Fire Revisited – from the Amazon to the Rockies

Rising Creek Digressions XIII – a bucolic blog by Tim Hare

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A small “swidden” clearing in the Upper Bolivian Amazon

My three-week hiatus from the digressions is (mostly) excusable. Let me explain.

I was in Bolivia dealing with pressing issues of environmental justice, overhauling corrupt political systems (ours, not theirs), and educating young people at the same time. I was cleaning up drinking water, planting trees, and reversing the retreat of tropical glaciers. I was putting out Amazonian forest fires, speaking convincingly at both big US political conventions, and stopping Monsanto’s encroachment into the South American rain forests. I was preserving indigenous languages, increasing agricultural diversity, and rebuilding eroded topsoil. I got the vote out, got the votes back in, and decided that we had won, forever and finally!

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Students hiking through cleared cloud-forest in the upper Amazon of Bolivia

I was . . . actually working in Bolivia over the past two weeks, but I’d say that I am grossly exaggerating the heroic efforts of my work. We really did talk a lot about these things, but didn’t really act on any of them in particular. I have been involved in education, for a Boulder-based international experiential education program; education, in one of its best manifestation, gives folks the skills to deal with complex global and local problems like those above; but does not, in and of itself, actually do any of the solving of the problems. How could it be any other way? If it were another way, it may cease to be education, and then become advocacy, no? We would be activists instead of teachers. Or should we be both?

Writing creatively is the same. In its best manifestation it can spawn interest, inform, and allow the reader’s mind to diverge from its ordinary trajectory. Can it also have an agenda?

Wait, I am now really digressing, where was I?

I was in Bolivia, where I have spent the majority of my past 6 years. I am always there this time of year, and it is always my least favorite time of year because of the chaqueo, or the burning. Even the La Paz valley, at a lofty 12,500 feet, fills with smoke from the fires in the tropical valleys just over the high passes. It is suffocating. Planes often cannot land because of the fires, as they settle over cities like the thickest blanket of fog. Unfortunately, this seems to be a year of fire, from Rockies to the Andes and the Amazon, and in both areas the fires have been simultaneously a nuisance, tragedy, and a necessity. This post is about the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia, but much can be learned about the ecology and business of fire from this, including our relationship with fire in the US.

Chaqueo is an old tradition. Fire has been used for millennia around the world to prepare fields for planting. It is always in late winter, when things are at their driest, and right before the spring rains. The prairies of North America were burned in this way, and new archeological studies in the Amazon show that even the lush forest there was burned seasonally as well. Fire (especially low-intensity) can have incredible benefits for some ecosystems. Even in the high Andes of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador farmers will burn the utterly ubiquitous ichu bunchgrass in the most extreme of places, believing that it will come back thicker and stronger. Even though it looks like barren alpine grassland, it is actually perennially cultivated for fodder and building materials. Likewise in the Amazon, the shifting agriculturalists native to the area have historically been in 5 by 20 year cycles. Small acreage plots are cleared, first by axe (or most commonly now by chainsaw) and then by fire, to be cultivated for 5 years and then allowed to grow back to forest for 20 years. This type of swidden, or slash-and-burn agriculture may even be the key to the Amazon’s unique biological diversity. Constantly shifting areas of cultivation opened clearings and created endless ecological edges. In ecology, edges, or landscape transitions, create the greatest diversity.

Additionally, the famous terra preta,or fertile “black earth”, of the Brazilian Amazon was largely created by amending charcoal (created by low-intensity fires), potshards, manure and other goodies to the clay tropical soil. It remains from advanced pre-Hispanic agricultural societies (although there’s contention in academia about the intentionality of it) and is still virtually the only fertile soil in the otherwise infertile Amazon basin. Low-intensity fires create a wood-based biochar that attracts stimulates mycorrhizal and other microbiotic activity, while also attracting organic matter and, incidentally, pesticides because of its ionization. Without this, the heavy rainfall leeches important nutrients from the soil. Biochar additionally has the potential to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. These same effects do not occur from high-intensity fires, or when material other than wood is burned.

So why is fire an issue now? And what do we do, let the forests burn? Re-introduce fire to the North American prairies or Rocky Mountain lodgepole or Ponderosa pine forests? Well, maybe.

In some ways it’s a matter of scale. These days the scale of the fires is unprecedented and mostly influenced not by traditional small-scale fires but massive ones clearing forest for the introduction of industrial agriculture. The fires introduced for large-scale industrial cattle and soybean production are not the same as those introduced for small-scale yucca or pineapple production. They scorch and sterilize the earth rather than creating biochar. Nor do they allow the forest to grow back, and are often part of larger agricultural schemes hatched in Brazilian government offices or Cargill or Monsanto board-rooms, rather than by local indigenous farmers. Traditional swidden agriculture may clear an acre or two at a time with a seasonal fire, while larger domestic or transnational interests could decimate 10,000 acres with the stroke of a pen and the hope of vast financial returns.

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A large clearing in the Beni Department of Bolivia for cattle production

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More fire for beef in Bolivia, in the Pando Department

Then, there are political issues, with the Brazilian government aggressively attempting to populate the vastly under populated Amazon; or the Bolivian government creating a policy that by clearing land with fire you have rights to it.  There is also the War on Drugs, which pushes coca growers in the Upper Amazon (or poppy farmers in other parts of the world) into ever-more-remote stretches of jungle to cultivate their crops, using fire to open farmland.

Now I’ve made the topic broad and complicated, and maybe lost the reader in these tangents. But fire is complicated. It brings up panic, confusion, intrigue, and an innate sort of pride and confidence in humans (especially men). It is our earliest ally in our departure from the animal realm. And now it is consuming the planet, and us in the process, in our Age of Combustion and climate change. There is good reason to fear it.

In the Rocky Mountain west we’ve been so afraid of it that we’ve had too few fire, so then when our overgrown and diseased forests burn, they explode like two did this summer in Colorado. When cattle ranchers and soybean farmers burn the Amazon, they burn too much, and it leads to the statistics that make your heart ache about loss of tropical rainforest. But could we have an understanding of both wild and anthropogenic fire in the ecology of the planet that is more balanced and integrated?

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