climate change

Farming with fire in the age of climate change

The fires in Australia have captured the news headlines this month – and rightly so. The combination of high temperatures and prolonged drought have made it the most severe fire season in living memory in many communities.

Australia is not the only place burning at the moment. This map shows active fires over the last 30 days, as captured by satellite data and mapped by the Global Wildfire Information System.

The map shows a wide band of fires across the earth’s equatorial regions. Large parts of Africa and Southeast Asia have also experienced fires this month. The difference between these and the Australian bush fires is that in large part they are deliberate.

Many farmers in the Sahel region, and in Cambodia and Indonesia, practice slash and burn agriculture. Depending on where this occurs, it may be setting fires to clear the last year’s growth ahead of replanting. Or it may be pastoralists burning off grassland to encourage more nutritious fresh pasture for cattle. Either way, fire has been a farming tool for thousands of years. An estimated 300 million traditional farmers use slash and burn practices, though it is not limited to smallholders. Large commercial farms use fire too, as campaigns against palm oil have highlighted.

As farming techniques go, it’s not been entirely unsuccesful and there are reasons why it has persisted for so long. But with a growing population and greater pressure on land, it’s becoming more of a problem. Fire dries out soil and causes erosion. Clearing vegetation reduces transpiration, which can in turn reduce rainfall and make droughts worse – and of course droughts make fires more likely. The emissions from fires also contribute to climate change, and climate change causes more fires. It’s a vicious circle. The technique may have served us in the past, but it’s not one we can take into the future.

This is not news to the countries where fires are still common, and there are a variety of responses. Indonesia has attempted to regulate the use of fire in agriculture, with controls on when and how fire can be used, and landowners responsible for the consequences. Many places have regional or outright bans, including Brazil. As you can imagine, it’s very hard to catch anyone. Illegal burning is common, especially in remote areas.

Other places have promoted alternatives to fire. Ethiopia has made land restoration and reforestation a priority, with considerable success. Farmers in Burkina Faso have developed a system of mulching that uses a local shrub called ‘camel’s foot’. It was passed from farmer to farmer for decades before scientists noticed what was happening and started studying it in 2013. In French Guyana, researchers have discovered that burning was introduced with white settlers, and they have been recovering and testing older indigenous farming techniques that have been lost. Investing in smallholder farming is important too, so that nobody has to use fire because they have no choice.

The alternatives exist, but of course farming is cultural. It’s a way of life that is handed down through generations. It will take a long to shift, and there are far more nuances to the issue than I can communicate here. But there will be enough fire in the age of climate change without the ones we set on purpose.

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