Environment protection in Brazil

Fighting fire with fire

The world’s most species-rich savannah Cerrado in Brazil is under threat from bushfires. An innovative project seeks to change this and to protect the enviroment.

Carl D. Goerdeler
Werner Rudhart

Flight SLX6414 was unable to land: ‘This morning the airfield was forced to close on account of clouds of smoke caused by bushfires in the Cerrado.’ News reports like this one from Palmas in the state of Tocantins are not unusual in northern and central Brazil, where the Cerrado stretches for miles and miles. An arid savannah of trees and scrub, the Cerrado covers an area measuring 2 million square kilometres, six times the size of Germany. And with its regular and recurring bushfires, the Cerrado is responsible for 40 per cent of Brazil’s CO2 emissions.

As our rutted track takes us further and further across the undulating sand, the flat-topped mountains seemingly float above the greyish-green ocean of scrubland like sinister land masses, jutting into the sky before dipping back below the horizon again. After a bone-shaking drive of four or five hours from Palmas into the vast expanse of the Cerrado, we finally arrive at a group of huts: Mateiros, a settlement of 3,000 people near the mountain they call ‘Jalapinha’ – named for the miracle plant Mirabilis jalapa, whose roots produce a sap used by locals as a cure for stomache.

In the Cerrado, the fight against bushfires also involves satellite technology.
In the Cerrado, the fight against bushfires also involves satellite technology.

Rejane Ferreira Nunes comes from Mateiros. These days she is responsible for the Jalapão conservation zone, previously she worked for a number of different environmental initiatives. Her creed is simple: ‘We must learn to use and protect nature at the same time.’

Committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions

On the subject of nature conservation, Brazil is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by around 40 per cent by 2020. But that can only be done if the bushfires in the Cerrado can be controlled and prevented. And since the Cerrado is the world’s most biodiverse savannah, climate change mitigation automatically also involves species conservation.

So how does this work? ‘Just a few years ago people thought it was enough simply to fight the fires,’ says Michael Scholze from GIZ, who is managing a project to control bushfires in the Cerrado. ‘Just as in the myth of Sisyphus, this was a never-ending task. Every time the fires were extinguished, they would come back again fiercer than ever. So the people here were forced to develop a proper fire management plan.’ Since 2011, GIZ has been implementing an innovative approach in collaboration with the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment (MMA) on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety.

‘We have to protect and use nature at the same time,’ says Rejane Ferreira Nunes, responsible for the Jalapão conservation area.In the Jalapão conservation area and elsewhere in the Cerrado, the fight against bushfires also involves satellite technology (left). Local people live off the Cerrado, either as farmers or by weaving baskets and ornaments from the ‘golden grass’ (right).The beauty and diversity of the region will only be preserved if the new concept catches on. For local people this is a vital issue.  Picture gallery: New approaches help to protect one of the largest savannah landscapes in the world.

‘It’s a paradigm shift,’ explains biologist Francisco Oliveira. He heads up the department at MMA that combats deforestation. He puts the new concept in a nutshell: ‘Either we control the fires, or the fires control us!’ In other words: ‘bad’ fires have to be fought using ‘good’, carefully controlled fires. This involves the use of modern satellite technology, which supplies real-time data on bushfires and greenhouse gas emissions. The controlled fires are set at a time of year when trees and plants are not yet completely dry. In this way they prevent the outbreak of uncontrollable bushfires at the end of the dry period, when there is much more wood and tinder around to feed the flames. This causes much less damage to nature and fewer carbon emissions.

Today the Jalapão landscape is one of towering golden dunes and crystal clear waters. But in 2014 this area was a charred hell. Almost the entire park – at 1,580 square kilometres it covers an area twice the size of Hamburg – was ravaged by the flames. The bushfires had evidently been caused by farmers using fire for agricultural purposes. ‘Satellite photographs gave us the evidence we needed,’ explains Warley Rodrigues, a former park manager.

Farmers use fires to clear land for grazing

Can’t the perpetrators be fined? Can’t fires in the Cerrado be prohibited? That approach has been tried for years – and it has failed. Firstly, because there have always been natural bushfires in the Cerrado, many caused by lightning strikes, for example. Secondly, the widely scattered villages traditionally use fire to clear land for grazing and to stimulate fresh vegetation. And thirdly, over time a ban on fires only leads to an accumulation of combustible materials, which simply fuel huge infernos when they catch fire. This can result in the destruction of many square kilometres of savannah in just a few hours. Even today we spot a column of smoke on the horizon rising three kilometres into the deep blue sky.

‘We also lay controlled fires to herd the cattle,’ says Sabino Francisco Tavares. The cowherd’s hut is beside a stream; everyday he drives his son 30 kilometres to school on his motorbike.

The Cerrado provides a living

Tavares and his ‘neighbours’, other sailors lost in the Cerrado ocean, know everything about the different levels of vegetation in the region: from the gallery forests along the rivers and the moist ‘veredas’ or drainage basins, to the open savannah, with fire-resistant trees such as the ‘witch’s broom’, and the shrub steppe where thorn bushes grow no more than a metre high. The Cerrado provides a living not only for livestock herders like Tavares. At the end of the rainy season, many local villagers also collect the ‘golden grass’, which they use to weave saleable goods such as baskets, boxes and ornaments.

The project to control the region’s bushfires brings together two spheres: the world of the settlers, with their wealth of experience; and the world of cutting-edge technology, in particular satellite surveillance. With the support of satellites and the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which is also involved in the project, detailed maps can now be downloaded virtually in real time. The satellites are able to differentiate between old and new vegetation, take into account the relevant carbon volumes, climate parameters and the lie of the land, and even relate data to comparative figures.

Environmental authorities and other partners

The maps then form the basis for decisions on where to set controlled fires. They are also used in discussions with villagers, who are involved in the process. ‘To begin with we were mistrustful of the gringos,’ say Tavares and others. ‘Then we saw that we could learn from one another. That’s why we now work together.’ They feel they have been acknowledged – and there are fewer conflicts between park management, the fire service and the communities. Over a dozen partners are involved in the project: these include environmental and conservation authorities at national and federal level, the communities themselves, and the administrative bodies that govern the national parks, conservation areas and biosphere reserves.

Environmental activist Rejane Ferreira Nunes sees one of her main roles as being to mediate between different interest groups. That also applies to the deployment of ‘brigadistas’ – the firefighting brigades, of which Mateiros provides 13 and Jalapão Park alone has 15. In total, GIZ has provided training for more than 1,200 fire brigade employees, farmers and activists. Warley Rodrigues, who has contributed his considerable experience to the project, explains: ‘When my former colleagues from park management asked me what I was doing with the Germans, I answered: I’m fighting fire with fire. They thought I was completely mad.’

> Contact: Michael Scholze michael.scholze@giz.de

published in akzente 4/15


Egypt map


Project: Prevention, control and monitoring of bushfires in the Cerrado
Country: Brazil
Commissioned by: German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety
Lead executing agency: Brazilian Ministry of the Environment
Term: 2011 to 2017

The Cerrado in central Brazil is one of the largest savannah landscapes in the world. It is also a gigantic sink for climate-damaging carbon dioxide, absorbing around 26,500 tonnes per square kilometre. But the area must be protected if Brazil is to achieve its climate objectives. So the project focuses on the one hand on controlled fires. At the same time, it ensures that uncontrolled fires are discovered earlier and extinguished more quickly. The communities involved in the region also use a satellite-supported monitoring system. The German Aerospace Center helped to develop this system. Uncontrolled bushfires are often started deliberately by farmers, who use them in their work. So GIZ has trained over 100 of them in alternative farming techniques. The project is part of the International Climate Initiative of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety. It is implemented in cooperation with KfW Development Bank.
More on giz.de