Prescribed burning: fire in the Brazilian savannah

Two workers wearing safty helmets cleaning solar panels on a rooftop

A controlled fire started in the Jalapão to reduce biomass helps prevent large fires during the late dry season. Photo: Anja Hoffmann

Applying large-scale integrated fire management (IFM) can reduce the danger of intensive large fires in the Brazilian savannah (Cerrado). This has been demonstrated by the successful ongoing project ‘Preventing, controlling and monitoring fires in the Cerrado’ of the International Climate Initiative (IKI), which was presented at an international seminar in Brazil. The results show clearly that implementing IFM helped significantly reduce the areas burned in the late dry season in the pilot regions over the past few years. In the long term and with broad-scale application, this will lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The use of controlled fires also fosters the growth of flora and fauna, and protects biodiversity.

Covering more than two million square kilometres, the Cerrado savannah in central Brazil is nearly six times as large as Germany. It is home to almost 12,000 endemic plant and animal species, which are very important economically to the indigenous and traditional population groups.
Since 2012, the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) has been financing a project with IKI funds to support Brazil in introducing IFM approaches in protected and indigenous areas and local communities in the Cerrado to help preserve biodiversity and mitigate global climate change. The project is being implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW).

In the past, traditional Brazilian fire prevention policy led to large amounts of flammable biomass accumulating in the protected areas. As a result, the regularly reoccurring fires in the dry season tended to get out of control. In contrast, IFM focuses on using controlled burns at the beginning of the dry season, thereby reducing the amount of flammable biomass and preventing the large intensive fires in the late dry season.

The IFM strategy combines technical elements of fire prevention and fighting with the socioeconomic, cultural and ecological aspects of fire. It is seen as a continuous cycle of activities involving prevention, preparedness, firefighting and restoration of degraded areas. The approach is supported by research and science, and by corresponding political framework conditions and legislation based on intersectoral cooperation. The acceptance and dissemination of IFM strategies require the close participation of the local population and formalised dialogue processes between the different actors.

At the seminar, participants emphasised that traditional knowledge on the sustainable use of fire should be maintained and combined with modern technologies for better fire management strategies. The project helps draw up maps based on information gathered from satellite data on available flammable biomass and on areas burned in previous years. These maps can be easily accessed using a simple smart phone app and, when combined with local knowledge, form an essential tool for planning and implementing controlled fires.

Now the remaining challenge is to anchor the approach in policies and management rules at intra and inter-institutional levels to expand IFM to other areas, both within and outside of protected areas. This requires clear regulations that prescribe which fires are wanted and which are not, and provide a foundation for law enforcement. This important task will be implemented in the extended phase of the project together with the Brazilian partners (the Ministry of Environment Brazil (MMA), the National Environmental Authority (IBAMA/Prevfogo), the Chico-Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), the National Institute For Space Research (INPE), as well as the Sergipe State Secretariat of Environment and Water Resources (Semarh), the Tocantins Nature Institute (Naturatins) and Institute of Rural Development in the State of Tocantins (Ruraltins)).