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Community-based fire management case studies from China, The Gambia, Honduras, India, Lao People's Democratic Republic and Turkey.

By David Ganz, Peter Moore and Dominique Reeb

D. Ganz
201 Wellman Hall, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management
University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-3112 United States

P. Moore
Co-ordinator Project FireFight South East Asia, Jalan CIFOR, Situ Gede
Sindangbarang, Bogor Barat 16680, Indonesia

D. Reeb
Senior Forestry Officer, Forestry Policy and Institutions Branch (FONP), Room C-478
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Viale delle Terme di Caracalla
00100 Rome, Italy


Fire is a disturbance that has played, and will continue to play, a major role in forest ecosystems throughout the world. In almost all of these ecosystems, humans have altered the natural fire regimes by changing the frequency and intensity of fires. In many parts of the world, local communities are often blamed for what are considered harmful forest fires. This view often encourages fire and forest management institutions to perceive local communities as part of the problem, and certainly not part of the solution. As reflected in these case studies, the underlying reason for the local population's failure to control fires is not a lack of awareness or carelessness but rather a lack of incentives to protect forest resources. Why protect forests when they are owned by the state and utilized by outsiders?

Because local people usually have most at stake in the event of a harmful fire, they should clearly be involved in mitigating these unwanted events. Community-based forest fire management (CBFiM) is increasingly considered a component of participatory community development strategies and forest fire management. In addition, community-based forest management has recognized the integral contribution that CBFiM has to offer participatory forest management. CBFiM promoters have always maintained that there are potential and important linkages among CBFiM, land-use planning, natural resource management and overall community development processes. CBFiM cannot function independently from these other processes.

To varying degrees, governments around the world have begun to adopt collaborative or community-based forest management strategies. The term "community-based" in the context of fire covers a wide spectrum of situations: from potentially forced engagement in an activity (coercion), to free and willing participation in actions that have been developed by the actors themselves (empowerment). The emphasis is not only on community involvement, but also on a community capacity that has been recognized and supported by external agencies (governments, non-governmental organizations [NGOs], projects and others). Such recognition may include supporting an existing indigenous system through formalizing, modifying or otherwise elaborating on it, or instituting new systems. Many of these systems and approaches are considered more effective in tempering uncontrolled burns, more beneficial to local ecosystems and more cost-efficient over the long term.

There is a large body of knowledge on, and examination of, the definition of communities and community-based approaches in other fields such as anthropology, community-based forest management and other social science disciplines. However, the technical and organizational capacity of communities in relation to managing fire, historically and culturally, is poorly understood and rarely studied. As a result, it is very difficult to transfer lessons from one community to another, in different provinces, nations and regions. This compilation of CBFiM approaches from Lao PDR, The Gambia, Honduras, India, China and Turkey is a valuable first step contributing to the body of knowledge on communities and their fire. Although this step has the potential to identify some general models of CBFiM for others to experiment with in their own countries, the cases' diversity, unique circumstances and varying contexts make it extremely difficult to extrapolate principles, common themes and aspects that would lend themselves to building a transferable model.

Some of the initiatives documented in this compilation, such as the Cooperazione e Sviluppo (CESVI) project in Sayabouri Province, Lao PDR, come from government or donor-initiated projects with a focus on fire prevention and preparedness. As forest fires are not seen as a major threat in most of the ecosystems documented, except for The Gambia, only a portion of these donor-driven and government projects are based solely on forest fire management. Appropriately, most projects consider fire management as one component of broader forest management initiatives. The projects view resource management more holistically and tend to be effective at addressing the root cause of unwanted fires.

More common are instances in which CBFiM has resulted from the formation of community institutions and mechanisms that support more efficient fire management entities (such as the two cases documented from Çal and Bergama in Turkey). Here, the lead institutional transformations occur at the local level, with government and non-governmental agencies accordingly reshaping their own functions away from direct management functions towards more technical and advisory roles. The nature of institutional change varies from place to place, as does the speed at which it occurs. Nonetheless, the movement towards CBFiM as a part of community forestry initiatives in countries such as The Gambia is startling.

The driving forces in this shift to CBFiM are further propelled by overall forest conservation objectives. While acknowledging the roles that governments have played in the past as forest conservators (mainly through the creation of reserves), there is also a growing recognition that government agencies have not ultimately proved the most effective agents for preserving forests. Even where government entities have successfully managed forests for conservation objectives, they have not always done so in the most participatory manner.

Of particular concern are the policing strategies that form the core of most government-sponsored fire management programmes. The institutions required to operate these policing regimes are no longer financially viable, and the principles of state protection they embody actually encourage conflict and thus, paradoxically, more expense. Rather than alleviating forest fire problems, these regimes often increase the scale and magnitude of forest fires. Furthermore, they largely ignore the human dimensions of fire, as well as the positive social and ecological benefits of smaller prescribed and managed fires.

In other countries, the driving force behind CBFiM approaches is indigenous land and/or use rights, including the right to use fire as a management tool. The retention of traditional practices through adequate empowerment of local populations to manage and use fire is one of the key components of CBFiM that is receiving more international attention. The securing of land and use rights may ultimately help maintain the beneficial uses of managed fires for such objectives as controlling weeds, reducing the impact of pests and disease and generating income from non-timber forest products (NTFPs). The case study presented from Orissa, India, documents the importance of traditional uses of fire for cultivating kendu and mahua flowers. The dearth of documentation on these and other practices threatens to erode the stores of cultural knowledge.

Some elements of CBFiM and other community-based strategies represent a revival and formalization of traditional natural resource management regimes. The authors seek, however, to caution against the overemphasis of this aspect. Although there is consistency in the overall framework (community or kafoos1) and key actors (leaders, Alkalos2 or Muhtars3) between the pre-colonial use of fire and modern fire regimes (based on fire suppression), present conditions require caution when reintroducing a traditional fire regime. With the current population growth and resulting migratory flows, some communities have become more heterogeneous than they were in the past, and in some cases are subjected to institutional arrangements and power struggles that are not favourable for community-based management activities.

A similar caution is urged in respect to overemphasizing the role and capacity of local communities to fight fires that are larger and of higher intensity than those of the pre-colonial (or pre-suppression) regimes. Given the fire regimes in many parts of the world, communities and their members can be an important, perhaps a pivotal, component but should not shoulder the entire burden for fighting fires.

Several of the CBFiM programmes documented in this compilation occur in remote locations where the government's fire control and suppression approaches are severely hindered by access and response time. In such remote locations, communities have a significant role to play in the prevention and suppression of harmful fires that have a detrimental impact on their lives. Yet again, while CBFiM recognizes the local community's capacity to help prevent catastrophic blazes, the government must not relinquish all responsibility, even in these remote locations. In the event of larger, more intense fires that require significant resources, the community should not bear the sole responsibility for extinguishing them.

Similarly, fire should not be completely excluded from the daily lives of people and the ecology of the landscapes that they inhabit. The case studies illustrate the ways that communities use fire to cultivate crops and NTFPs, to hunt, to create forage and to manage pests and disease (as in the case presented from Honduras). These smaller, intentional fires need to be distinguished from uncontrolled or unwanted fires.

These case studies illustrate examples where communities have a clear role in fire management - in some cases with full responsibility and in others with joint responsibility as co-owners and co-managers of the resource. Moreover, there are a few examples (such as the Community-Controlled State Forests [CCSFs] and community forestry approaches in The Gambia) in which local people legitimately use and manage forests in traditional ways through the establishment of use zones on the periphery of government-owned forests. In these areas, local users are beneficiaries of revenue-generating agreements or recipients of accelerated investments into areas that are directly adjacent to forests. These are all limited forms of community involvement. They do, however, at least acknowledge the importance of local communities in protecting and sustainably managing forest resources. More important, these examples provide a stepping stone for transferring the authority of fire management from being a solely government function towards becoming a more collaborative, ecologically coherent and sustainable model.

It is clear that there are many important components involved in fire management at the policy and field levels, many of which are not captured by the case studies documented in this report. A recurring theme is the fundamental question of who should control the use of fire and manage it appropriately. As the world's population has grown, the rural landscape has absorbed millions of people, both indigenous inhabitants and migrants (voluntary and forced). Burgeoning rural communities inevitably compete with internal and external factors for access to natural resources and the right to use fire as a management tool. Thus, increased competition for land, water and forest resources is often an important force driving the need for more clearly defined systems of fire management.

In summary, CBFiM is concerned with ensuring local people's access to, and management of, forest resources. The catalysts behind CBFiM approaches are indigenous land and/or use rights, including the right to use fire as a management tool. The retention of traditional practices is strongly dependent on an adequate level of empowerment of local populations to manage and use fire and forest resources. CBFiM recognizes the human dimensions of fire, as well as the positive social and ecological benefits of smaller prescribed and managed fires. The case studies in this report demonstrate how villagers manage fire for local daily subsistence needs. By placing tighter local controls on how fire is used and reaching clearer consensus on resource use and territorial rights agreements with their neighbours and government agencies, local people can minimize the destructive effects of fire and maximize its benefits.


The case studies present unique perspectives and experiences with CBFiM that have emerged simultaneously in different parts of the world. Reflecting the dynamic fire contexts within each country, each of the studies was carried out by a local partner organization. The six cases, their locations, respective emphases and affiliations included the following:


The research was conducted by the Center for Community Development Studies (CDS) with technical editing and support from the Regional Community Forestry Training Center for Asia and the Pacific (RECOFTC). CDS is a non-profit institution that aims to promote sustainable community development in China through effective empowerment processes based on community needs. Because its residents had a profound understanding of fire prevention and control, this case study investigated the village of Wenyime, a natural village in Dayao county, Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture. The village participated voluntarily in fire management with the financial and technical support of government agencies. This collaborative effort between government and local communities achieved significant results and was recently awarded a prize by the Yunnan Provincial Government.

This case demonstrates the importance of linking CBFiM to efforts to alleviate poverty and improve a region's overall living conditions. To remove the incentive to use fire as a land clearing tool, a key recommendation from this study was the diversification of income sources for rural people.

The Gambia

The Forestry Department, in collaboration with The Gambian-German Forestry Project, investigated three of the five divisions of The Gambia to determine whether community forestry practices have increased the ability of local communities to manage fire more effectively. Fire in The Gambia, as in other countries documented in this series, is the primary local tool for clearing land. Although community forestry practices have not been able to reduce the frequency of forest fires nationwide, there have been some indications that local forest ownership (and/or a sense of ownership) has positively changed attitudes towards collaboration with government agencies. These areas have seen fewer damaging or unwanted fires, suggesting that increased participation and access to forest ownership may lead to more effective fire prevention. This was confirmed by a nationwide comparative survey of villages with and without involvement in community forestry.

The new concept of Community-Controlled State Forests (CCSFs) was introduced in this case study. CCSFs, in which communities are responsible for the management of state-owned lands adjacent to their community forests, demonstrate The Gambia's shift from centralized and state-driven forest fire management towards decentralized and mainly community-based management regimes.


Research on CBFiM in Honduras was undertaken by the Forest Protection Department and the National School of Forest Science. As in most of these cases, 99 percent of the forest fires in Honduras are human-caused, mainly for land clearing for agriculture. In general, people view forests as an impediment to agricultural activities, and do not consider the additional income that they may yield. In other areas, fires are used as a means to retard succession, by keeping grasslands in an arrested state suitable for animal foraging. On communal forest lands, which are perceived to have economic value, local people often resort to clearing and burning. When a fire escapes control, the local community is asked to help put it out. Many of local people resent this type of activity because it takes them away from their agricultural activities. Without adequate compensation, there is a feeling that it is not in their best interest to help control fires.

The case study recommends the implementation of training and awareness-raising programmes in the communities. It also recommends the extension of legal independence and jurisdictional rights to the municipal governments so that they can define their own strategies for fire management.


Research on CBFiM in Orissa, India, was undertaken by Vasundara, an NGO with extensive involvement in Orissa's forests, and with technical support from the Regional Community Forestry Training Center for Asia and the Pacific (RECOFTC). Vasundara works to improve community-state collaboration and to orient policy towards community-based forest management systems. The local community in this part of India has a strong incentive to protect forests and prevent or manage forest fires because a significant proportion of the rural population depends on forests for subsistence and income. By focusing the investigation on several diverse districts of Bolangir, Deogarh and Sambalpur in the state of Orissa, the case study offers a wide range of fire/resource management issues including inter-village conflicts, fuelwood collection and budgetary considerations.

This study offers one of the few documented cases in which fire is used by communities to facilitate the collection of NTFPs. It found links between the frequency of fires and the availability of natural resources, the extent of dependency on the resource and the traditional uses of fire for various income-generating activities.


The research in Lao PDR was performed by a consultant to Project Firefight South East Asia, a global programme of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), working to identify stakeholders, their fire use and management practices and ways to improve fire management. The study provides several examples of CBFiM strategies, primarily from government or donor-initiated projects that focus on fire prevention and preparedness. Many of the key elements necessary for establishing CBFiM already exist in Lao PDR or are in the process of becoming established. Provincial government entities in Sayabouri are relinquishing fire management authority to the district level and maintain an ongoing interest in developing CBFiM as a viable approach in this part of Lao PDR.

Contrasting with this government-sponsored, donor-driven example, another study in Salavan represents a more integrated community forestry approach. From this case, it is concluded that, in order to fulfil commitments and implement collaborative resource management effectively, additional financial and technical support is necessary in Lao PDR.


The Ministry of Forestry performed a review of the mechanisms for active community participation in fire management. Variations in these mechanisms depended according to localized socio-economic and political situations (government-driven as against community-driven). Two cases of community involvement, from Çal and Bergama Forest District Directorates, were assessed and compared with fire statistics from five neighbouring villages. Both cases provide solid examples in which the active participation of local people increased the success of forest fire prevention and control measures. The rate of intentional forest fires in Çal and Bergama was 12.1 and 10.8 percent, respectively, while the national average over the last decade was 14 percent. Other statistical claims validate the effectiveness of this community involvement and the two sites are suggested as models to be applied elsewhere in Turkey for further testing on the efficacy of CBFiM approaches.


Several conclusions arise from a review of the cases presented here. First, a shift in focus by government and non-governmental agencies towards a supporting technical and advisory role was generally a positive trend in these case studies. Longstanding institutional frameworks for fire control and suppression are increasingly proving inadequate in today's conditions, even in highly developed countries with large budgets. This widespread fire control model is subject to growing criticism from concerned government foresters and fire managers, academics and people living in and around the forests themselves.

There are very few statistics on the extents or types of forest fires. Although most fires in the developing world are attributed to shifting cultivation, escaped fires for hunting, grazing, gaining access or clearing fields may cause more damage than shifting cultivation. Fire use in the processes of large-scale agriculture and commercial agribusiness activities cannot be identified separately in many cases. Fires used as an expression of social inequity or as a manifestation of inter-village conflict (as in the case study documented in Sundergarh, India) are also rarely distinguished from beneficial fire uses. There is not only a strong and critical need to collect the basic data required to identify and analyse the underlying causes of forest and land fires, but also a need to understand the impact of current institutional frameworks on such fires. Addressing the underlying causes of these fires (e.g. inequitable tenure arrangements and conflict management) can improve the efficacy of fire management. Better accounting is necessary to distinguish between wanted and unwanted or uncontrolled fires (such as the distinctions made in the Turkish and Gambian examples). In order to establish where and when fire is desired, a series of approaches and guidelines are needed that first take into account multiple stakeholders and their diverse interests.

As well as avoiding the potential financial drain of concentrating solely on suppression-focused fire management strategies, a movement towards CBFiM will also help governments to resolve the very conflicts in institutional rights and authority that have inhibited forest conservation and the sustainable utilization of natural resources. The fundamental elements of institutional change needed in fire management include:

FIGURE 1: Country-level anlysis with relationships among key actors and how changes in these relationships can lead to positive outcomes for CBFiM 4

There are ample opportunities to learn from within community forestry and other associated disciplines. The six cases presented here offer a few examples from various regions of the world. There are likely to be numerous other examples in which local communities manage fires for a range of reasons. There was significant diversity in these community-based approaches. In order for CBFiM to progress, it must embrace this diversity and draw out similarities from the different community contexts in which it is found.

In an overall context of decentralization, there is a clear need for countries to determine the best approach to CBFiM through experimentation with local examples. Legal frameworks cannot satisfactorily be amended without the guidance of policy. Moreover, policies themselves will be most productively reconstructed on the basis of example and the clarity of experience, not hypothesis. As with community forestry, CBFiM lacks well-documented cases for driving policy reconstruction. With the aim of addressing this lack, this compilation of case studies provides some practical steps in the shift towards CBFiM.



Cooperazione e Sviluppo (Cooperation and Development)


Center for Community Development Studies


Community-Controlled State Forests


Non-wood forest products


Regional Community Forestry Training Center for Asia and the Pacific


World Converstion Union


World Wide Fund for Nature

1 Village associations in the Gambia.

3 Local village heads in the Gambia.

3 Local village heads in the Turkey.

4 Adapted from Hobley and Shields, 2000. DFID-supported Western Ghats Forestry Project in India.

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