Nature and Biodiversity

Amazon burning: how indigenous tribes use fire to help the rainforest

A member of the Yawalapiti tribe member plays a Urua flute as part of aritual of "good energies," at their village in Alto Xingu in the lowerAmazon, May 12, 2002. Four tribe members go from hut to hut, performingthe ritual the during year leading up to a Quarup festival, or 'ritualof the dead'. Once on the border of extinction, the Yawalapiti havebuilt their tribe up to 180 members from just seven some 50 years agothrough inter-marriage with other Xinguano tribes in the same culturalarea. The tribe lives almost exclusively from fishing and are famousfor their "Quarup" festival, which takes place in the year followingthe death of a tribe member of chieftan family lineage. SECOND OF SIXPICTURES REUTERS/Gregg NewtonGN/HB - RP3DRHZARYAA

Fires are used sustainably across the Amazon for things such as forest farming and cultural practices. Image: REUTERS/Gregg Newton

Jayalaxshmi Mistry
Professor of Environmental Geography, Royal Holloway
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Nature and Biodiversity?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Nature and Biodiversity is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Nature and Biodiversity

As thousands of fires rage across the Amazon, world headlines have highlighted the associated illegal deforestation and international outcry. But the implicit categorisation of all these fires as “wildfires” or even just “bad” fires hides the fact that fire is also used sustainably in the region. In fact, for numerous smallholders and Indigenous peoples, it is part of their livelihood and cultural practices.

The Amazon isn’t one continuous block of lush rainforest as in the Western imagination, but rather a landscape of multiple ecosystems including forest, wetlands and savannas. Indigenous and local communities use fire within these habitats in different ways.

For example, fire is used in small-scale rotational forest farming where typically half hectare plots are cut, burned and planted for a number of years, before being left to regenerate. And in the fire-prone savanna, Indigenous people use fire to drive and trap game such as deer or the pig-like peccary.

Key to traditional fire management is the burning of small areas at different times over the whole dry season, thus producing a mosaic of burnt and unburnt patches across the landscape. This reduces fuel loads, introduces natural firebreaks, and limits the potential for catastrophic fires.

For many Indigenous groups in the Amazon, their entire way of life is predicated on sustainable fire. For example, the Mebêngokrê (Kayapó) people, who live in a remote region of the Brazilian Amazon, use fire to hunt for tortoises. Fire is used to clear tall savanna grasses thus making tortoise burrows more visible and accessible. Hunts like this form part of extended traditional festivals with implications for social processes including courtship, community cohesion, youth initiation and inter-generational knowledge transfer.

August 2019 fire monitoring data for the Indigenous territory of Capoto Jarina (where the tortoise example comes from). Fires within the Indigenous territory (centre-right) occurred in savanna areas (top of image) that have not affected the forest, whereas fires outside the territory are a result of deforested lands (light coloured areas with sharp edges).  INPE
August 2019 fire monitoring data for the Indigenous territory of Capoto Jarina (where the tortoise example comes from). Fires within the Indigenous territory (centre-right) occurred in savanna areas (top of image) that have not affected the forest, whereas fires outside the territory are a result of deforested lands (light coloured areas with sharp edges). Image: INPE

The Wapishana and Makushi, in neighbouring Guyana, use fire for gathering resources such as burning along swamps before cutting palm leaves, smoking bees before collecting honey, and stimulating certain trees to fruit, as well as using fire to protect important areas such as sacred forests, farming plots and homes. For all these groups, fire intimately connects livelihoods, culture, history and beliefs.

Anti-fire discourse

Indigenous management has a wider impact: evidence from several satellite studies indicate that Indigenous lands have less deforestation and habitat conversion compared to surrounding areas. This means these areas are more biodiverse and store more carbon.

Yet, there is still a pervasive anti-fire discourse targeting Indigenous peoples and smallholders in the Amazon. In Venezuela, for example, the Indigenous Pemón have been labelled with the derogatory phrase “Pemones los quemones” (crudely translated as “Pemón the pyromaniacs”), and in Brazil there is a notion that Indigenous burning activities represent an inherently destructive mentality. This anti-fire rhetoric is widely used by interest groups in the Amazon, such as the powerful agribusiness lobby, to discredit Indigenous and local communities and as political narratives contesting rights to land.

Pemón people live in south-east Venezuela, and parts of Brazil and Guyana. They are not pyromaniacs.  randomvariableintheuk / flickr, CC BY-NC-SA
Pemón people live in south-east Venezuela, and parts of Brazil and Guyana. They are not pyromaniacs. Image: randomvariableintheuk / flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

It does not help that the satellite imagery currently used to monitor fires in the Amazon is typically 4km x 4km resolution – that is, it can only “see” in blocks of four kilometres. That means it cannot distinguish between small, controlled fires – perhaps only the size of a field, but large enough to trigger the satellite – and much larger wildfires.

Conflating distinct fire types – small, large, controlled, uncontrolled, intentional, accidental, sustainable, unsustainable – raises more problems. It impedes our understanding of the root causes of destructive wildfires, and aids the formulation of restrictive policies that further disempower already marginalised groups while giving more power and control to established hierarchies.

Climate change is a reality for marginalised groups in the Amazon, where drought produces more flammable forests. In a vast region with limited infrastructure, resources and on the ground enforcement, firefighting alone is not viable and not effective, today or in the future.

At the G7 summit, a group of wealthy nations pledged US$22 million for firefighting planes and military support to tackle the Amazon fires. But it’s a top-down, sticking plaster approach. That money may be much better spent on strengthening Indigenous and local community land rights, while supporting local communities to share their fire knowledge with decision-makers in order to revalorise and implement traditional fire management grounded in local realities and a changing climate.

Loading...
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityFuture of the EnvironmentForests
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

The people’s choice: Stunning images from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2023

Meg Jones

February 22, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum