bandini Ribeiro, Luciana da Silva Menezes, Christian Niel Berlinck, Felipe P.L. Melo, José Antonio Marengo, Carlos Gustavo Tornquist, Walfrido Moraes Tomas and Gerhard E. Overbeck is at: www.perspectecolconserv.com/en-understanding-brazils-catastrophic-fires-causes-avance-S2530064421000560.