Why indigenous communities are essential to prevent forest fires

According to a study presented in Guatemala, granting the rights to land to rural communities contributes to reducing the risk of forest fires.

Indigenous communities are the best guardians of the ecosystems they live in, as the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights Survival has been claiming for years. And yet another demonstration comes from Guatemala, where a new study on the importance of rural communities in preventing forest fires has been presented.

Cartello per proteggere il bosco
This sign invites people to take care of the forests and prevent forest fires © If Not Us Then Who

The right to land

The study, presented last week by EU Ambassador to Guatemala Stefano Gatto, shows how granting the rights to land to indigenous communities in rural areas significantly decreases the risk of forest fires and provides a more effective prevention than the government.

The researchers led by Andrew Davis, head of the Asociación de Comunidades Forestales de Petén (ACOFP), analysed NASA satellite images of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve – a huge protected area home to an incredible biodiversity and endemic species. They found that nearly all fires in 2017 took place outside of the community-controlled areas, which make up over 16 per cent of the reserve. The majority of this year’s fires have thus swept across the vast swaths of forest designated as under national government protection.

La foresta vista dal cielo
Analysing NASA satellite images, the study shows that forest areas managed by indigenous communities registered a small number of forest fires © ACOFOP

Wildfires and climate change

The number, force and duration of forest fires are increasing globally due to climate change. Unusually large wildfires ravaged Alaska and Indonesia in 2015 and Canada, California and Spain in 2016. Earlier this year massive fires devastated regions of Chile and now deadly fires in Portugal have claimed dozens of lives and destroyed hectares of forest. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the western US have experienced an increase in the average annual number of wildfires over the past decades, due to rising global temperatures. The number of wildfires increased five folds over the past 40 years, fires are burning more than six times the land area as before, and lasting almost five times longer. Fires contribute to global warming as burning trees release the great amounts of carbon dioxide they had absorbed, significantly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

How to prevent wildfires

Forest fires affect the whole Planet. For this, a shared and effective solution is needed. As it often happens for complex issues and as demonstrated by Guatemalan forest communities, such solution is rather simple: handing over the control of forests to local communities.

Incendio in Guatemala
Aerial images show how large swaths of forests managed by the government went up in flames © ACOFOP

The guardians of the forest

The study is the first to compare rates of fire incidence in concession and non-concession areas and confirms a series of recent studies that demonstrated that the most effective way to protect forests is give their management to the communities populating them. The conservation of nature and a sustainable use of natural resources are, in fact, part of the life of indigenous communities. Communities are part of the forest and know all animal species and healing properties of plants. The Awá people of Brazil, for instance, know at least 275 useful plants and 31 species of bees, while Indian Yanomami people use 500 different plant species every day and know which trees are home to edible insect larvae.

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