‘Mosaic’ landscapes seen to reduce fire risk in Peruvian Amazon

Ricardo Vásquez Sánchez glances up at the dry thatched roof on the wood-framed platform that is his home in Peru’s sweltering Amazon lowlands.

“If a spark lands there, it’ll go up in flames,” he says.

It is a very real danger, especially in the driest months of the year — June through September, when his neighbors set fire to fields and pastures. A rogue gust of wind could whip the fire toward his home, burning through his cacao bushes and fruit trees, forcing him to flee with his wife and whatever possessions they can carry.

“Fire is one of the most important hazards limiting development, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and to sustain food and environmental security,” said Miguel Pinedo-Vásquez, a senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) who studies the causes and consequences of fires near Pucallpa, a Peruvian city of more than 200,000 people situated on the banks of the Ucayali River, a major tributary of the Amazon River.

As climate change increases the likelihood of drought, farmers can reduce risk by transforming the landscape into mosaics made up of both fields and forests, Pinedo-Vásquez said. “The risks will increase as we face climate change, demographic shifts and changes in land use,” he said. “The shift to more large-scale industrial palm plantations is reducing highly diverse farming systems that incorporate forests as well as agriculture.”

Pinedo-Vásquez’s parents migrated from the Andean highlands to a community outside Pucallpa decades ago, and he grew up amid the forests, cassava fields, fruit trees and rivers that provided food, building materials and cash crops for small-scale farm families such as his own.

As climate change increases the likelihood of drought, farmers can reduce risk by transforming the landscape into mosaics made up of both fields and forests

Miguel Pinedo-Vásquez, senior scientist at Center for International Forestry Research

So he knows why people set fires.

“We have to understand fire not just as a practice that damages the environment, but as the cheapest and practical tool for making agriculture fields, controlling pests and for managing pastureland,” he said.

The causes of fire are varied. Cattle ranchers set fire to their pastures to control ticks that infest animals; farmers burn imperata, a tenacious invasive grass with an extensive root system, which competes with such crops as cassava, a tuberous root vegetable high in carbohydrates.

Imperata burns easily, contributing to wildfires. It also grows back quickly, creating a vicious cycle because farmers see no alternative but to get rid of it by burning it, Pinedo-Vásquez said.

Seeing possibilities in a new cash crop, some farmers in the Pucallpa region are turning their pastures into oil palm plantations. And although some research indicates that palm plantations may have a lower fire risk, Pinedo-Vásquez is cautious.

“It isn’t clear why mature palm plantations seem more resistant to fire,” he said. The leafy tree canopy might keep the ground more moist, or farmers may be more careful to control fires before they encroach on the valuable trees, but any intensive agriculture produces crop residue that could be a dangerous source of ignition during dry spells — a situation that could be exacerbated as drought becomes more frequent with climate change.

Demographic patterns are also changing, as farmers from the Andes move to the Amazonian lowlands in search of better opportunities; the newcomers tend to live with one foot in an urban area and the other in the countryside. They often have both a farm, which provides an income, and a house in town, which gives their families better access to schools and health care, Pinedo-Vásquez said.

“They clear land for crops, livestock or oil palm plantations depending on their economic opportunities and the availability of markets, and they may not consider negative environmental impacts, he said.

“Land-use change and climate change go hand in hand,” he said. “People adapt to market opportunities, and they’re not always sensitive to climate change and the impact a problem like drought can have on land-management practices like fire.”

Farmers can make their investment more resilient to climate change by creating a mosaic of different land uses, including crops, natural forests, agroforests and pasture, Pinedo-Vásquez said.

“We have to think about the diversification of productive landscapes in mosaics, incorporating forests as firebreaks and as biological or environmental corridors,” he added.

“The problem posed is to determine what kind of environmental conditions we need to ensure that people can earn a living and at the same time protect the environment.”

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