12 July 2013

The use of fire by Amazonian farmers to clear and prepare land for crops is explored in five films by researchers at the Lancaster Environment Centre.

The use of fire by Amazonian farmers to clear and prepare land for crops is the topic of five short films by researchers at the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC).

Dr Luke Parry and Dr Jos Barlow are the executive producers on the short films which explore fire use by Amazonian farmers, including the challenges of preventing fires escaping into surrounding forests. The films also examine alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture, including the transition to mechanisation.

“Wildfires have increased dramatically in Amazonia due to agricultural expansion and severe droughts,” said Dr Parry. Forest fires threaten biodiversity and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.”

The films come out of a research project into the use of slash-and-burn techniques amongst smallholders in the Amazon.

“Much of the focus in the news is about deforestation, but degradation is as big an issue,” said Dr Barlow, who has spent the past 15 years studying the Amazonian forests. “The aim of the project was to look at ways to reduce the use of fire, which is one of the main threats to the forest. 

“Politicians know there is a problem with fire, they see it from their satellites and try to regulate it. But these policies don’t work because the smallholders don’t obey them. There needs to be much more dialogue between politicians and smallholders. We wanted to disseminate the smallholders’ side of the story, to explain why they use fire and to examine the alternatives.”

“Our initial idea was to reduce fires by making fire management safer so they didn’t get out of control,” Dr Parry said. “What we discovered was that the transition to mechanisation, to using tractors, is happening already with the arrival of soy farmers and  capitalized cattle ranchers.  Our data showed smallholders are using the services of large capitalized farmers where they are available to avoid using slash-and-burn.”
The researchers are interested in looking at how to support and encourage this transition, while understanding that mechanisation brings its own threats.
“We need more research on the impact of mechanisation. I hope these films will show the complexity of the story on fire use, that you can’t categorise it as completely good or completely bad,” said Dr Parry.
The films contribute to a UK-Brazil research initiative entitled “Human dimensions of wildfires: linking research and environmental education to reduce Amazonian wildfires”.

The films are available in English and in Portuguese. They were produced in partnership with the Goeldi Museum in Brazil and Tania Cypriano (Viva! Films), and funded by the UK’s Darwin Initiative.