Community owned solutions for fire management in tropical ecosystems: case studies from Indigenous communities of South America, Mistry et al. 2016

Compendium Volume 4 Number 2 January 2021

Indigenous groups across the world have developed ecological knowledge linked to the places they inhabit, including prescribed fire practices used to maintain healthy ecosystems. Mistry et al. examine the challenges Indigenous communities in South America face in managing the landscape through fire and preserving such knowledge across generations in sometimes hostile political climates. However, there is growing recognition that Indigenous people have a vital role to play in combating climate change and supporting biodiversity and healthy ecosystems.

Emerging research shows the fundamental role of Indigenous land-use practices for controlling deforestation and reducing CO2 emissions—analysis of satellite imagery suggests that Indigenous lands have reduced rates of deforestation and habitat conversion, and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, compared with surrounding areas [Mistry 2016: 1].

While indigenous groups’ use of prescribed fire early in the dry season to prevent destructive out-of-control fires is gaining broad recognition, that hasn’t necessarily translated into greater respect or autonomy for those communities. Instead, Indigenous people may be given auxiliary roles in fire management, or have their knowledge utilized but implemented by non-local organizations in structures that fail to benefit or empower the local communities themselves. While this may still achieve desired wildfire management results, it weakens intergenerational knowledge transfer and undermines the social and spiritual role of prescribed fire within communities.

Mistry et al. argue that “Indigenous fire management is effective in that it is an emergent property of a linked social-ecological system where Indigenous knowledge and culture, and associated livelihoods, are intimately interconnected with landscape management practices” [Mistry 2016: 4]. Precisely because prescribed fire matters to Indigenous communities as something more than a tool in the toolkit of managing wildfires, it is effective when carried out by those communities in reducing risk of destructive wildfires and supporting healthy and biodiverse ecosystems.

Importantly, the numerous uses of fire mean that burning is a relatively constant activity, particularly during the dry season, generally at low levels, thereby helping to prevent the build-up of flammable fuel and incidents of large-scale uncontrollable wildfires. Experimental studies of fire behaviour suggest that this patch mosaic burning not only reduces the occurrence of dangerous fires, but also increases spatial and temporal vegetation heterogeneity and biodiversity [Mistry 2016: 4].

These authors distinguish between Indigenous relationships to ecosystems and market-based approaches to ecosystem services valuation, which attempt to incentivize conservation through payment. While the goal of the market-based approach is to monitor and preserve functioning ecosystems, “their ideological foundations within a neoliberal agenda that promotes ‘selling nature to save it’ is in stark contradiction with Indigenous ontologies based on human–nonhuman–spiritual relationships” [Mistry 2016: 2].

Within Indigenous communities, fire plays a role in social bonding, intergenerational knowledge transfer, and agricultural practices. Mistry et al. argue that

savanna and forest ecosystems are being protected within Indigenous lands not because they are being ‘managed’ in a direct and active way, but as the indirect outcome of a healthy social–ecological system, i.e. the outcome of practices that maintain social and ecological integrity, or what can be termed ‘community owned solutions [Mistry 2016: 4].

But challenges, including loss of fire knowledge by younger generations within Indigenous groups because of outside pressures and encroachment, pose a threat to these fire management practices. For example, in Venezuela and Brazil,

young Wapishana and Makushi and some community leaders were more critical about the use of fire as they had more regular contact with state natural resource management officials and environmental organizations that promoted antifire discourses. As with the Krahô, changing Indigenous values to focus on fire prevention and suppression could have the effect of making the problem worse [Mistry 2016: 4].

That is, when prescribed burning is taken out of its original context and represented to younger generations of Indigenous people and land stewards as simply a well-incentivized tool, the Indigenous communities themselves are diminished, along with the robustness of their ecological knowledge that gets passed forward.

In spite of lingering antagonistic views in Brazil and Venezuela toward indigenous fire management, attitudes are changing.

Not only is there a move away from categorizing all fire as ‘bad’; there is also a recognition that Indigenous fire knowledge is a valid form of knowledge that could inform policy-making [Mistry et al. 2016: 6].

Mistry et al. suggest the best way to achieve both ecological and communal health might be through power-sharing arrangements. By empowering Indigenous communities, national governments could in turn work toward their fire management and biodiversity conservation goals. This might require evaluating ecological health in ways beyond just quantitative metrics, which reduce these complex systems down to a set of standardized numbers, as well as the recognition that the well-being of these ecosystems is tied to the Indigenous communities that inhabit them, according to the authors:

There needs to be enabling policies that focus on legitimizing and strengthening Indigenous fire management as a community owned solution. Critically, as community owned fire management is intricately linked with Indigenous survival strategies, so too must firefighting and prescribed burning be grounded in local social–ecological systems. We believe it is necessary to define long-term actions to support the integrated functioning and survival of Indigenous communities as a whole, rather than focusing on isolated issues (e.g. carbon retention) or benefits for some individuals (e.g. hiring Indigenous firefighters) [Mistry 2016: 8].

This systems approach may well be the key to successful long-term fire management. The authors offer this challenge:

What we want to do is not promote one over the other, but encourage decision-makers to engage with, and appreciate, Indigenous perspectives and worldviews on fire management. Community owned solutions acknowledge collectivity, spirituality, process orientation and locality, whereas many expert-led fire management interventions often result in promoting individualism, ethnocentrism, rationality, efficiency, commercialism and globalization. The question we raise is this: can the ‘community owned solutions’ approach be the mechanism through which Indigenous perspectives can be represented within fire management [Mistry et al. 2016: 8]?

Mistry, Jayalaxshmi, Bilbao, Bibiana A. & Berardi, Andrea, 2016, Community owned solutions for fire management in tropical ecosystems: case studies from Indigenous communities of South America, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 371(1696),

For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 4 Number 2 January 2021