From: Rhett Butler, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published September 15, 2010 08:40 AM

Indigenous tribes, ranchers team to battle Amazon fires

Facing the worst outbreak of forest fires in three years, cattle ranchers and indigenous tribesmen in the southern Amazon have teamed up to extinguish nearly two dozen blazes over the past three months, offering hope that new alliances between long-time adversaries could help keep deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon on a downward trajectory.


The voluntary fire brigades, which have now spent more than 400 hours battling fires, are the product of partnership between Aliança da Terra, a Brazilian nonprofit working to improve land stewardship by cattle ranchers in the heart of the Amazon; Kayapó and Xavante Indians; local authorities; and the U.S. Forest Service. Over the past two years the Forest Service, with financial assistance from USAID, has led three intensive training sessions on tactics for fighting wild fires. The training came at an opportune time: the number of fires burning in the state of Mato Grosso surged from 5,000 last year to 18,800 this year, the highest since 2007. Exceptionally dry conditions have exacerbated fires set annually for land-clearing. An image released two weeks by NASA shows smoke obscuring a 2,500-kilometer corridor extending from Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil in the north to Argentina in the south. 148,946 fires were burning at the moment the photo was taken.

Fire has long been used in the southern Amazon as a way to establish land claims and prepare pasture for low-intensity cattle grazing. But as some ranchers have improved their management practices and in the process, boosted the productivity of their holdings, fire has become an enemy.

Ranchers are now concerned about losing their investment in maintaining productive pasture. Loss of quality pasture now can leave cattle without fodder until January. In the meantime, cattle will starve without supplemental feed from another source, a costly course of action for an already marginal business. Fire further damages fencing and can wipe out the gardens and farms of small landholders.

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Photo: courtesy of Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

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