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Learning not to burn

As the dry season progresses in Trinidad, smoke becomes an ever-present feature.  While people blame “bush fires” on spontaneous combustion, most are either arson or agricultural fires.  While it always bothered me to see the landscape burn, it was the especially intense fire season of 1987 that really opened my eyes to the problem.

The Agricultural Fires Act, passed somewhere in the distant past, was an attempt to prevent burning.  The act made it a crime to plant annual crops on land that had burned.  I would be surprised if the act has ever been enforced; more to the point, while it may have been used for punishment a few times, it was designed to change behaviour.  And on that front, it was a colossal failure.

Fire has always been used to clear land for agriculture.  Where permanent cultivation replaces shifting cultivation, fire becomes less important as the frontier moves on.  But where land is farmed for a few years and then abandoned, fire is an essential tool.  This is especially true on poor tropical soils – not only is fire an efficient tool for clearing land and releasing nutrients from the vegetation, but the ash is also increases soil fertility by raising the pH and increased the nutrient holding capacity of the soil.  Fire is also useful for controlling pests and pathogens – in the tropics there is no winter to knock back pest and pathogen populations.

But there’s a cost to using fire.  The simplest one is the risk of escape – agricultural fires are a major ignition source for wildfires.  Fires kill beneficial soil organisms, they consume soil organic matter.  And smoke can have a major effect on health and quality of life.

The latest issue of New Agriculturist has an article on the work of a group called Sustainable Harvest International which is working with farmers in Central America to teach them alternatives to burning.  They are teaching the use of cover crops, integrated pest management, and erosion control techniques and something called bocashi as ways of reducing reliance of fire as an agricultural tool.  Bocashi is interesting

This highly effective and inexpensive natural fertiliser can be made from readily-available materials, including manure, coffee pulp, or rice hulls, together with yeast and molasses. These are then mixed with healthy soil. The yeast feeds on the molasses during a 15-day fermentation and decomposition process, aided by mixing manually twice-a-day. The bocashi mix is then added to crops, and yields either match or improve upon those obtained with chemical fertilisers – at a fraction of the cost.

They appear to be teaching the use of permanent fields as an alternative to shifting cultivation.  Back in the day when I thought of forest conservation as the most important issue, I would have supported permaculture over shifting cultivation without a second thought.  But permanent cultivation usually entails heavy chemical use, and leads to continuing losses of soil carbon, soil fertility and the general “health” of the soil.  It appears that this isn’t what is being done here – working with an eye to sustainability (rather than just forest conservation), this group appears to be getting it right.  An important factor is that it appears to be improving the quality of life for the people involved:

Don Cheyo, a graduate of SHI’s Honduras Program, says “We eat better and I live with the land – planting good food, building up the soil and planting trees. I have learned not to burn.”

It’s great to appeal to people’s better nature, but you’re more likely to make permanent changes if you also make their lives better.

Which brings me back to the Agricultural Fires Act in Trinidad and Tobago, passed in 1965.  The failure of the government to enforce this law has been a source of frustration to the conservation community in Trinidad, probably ever since it was passed.  Quite frankly though, it is and has always been a useless piece of legislation.  Granted, any law that isn’t enforced is useless, but it’s especially bad when it seeks to change established behaviour.  You can’t simply tell people “don’t burn” and expect them to stop, not when burning is an integral tool for them to earn their livelihood.  Although some people do set fires for the sheer joy of watching them burn, the people who set agricultural fires do so because it’s a tool for them to earn a living.  If you provide people with reasonable alternatives, you may be able to bring about change.  After you provide people with alternatives, you may want to add the option of the “stick” – legal penalties against the undesirable behaviour.  Laws like this only serve to convince people that government is out of touch, uninterested in them.  But then, in our post-colonial society, government has never been “of the people” – “home rule” and “independence” were merely the delegation of royal power to someone who was physically closer to you.  Neither the governed nor the governing ever really understood what “representative government” is supposed to mean.

H/T Jeremy, Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

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2 Responses

  1. Interesting insights; thanks for your take on this subject.

    The other strange thing about fires, especially as European forest-management perspectives were applied in the United States in the late 19th century and onwards, is that if you have an ecology in which fires are inevitable, suppressing those fires creates larger and larger liabilities as fuel builds up. Eventually, one of those fires that you’ve been supressing so carefully gets away, and then you’re in Big Trouble. I haven’t kept abreast of policy in the USFS, but I think they are still trying to prevent fires, with expensive and deadly consequences.

  2. The USFS is in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t situation – for the most part, they are aware of what 50 years of fire suppression has done to western forests, but the fuel loads are so great that it’s difficult to do the sort of controlled “cold” burns that they forests need. Add to that increasing development that is bringing homes closer and closer to the National Forests, and it becomes especially difficult to do controlled burns. Wildfires need to be fought because they threaten property and lives.

    And things are only going to get worse. Insect outbreaks (linked, I believe, to warmer winters) have killed huge areas of western forests, so now there’s even more fuel just waiting for a fire. Any there’s drought.

    Basically, they’re screwed…

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