Fires in Western Amazonia: Understanding the Roles of Climatic, Social, Demographic, and Land Use Change

Collaborators: Miguel Pinedo-Vazquez (CERC, Columbia University), Ruth DeFries (Columbia University), Christine Padoch (NYBG/CIFOR) and Walter Baethgen (IRI, Columbia University).

Human activities directly affect the configuration of the landscape and its dynamics, thus determining the potential for secondary forest development and persistence. Human activities also have pervasive effects on forest regeneration though the duration and intensity of agricultural land use and through different types of management, including introduction of invasive species, selective harvesting of timber and non-timber products, and the use of fire.

Our project in Peru explores the links between human land use, forest re-growth, climate, and the occurrence of large fires.  Such destructive fires have only recently become a major problem along the upper Ucayali River in the lowland Peruvian Amazon where burning has been used for centuries to manage agricultural fields, and more recently, to clear and clean pastures.  While still largely mosaics of small agricultural fields, fallows, diverse gardens and extensive mature and secondary forests, the landscapes of the region are being rapidly transformed by clearing for large-scale plantation agriculture (especially biofuel production), and extensive ranching, as well as by new patterns of smaller-scale land uses by non-Amazonian migrants who arrive in large numbers from the coast and highlands of Peru. Many of these changes have been precipitated or actively encouraged by a series of economic development policies and decisions taken at the national and local level. The population dislocations produced by rapid land use and demographic transformations are compounded by the uncertainties of a changing climate. 

Our project investigates processes of change in land use and abandonment, migration, urbanization, and climate, and their links to the probability of changes in the incidence, size and severity of escaped fires.  Combing the approaches and tools of natural, social, and atmospheric sciences, including detailed field research, remote sensing and modelling my collaborators and I aim to identify whether and how changes in (1) the pattern and scale of land uses and resulting landscapes in the region, (2) accelerating immigration from other regions, (3) long-term and circular rural-urban migration patterns, and (4) plausible scenarios for change in regional climatic patterns—particularly shifts in seasonality—interact to alter patterns of fire use, fire spread, fire control, and losses due to uncontrolled burns.

Figure 1. Fire activity in western Amazonia.


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