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COMMITMENT 37akzente 4/15 The world’s most species-rich savannah is under threat from bushfires in Brazil. Both the climate and natural biodiversity are at risk. An innovative project seeks to change this. Fighting fire with fire F light 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 re- ports 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 meas- uring 2 million square kilometres, six times the size of Germany. And with its regular and recurring bushfires, the Cerrado is responsi- ble 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 dip- ping 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 moun- tain they call ‘Jalapinha’ – named for the mir- acle plant Mirabilis jalapa, whose roots pro- duce a sap used by locals as a cure for stom- ach ache. Rejane Ferreira Nunes comes from Mateiros. These days she is responsible for the Jalapão conservation zone, previously she worked for a number of different environ- mental initiatives. Her creed is simple: ‘We must learn to use and protect nature at the same time.’ On the subject of nature conservation, Brazil is committed to reducing its green- house gas emissions by around 40 per cent by 2020. But that can only be done if the bush- fires 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. Once a charred hell, now a thing of beauty 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 bush- fires 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 peo- ple 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 Environ- ment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety. ‘It’s a paradigm shift,’ explains biologist Francisco Oliveira. He heads up the depart- ment at MMA that combats deforestation. He puts the new concept in a nutshell: ‘Ei- ther 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 tech- nology, 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 uncon- trollable bushfires at the end of the dry pe- riod, when there is much more wood and tin- der 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 wa- ters. But in 2014 this area was a charred hell. Almost the entire park – at 1,580 square kilo- metres it covers an area twice the size of Hamburg – was ravaged by the flames. The bushfires had evidently been caused by farm- ers using fire for agricultural purposes. ‘Satel- lite photographs gave us the evidence we needed,’ explains Warley Rodrigues, a former park manager. A plume of smoke billowing kilometres into the sky 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 bush- fires in the Cerrado, many caused by lightning strikes, for example. Secondly, the widely scat- Deforestation: wildfires can destroy many square kilometres of land in a very short time. But new approaches to firefighting are already enjoying initial success. TEXT CARL D. GOERDELER PHOTOS WERNER RUDHART