Tropical forest fires

What the recent attention on forest fires mean for the Forestry and Climate Change Fund.

Why is the forest burning?


In FCCF’s experience forest fires mostly occur to prepare land for agricultural use. The forest is in the way and needs to make space for more “productive” activitities.


Often smallholder farmers clear forest in an informal way at the agricultural frontier – the area where agricultural land gives way to larger forest areas. Once cleared and cultivated larger agricultural enterprises move in which pushes smallholder to move the frontier further into forest land.


Forest fires are also one element in a cycle of land degradation. Degraded soils lead to abandoned land where forests re-grow. Once soils recover the forest is burned down to enter into a new cycle of unsustainable agricultural use and degradation.

Are forest fires increasing?


Forest fires have been observed during the dry seasons in all of the tropical forest regions during past years and decades. You may remember news reports some years ago on Indonesian forest fire causing smock and public health concerns in Singapore.


Forest fires cycles are often linked to governance. Forest fires reduce when the state provides resources and incentives and polices compliance with laws and regulations on the ground. Forest fires tend to increase during period of lax enforcement.


The recent concerns over forest fires in the Amazon basin (by the way not only in Brazil but as well in Bolivia and neighbouring countries) are related to an increase in fires compared to recent years. Yet forest fires in the Amazon are still  far less common today compared to the situation one or two decades ago.


Finally climate change itself may have a reinforcing effect on the occurrence and intensity of forest fires. Because of higher temperatures and longer dry periods the forest biomass burns easily and human made fires get out of control to cause so called “superfires” (those fires impacting very large forest areas).

Are projects financed by FCCF at risk?


Fires are one of the risks FCCF’s partners face on the ground. But unlike a negative impact from a hurricane or a mudslide fires can be prevented from spreading into forests financed by FCCF. Two main actions are key: Prevention and monitoring.


The above picture shows a fire brake lane in one of the forests managed by FCCF’s partner in Guatemala (this is a small one complemented by wider brakes on the limits to the neighbouring plots). The brakes help preventing the rapid spread of fires.


Monitoring is the other key to reducing fire risks. Some partners use drones during the dry season to detect fires early and allow a rapid intervention. Other increase the inspection rounds using motorbikes or squads.


So far fire impact within forests management financed by FCCF has been minimal.

FCCF’s impact and forest fires


Forest fires are driven by people working with the land to make a living. Forests are perceived as “unused” or “unproductive” land. This is where FCCF aims to make an impact – that forests can be a productive resource generating income and employment. Our theory of change is that once forests are perceived as “productive” and generate tangible benefits deforestation, forest fires and forest degradation will reduce.


Some examples in the world strongly support the Fund’s theory of change. Community forestry in Guatemala, Mexico and elsewhere have demonstrated for many years that income generation, development and forests are not mutually exclusive.We work hard to ensure that FCCF can add to the list of positive examples.