Involvement of local communities vital to save world's forests from fires – UN

26 July 2004

With fires razing forests and grasslands equal in size to the whole of India in just one year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today called for the involvement of local communities as a crucial element in preventing the destruction of the planet's woodlands.

“If humans are the main cause of forest fires, prevention and control have to involve people at local level,” FAO forest fire expert Mike Jurvelius said. “The traditional approach of focusing on legislation and expensive equipment alone is not sufficient," he added, noting that human activity causes 95 per cent of all fires worldwide

Local communities must realize the stake they have in forest management. “Only when local communities know they will benefit from protecting their forests, will they do everything to prevent forest fires," Mr. Jurvelius said.

Main causes of fire outbreaks in rural areas include uncontrolled use of fire for agriculture, setting fire to forests and grassland to convert them into agricultural fields, the use of fire to gain access to hunting, and arson.

Since the 1980s, forest fires have increased in severity in many parts of the world and in 2002, fires destroyed more than 350 million hectares of forests and grassland globally.

Underscoring the importance of local involvement, FAO noted that a village in China has had no uncontrolled fires for over 35 years, ever since a policy was adopted providing benefits and income from the forests to the villagers.

A study in India revealed that the level of rural communities' dependency on their surrounding forests related directly to their participation in fire management. And in the West African country of the Gambia, community forestry practices resulted in a drop in damaging and unwanted fires, as increased participation and access to forest ownership led to more effective fire prevention and suppression.

But in many countries, despite legal obligations requiring local communities to participate in fire management, governments have not yet succeeded in mobilizing them. FAO supports countries in developing strategies for preventing and managing wildland fires.