In 1999, a year after widespread, drought-driven fires caused extensive damage to the country’s forests, the Mexican government began looking for ways to improve and strengthen its national fire program.
But, like many governments, they assumed that all burning was bad and focused their efforts on ways to prevent people living in rural areas from lighting fires in the fields and forests where they lived.
Fortunately, with some help from The Nature Conservancy and its partners, lawmakers were ultimately persuaded to take a different approach.
That approach involves recognizing that the fire practices and knowledge of rural communities can actually be beneficial, not harmful, to landscapes.
“The Nature Conservancy helped convince the government that fire was needed for the long-term maintenance of Mexico’s pine-oak forests, and that fires needed to be managed rather than always suppressed,” says Dr. Ronald Myers, a Nature Conservancy ecologist.
“But realizing that they did not, and probably would not, have the capacity to do that management, Mexico’s National Protected Areas Commission proposed to work with local communities to adapt traditional burning practices and knowledge to meet both conservation and rural community needs.”
According to Mary Huffman, a Nature Conservancy ecologist who has studied community-based fire in southern Mexico: “Farmers in some parts of Mexico have depended on fire for their survival for millennia, so of course they have deep local knowledge about the use of fire in some ecosystems.”
People use fire to prepare fields for planting, and they also burn pine forests to facilitate travel and control pests. Some also use fire to improve forage grasses that grow beneath the pines.
Wildfire is a common occurrence in this part of the world, and so farmers developed a technique called quema de cuchillo (see photo above) to prevent the spread of both wildfires and intentional burns into fields and villages. This involves burning ridge tops (because fires are too hard to control on steep slopes) to create fire breaks.
The Conservancy’s project focused on preserving these local burning techniques and expertise to not only meet traditional needs but also to maintain the pine forest.
In La Sepultura Biosphere Reserve in the southern state of Chiapas, the Conservancy has worked with two communities to gather information, develop consensus on where fire would and wouldn’t be allowed, and craft detailed fire-management plans. We’re also working to replicate this framework in other rural communities in Mexico and in countries across the region.
The La Sepultura project also contributed to the development of conservation-friendly, national fire management policy in Mexico. In many countries, even though enforcement capacity is limited, it’s technically against the law to use fire in forests, even to manage fire-dependent ecosystems within a protected area. This was the case in Mexico until recently.
According to Myers: “What we accomplished was official recognition that fire can play a positive role — both ecological and economic — and under appropriate circumstances rural people and professionals in Mexico can now legally use fire in both forested and agricultural settings.”
This experience adds to a growing body of knowledge around the world that integrates fire ecology, fire management and rural community livelihood needs.
The Conservancy’s term for this approach — Integrated Fire Management — is the centerpiece of our strategy for addressing the fire-related needs of both people and ecosystems.
Wendy Fulks is a member of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Fire Team.
(Top image: Using Ocote, a traditional method for igniting fires. Bottom image: a quema de cuchillo, or ridge-top burn. Credits: Victor Negrete.)