'Guardians of the Forest': Indigenous people fighting fires and working for preservation

Indigenous peoples have vast knowledge about the seasonal changes in the Amazon, namely the dry season followed by the river's floods in the rainy season, and have lived in from the forest in ways protecting the local biodiversity. However, climate change, increased deforestation and criminal forest fires have created a new scenario. The Indigenous people started to seek further training and capacity to prevent fires.

In recent years, a growing need for and contingency of indigenous fire brigades has emerged, and have even been highlighted in a United Nations report, which identifies Indigenous and traditional communities as the best “guardians of the forest”. The report found that in those indigenous lands with secure tenure arrangements in place, the rate of deforestation was 2.5 times lower than in other areas (read the Forest governance by Indigenous and tribal peoples report).

These brigades add traditional knowledge to the technical and financial support of agencies such as IBAMA, FUNAI and the United States Forest Service (USFS). They employ management techniques to prevent and fight fires during the dry season. 

As part of this prevention work, the USFS, a PCAB partner, will deliver a Wildland Fire Origin and Cause Determination Course in May. This international online training program is aimed at firefighters, other staff, and members of indigenous brigades who work both in conservation units (UCs) and in other areas in the Amazon.

The course is being developed together with ICMBio and IBAMA. It is part of the USFS work supported by USAID/Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance (BHA). 

In order to adapt to the reality of social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, seven online programs were delivered between September 2020 and February 2021, with 157 participants, 38 of whom were women. The sessions were interactive and covered topics such as the use of the Incident Command System, as well as investigation and prevention techniques, and the use of aircraft to fight forest fires.

"Last year was very difficult due to several travel restrictions. We had to quickly adapt our training program to an online format," explains Jayleen Vera, a USFS fire program specialist for Latin America and the Caribbean.

In 2020, the Amazon rainforest recorded more than 103,000 fire outbreaks, compared to just over 89,000 outbreaks the previous year. The worst months are usually between August and October, when the number of fires increases. 

Jayleen points out that one of the most important partnerships in the region has been the one with NGO Aliança da Terra, which works directly with indigenous communities, farmers, and local residents. This organization has produced a series of videos with preventive measures, and made them openly available (watch them here). 

In addition to fighting fires, indigenous fire brigades contribute to the maintenance of traditional vegetable gardens, ensuring the availability of food in the communities, and the preservation of their territories. They carry out integrated fire management, prevention with land clearing and controlled burning to reduce combustible material, in addition to environmental education actions. 

“The recipe for success is to provide, in addition to initial training, information on general management, understanding how to prevent fires, and how to use them safely. There is a need for continuous training, combining traditional knowledge with other management techniques," says Jayleen.