Mexican Communities Occupy the Front Line in Preventing Forest Fires

By Katiana Murillo

The Mexican states of Chiapas and Campeche are home to some of the country’s most important protected areas — wilderness that hold an array of ecosystems and natural riches. The El Ocote, La Sepultura, and Montes Azules Biosphere Reserves in Chiapas and the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Campeche protect treasure troves of biodiversity, but they are located in regions where most of the land belongs to indigenous communities and ejidos whose collective management of farmland and forests creates both challenges and opportunities for conservationists. Those communities continue the tradition of burning farmland each dry season to prepare it for planting, which means there is a permanent risk of wildfire damaging the biosphere reserves.

In response to this threat, the Fondo Mexicano para la Conservación de la Naturaleza A.C. (FMCN) is working with support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund in four communities located in the biosphere reserves to strengthen their capacity for fighting forest fires and promote better fire management by local farmers.

According to Juan Manuel Frausto, director of FMCN’s forest conservation program, the initiative is an attempt to deal with the forest fire threat by working within communities to promote better fire management, so that each community becomes more involved in the protection and management of its natural resources. FMCN brings more than eight years of experience in this area to the project, but Frausto notes that this is the first time the organization has worked with various partners simultaneously in the same region.

Fire Brigade - Photo by FMCNThe project, called “Strengthening Local Capacity to Prevent and Control Forest Fires in Four Key Biodiversity Areas in Selva Zoque, Sierra Madre, Lacandonia, and Gran Peten, Mexico” involves four local organizations that coordinate activities in different communities with the goal of protecting 29,640 acres (12,000 hectares) of forests that are especially vulnerable to wildfire. The conservation group ProNatura Sur is working with the Ejido Veinte Casas in El Ocote Biosphere Reserve; the farmers’ group Union de Productores de la Sierra de Villa Flores is working with the Ejido Villahermosa in La Sepultura Biosphere Reserve; Cooperativa Ambio is working with the Ejido San Isidro in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve; and the Consejo Regional Indígena y Popular de X’pujil is working with the Ejido Once de Mayo y Unión 20 de Junio in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.

According to Frausto, the goal is for the communities to adopt strategies that link the use of fire with natural resource management, which can help to avoid catastrophic forest fires. This includes improved soil management and sustainable farming practices that protect ecosystems. Local residents are also learning when they don’t need to suppress fires, which can benefit some ecosystems such as pine forests.

As part of the initiative, approximately 60 people from the different communities are participating in professional fire brigades, which are responsible for fighting forest fires and encouraging better control of agricultural fires in their communities to keep them from becoming uncontrollable wildfires. The brigade members, who were elected by their communities based on their experience and ability, receive the tools and training they need, are paid a salary that is higher than the day rate for agricultural workers, and also receive medical insurance.

FMCN Meeting - Photo by FMCNAccording to Frausto, the vision of the project is that community work should be professionalized. “We are talking about campesinos who have a lot of limitations to volunteering because they need to make a living. This is why we came up with the idea of trained and paid fire brigades in organized communities.”

FMCN’s Fund for Fire Management and Environmental Restoration collaborated with Mexico’s National Forestry Commission to train nearly a dozen instructors, who in turn provide the community fire brigades with technical assistance in preventing and fighting forest fires, first aid, and emergency management.

Sotero Quechulpa of Cooperativa Ambio, which works in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, explains that seven brigades were formed and equipped to protect the community forests from wildfire. The region’s ejido members offer ecotourism excursions to visitors eager to see the reserve, whose forests protect the local watershed.

Frausto notes that fire brigades created by the project have been called to fight fires in other regions, which shows that their efficiency is recognized and valued. He explains that working at the regional level could result in more effective protection of ecosystems and the services that they provide, in addition to encouraging better coordination among the organizations involved and municipal, state, and federal governments.

Firefighter - Photo by FMCNQuechulpa believes that fire management in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve has resulted in greater awareness within that area’s ejidos about the forest fire problem. The increased awareness has led to the creation of a regional organization to respond to forest fires that protects more than 9,880 acres (4,000 hectares).

Frausto is optimistic about what has been achieved in forest fire prevention and fighting since 1998, the country’s worst fire season in the past century, when 1,976,000 acres (800,000 hectares) were burned and 80 people died. Nevertheless, he notes that beyond the traditional risk season, which generally runs from March to June, climate change, with its alteration of rain and temperature patterns, is a factor of great importance that could result in a much higher risk of forest fires in the future. “With the threats posed by climate change and poverty, we need to find new ways of approaching the forest fire issue, and we need to be aware that communities can provide an important service in fire management,” he says.

He adds that the attitude of the communities toward the issue has been one of the most important accomplishments to date. “The communities understand that fire can become a serious problem, that they need to learn manage it, and that they can be an integral part of the solution.”

Contacts: Juan Manuel Frausto, Director of Forest Conservation, Fondo Mexicano para la Conservación de la Naturaleza A.C. Tel: (52) 55 56119779 ext. 222. jfrausto@fmcn.org, www.fmcn.org. Sotero Quechulpa, Cooperativa Ambio, Tel: (52) 01 (967) 6788409. Email: ambiofb@prodigy.net.mx; soteroqm@hotmail.com.

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