5th Symposium on Fire and Forest Meteorology and the 2nd International Wildland Fire Ecology and Fire Management Congress

Tuesday, 18 November 2003: 2:30 PM
Fire Use in Rural Tropics: Cultural Perspectives from Mesoamerica
Sarah Otterstrom, University of California, Davis, CA
Throughout the world’s tropical regions, humans play a central role in determining the frequency of fire because the majority of fires have an anthropogenic ignition source. Many cultures use fire in shifting cultivation systems and also for hunting, collecting natural resources and modifying landscapes. In addition to being a very affordable and practical tool, fire often has a religious or symbolic significance. Conservation biologists concerned with the destructing effects of increasingly frequent fire regimes should not overlook the significance of fire use in daily rural life. Furthermore, rural people often have very specific knowledge regarding the affect on plants and wildlife.

Mesoamerica’s tropical dry forest is one of the regions most threatened ecosystems, and it is also home to more than 70% of the regions human population. The cultural perceptions, knowledge systems, and practices surrounding fire use were evaluated in mestizo settlements within the Chococente Wildlife Refuge, Nicaragua. Research methods included 105 household surveys, ethnographic interviews, and participant observation during 5 agricultural burns.

Fire is a tool for the majority of subsistence activities, including cooking, hunting, and agriculture. Farmers perceive many advantages to burning, such as saving labor and increasing fertility. They also demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of forest ecology and the effects of varied fire-return intervals. Communities share belief systems and rules regarding timing of burns and fire application. Overall, results demonstrate that fire is culturally valued and frequently used in rural subsistence. It is likely that wildfires will be a recurrent disturbance in the dry forest region without strong cultural and socio-economic changes. Reducing wildfire frequency should focus on training local people in fire safety and more conservative burning techniques. Fire use should only be completely discouraged when alternative tools are made available.

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