Knowledge from afar: traditional fire use in the Cerrado and Amazon
Indigenous peoples and traditional communities in Brazil’s Cerrado and Amazon regions are aware that their fates are intertwined with those of nature. With their profound knowledge of local ecosystems, for centuries these peoples have built complex production systems, that include farming, animal husbandry and forest extractivism, which yield enough for them to reproduce their ways of life. At the same time, they have conserved and enhanced the biodiversity they manage. This is how they have formed sustainable territories that remain alive and productive over time, as is easily confirmed through either historical analysis of satellite images or visits to the areas.
Fire is a component in many of the practices used in these productive systems, managed rationally, and integrated into the peoples’ and communities’ ways of life over generations. Therefore, accusations that indigenous peoples and traditional communities make indiscriminate and uncontrolled use of fire are frivolous and unfounded, mere smokescreens to cover up the real origin of most forest fires.
Fire is also used in large agribusiness landholdings, generally with no regard for knowledge accumulated in specific places, much less any ethical commitment to managing this important element of nature. In most cases, the practice is directly or indirectly associated with deforestation, and aims to homogenize the area to establish or clean up pastures, or else to open the way for monocultures. In addition, fire is also used to target protected areas such as Indigenous Lands, Quilombola Territories and those of other traditional communities, Extractive Reserves (Resex), and Agrarian Reform Settlements, as a way to threaten these groups and take over their lands.
In a centuries-long historical perspective, the agroextractivist action of ancient indigenous peoples generated anthropic landscapes known as Archaeological Black Earths, whose soils have stable high fertility and produce a distinct floristic composition compared to neighboring areas. See: Teixeira, W.G., Kern, D.C., Madari, B.E., Lima, H.N. e Woods, W. As terras pretas de índio da Amazônia: sua caracterização e uso deste conhecimento na criação de novas áreas. Manaus: Embrapa Amazônia Ocidental, 2009.
Shifting cultivation in the agroforestry landscape
In the Cerrado’s savannas and the Amazon rainforest, food production is mainly carried out on land prepared with slash-and-burn techniques, known as roças de toco, or else coivaras in Portuguese. This cultivation system is based on the rotation between agricultural stages (when the soil is prepared and cultivated, and the produce harvested) and long-term fallow periods (10 to 20 years) for the land to rest, as part of the long-term agroforestry management of a landscape, allowing the forest to be restored through a combination of rational fire management practices.
In the agricultural stage, fire is used to accelerate the mineralization process of the biomass, correcting soil acidity with ashes and promoting the availability of nutrients accumulated by the secondary arboreal vegetation (taller vegetation that grew during the fallow) for future crops to produce good harvests. When the fallow lasts long enough to produce enough biomass for the intended crop, the system becomes perennial. In other words, the fallow time is key in this productive process. One important detail is that preparations for slash-and-burn require firebreaks to keep the flames from spreading, a measure implemented with care and wisdom by the communities, to protect their territories.
There is a great diversity of slash-and-burn practices and each ecosystem allows for different, specific types of cultivation, each with a local name. Yet all these variations of slash-and-burn share the common feature of being a shifting, itinerant activity, in movement. Setting aside areas for fallow allows the ecosystem to be managed slowly and gradually, in accordance with its own natural responses. It is therefore fully rooted in the traditional, indigenous and quilombola communities’ use of territory. If the territory becomes fragmented, the pursuit of traditional landscape management practices is compromised.
Sá, T.D.A., Kato, O.R., Carvalho, C.J.R. and Figueiredo, R.O. Queimar ou não queimar? De como produzir na Amazônia sem queimar. Revista USP, São Paulo, n. 72, p. 90-97, December-February 2006-2007.
Mazoyer, M. and Roudart, L. História das agriculturas no mundo: do neolítico à crise contemporânea. São Paulo: Unesp; Brasília: NEAD, 2010.
Traditional fire management with slash-and-burn in diverse agroecosystems
In the Cerrado, among the various local names given to these “roças de toco“, we have, for example, depending on the region, the “roças de toco de capão” (in the capão – areas of dry, higher forest), the “roças de vazante” (fields in the lowland várzeas, areas that are flooded part of the year, but where the water does not entirely drain off) and the “roças de esgoto” (in veredas, flooded gallery forest areas). Studies carried out in these “roças de esgoto”, which are used in vereda systems with a micro-drainage system, show how they enable the survival during the dry season of many vegetatively reproducing crops which can then be stored and transplanted into other fields, such as cassava and yam. Each field is cropped intensively for a period ranging from 4 to 20 years. Farmers return to the same place after a fallow period ranging from 10 to 15 years, allowing them to use the family’s productive space continuously for several decades. Also, due to the small size of the “roças de esgoto” (on average 0.4 ha) and the fact that these plots are necessarily located downstream of the veredas‘ springs, they do not affect the quantity and percolation of water, since the drainage channels only divert the water, which still flows down to the main water course. Furthermore, the use of fire in veredas to prepare crop fields does not cause deforestation on a landscape scale. On the contrary, it favors tree cover after agricultural activity has been abandoned.
In the Pantanal – the world’ s largest floodplain, with the Cerrado as its dominant ecosystem – water and fire management have for centuries ensured the dynamic conservation of traditional and quilombola communities’ agricultural systems. In the Mato Grosso (northern) portion of the Pantanal, in the Baixada Cuiabana region, slash-and-burn is an important practice for communities to cycle nutrients and manage the ecology of their wetland ecosystem. For example, during “Muxiruns” (community workdays) in the Morrinhos Quilombo in Poconé (MT), slash-and-burn is part of the natural management of the ecosystem, with no chemical inputs (pesticides or fertilizers). The rational use of fire with the slash-and-burn coivara technique ensures the soil’s ongoing plant cover, and local biodiversity enables the introduction of a variety of crops. Existing water resources are also maintained, along with their protection areas.
In the Amazon, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, and family farmers use fire as an important tool for the integrated management of their traditional farming systems. As in the Cerrado, Amazonian systems also involve the phases of forest conversion, cropping, and fallowing, and are known by many names, including: coivara agriculture, slash-and-burn agriculture, shifting cultivation or swidden agriculture.
Landscapes emerging from swidden agriculture are a mosaic patchwork of agro-ecosystems, including fields with medium- and short-cycle crops, and secondary-growth scrublands (capoeiras) in different stages of regeneration, some of which are managed to form traditional agro-forestry homegardens (called sitios or quintais). These areas contain a diversity of fruit trees and medicinal and cooking plants, including vegetables.
The use and management of fire as an integral part of swidden agricultural systems are common among many indigenous peoples, traditional communities, and family farmers in the Amazon region. These practices are also known for their diversity in how groups organize family labor, the types of environments they use for cropping, and the diverse cosmovisions behind their practices and associated knowledge. While recognizing this diversity, it is possible to outline a general pattern for the practices involved in traditional farming systems in the Amazon.
The following are the stages involved in swidden agricultural systems found in Central Amazon, in upland (terra firme) and seasonal floodplain (várzea) environments, for example, with an emphasis on the use and management of fire. Crop production in these family-centered systems is primarily to feed and sustain households.
Borges, S.L., Eloy, L., Schmidt, I.B., Barradas, A.C.S and Santos, I.A. Manejo do fogo em veredas: novas perspectivas a partir dos sistemas agrícolas tradicionais no Jalapão. Ambiente & Sociedade; São Paulo v. XIX, n. 3; p. 275-300; July-Sept. 2016.
Porto-Gonçalves, C.W. Dos Cerrados e de suas riquezas: de saberes vernaculares e de conhecimento científico. Goiânia and Rio de Janeiro: CPT and FASE, 2019, p. 18.
The term coivara, in Portuguese, refers to the practice of piling up boughs, branches, and trunks not consumed in the initial burning of a clearing, in order to burn them again. See: Neves, W.; Murrieta, R.S.S.; Cristina, A.; et al. “Coivara: cultivo itinerante na floresta tropical”. Ciência hoje, v. 50, n. 297, p. 26–30, 2012.
Other traditional uses of fire: livestock systems, forest extractivism and fire control
In the Cerrado, fire is used in several ways besides for food crops, also involving extractivism, animal husbandry, and environmental management. In agro-extractivism, the traditional use of fire is fundamental to manage productive areas by promoting, for instance, the regrowth of golden grass, in Jalapão, Tocantins and Western Bahia; and of evergreen flowers, in the Espinhaço Range, in Minas Gerais.
Further, in the plateaus and mountains covering the Cerrado from northern Minas Gerais to southern Maranhão, western Bahia, southern Piauí and northeastern Tocantins, free-range livestock systems are managed with native grasslands at different altitudes, and the use of fire is an important element. These systems combine the use of veredas (in the valley bottoms) during the dry season of the year, which in many regions is called “refrigero“, and the use of the “gerais” (plateaus) during the rainy season. This cattle-raising system requires burning native grasslands to eliminate the dry pasture and induce a re-growth with better nutritional quality. Studies by EMBRAPA show that controlled burning to improve the quality of animal forage seems to be the only viable tool for managing native pastures.
Gonçalves, A.; Porto-Gonçalves, C.W.; Aguiar, D.; Monteiro, F.T.; Lopes, H.; Malerba, J.; Correia, M.; Gonçalves, P.R.; Britto, S. A Vida entre as Chapadas e os Vales: Comunidades Geraizeiras, Fechos de pasto e Apanhadoras de Flores Sempre Viva. In: Aguiar, D.; Lopes, H. (Org.). Saberes dos Povos do Cerrado e Biodiversidade. 1st ed. Rio de Janeiro: Cerrado Defense Campaign and ActionAid Brasil, 2020, p. 32-65.
Mochiutti, S., Meirelles, P.R.L. and Souza Filho, A.P.S. Queima racional das pastagens nativas de Cerrado do Amapá. Macapá, Embrapa-CPAF-Amapá, 2001. (Embrapa-CPAF-Amapá. Comunicado Técnico, 74).
Indigenous peoples, who have the most experience with fire, have in-depth knowledge on different ways of using it. One is to clean and control poisonous animals and thorns along cow paths and hunting trails. Another is the preventive use of fire to avoid the spread of larger fires, especially during the dry season from July to September. The absence of managed fires in the Cerrado at the right time can result in the accumulation of biomass and facilitate the spread of devastating fires during the dry season.
Such biomass management in the Cerrado was however criminalized for a long time. Recently, formal Integrated Fire Management (IFM) programs have been established, following decades of demands by indigenous peoples and traditional communities towards governments. These programs define IFM as a complex approach, encompassing many aspects, from the ecological characteristics of the diverse biomes to their traditional uses for a variety of purposes by different peoples and communities. Integrated Fire Management seeks a balance between these various aspects, with a focus on biodiversity conservation and climate protection, as well as providing benefits to local communities.
IFM has been successfully applied by Indigenous Brigades working with IBAMA’s fire brigades (Prev-Fogo) on Indigenous Lands in the Cerrado and in some areas of the Amazon to prevent forest fires and protect riparian forests, springs, crops, villages, pastures, fences, power grids, collection areas, and animal breeding areas on indigenous lands. For example, since 2015, the controlled burning of crop fields in the Indigenous Lands of the State of Tocantins has been carried out by IBAMA/Prev-Fogo Indigenous Brigades.
In general, the management of biomass by indigenous peoples in the Cerrado follows the following steps, based on their deep knowledge of these territories and local ecosystems:
Coexistence of knowledge with ecosystems persists, despite attacks
Recent accusations blaming family farmers, indigenous peoples, and traditional communities for the increase in Amazonian forest fires reflect a long-standing prejudice against swidden agriculture (or slash-and-burn), which has always been portrayed as “primitive” from a developmentalist perspective. For more than five decades, public authorities have recommended moving away from slash-and-burn to something more “modern,” with no real grasp on the environmental systems and impacts involved.
On the contrary, traditional slash-and-burn farming systems have proven themselves productive simply by continuing to ensure millions of families’ livelihoods in diverse socioeconomic contexts. They also produce complex landscapes with high levels of biodiversity, maintained by indigenous peoples and traditional communities. On these grounds, defenders of farming practices that use fire advocate for their inclusion in public agricultural policies, including their use in protected areas.
The use of fire is thus a systemic part of traditional long-term forest and native vegetation management approaches – in contrast to deforestation processes adopted by ranchers and land grabbers to establish permanent pastures for cattle ranching.
Riverside dwellers and traditional peoples from the middle Solimões region in the Central Amazon, for instance, describe fire’s essential role in clearing areas for crops and in soil nutrition. They do not share the view that fire by itself degrades soils and explain that the repeated use of fire without respecting the fallow period, is what “tires the land”. Recent studies corroborate these farmers’ views that when practiced in their “traditional form”, on a small scale with low-impact technologies, slash-and-burn systems are sustainable. A review of international literature on the impacts of slash-and-burn agriculture on soils reaffirms this position, finding that the practice “is not unsustainable per se with respect to soil dynamics.” Demographic determinants, however, such as population growth and urbanization in the context of territorial fragmentation, coupled with climate and environmental change, may well exert greater pressures on societies practicing slash-and-burn farming. If these factors induce changes in land use, such as more frequent cropping cycles and shorter fallow periods, the systems’ resilience may be compromised.
Unfortunately, the encroaching agricultural frontier – often through the illegal occupation of lands traditionally occupied by peoples and communities – along with illegal economic activities by garimpo miners and loggers, have contributed to environmental degradation and restricted or fragmented land use. A specific recent example includes the increase in escaped fires, which were originally set to clear fields in forests neighboring indigenous peoples’ and traditional communities’ lands. Residents of the Tapajós-Arapiuns RESEX, in Pará (Amazon region), report that various transformations – including forest degradation by illegal loggers and local climatic changes (hotter weather and changes in rainfall patterns) – have led to an increase in accidental fires arising from local farming activities. In the face of alternatives, however, fire use in swidden systems is still essential for the families’ survival.
A sufficient fallow period, which is the basis of all shifting cropping systems must be ensured. In this way, safeguards to ensure that indigenous and traditional communities maintain use rights and sovereignty over their territories and are able to continue their legacy of agricultural, extractive, and landscape management knowledge and practices through oral transmission and practical daily experience are essential in this context. Provided that the social, territorial, and environmental bases for their continuity are preserved, traditional agroecosystems can remain productive in the long term. Therefore, accusations that the use of fire by indigenous peoples and traditional communities is responsible for the intensification of forest fires or causes environmental destruction and loss of biodiversity are false and frivolous and, in practice, are simply smokescreens to cover up the real causes of most forest fires.
When used on many large agribusiness landholdings and on public lands appropriated by agribusiness, fire – associated with deforestation and land grabbing – is also a weapon (in conjunction with other attacks) against Indigenous Lands, Quilombola and other traditional community Territories, Extractive Reserves (RESEX) and Agrarian Reform Settlements, deployed to threaten and expel local populations and take over their lands.
Padoch, C.; Pinedo-Vasquez, M. Saving Slash-and-Burn to Save Biodiversity. Biotropica, v. 42, n. 5, p. 550–552, 2010.
On such perceptions, see: Steward, A.M.; Rognant, C. and Brito, S.V. Roça sem fogo: a visão de agricultores e técnicos sobre uma experiência de manejo na Reserva de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Amanã, Amazonas, Brasil. Biodiversidade Brasileira, v. 6, n. 2, p. 71–87, 2016.
Kleinman, P.J.A.; Pimentel, D. and Bryant, R.B. The ecological sustainability of slash-and-burn agriculture. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, v. 52, n. 2, p. 235–249, 1995.; Pedroso Júnior, N.N.; Murrieta, R.S.S. and Adams, C. The slash-and-burn agriculture: a system in transformation. Boletim do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi. Ciências Humanas, v. 3, n. 2, p. 153–174, 2008.
See page 720 in: Ribeiro Filho, A.A., Adams, C. and Murrieta, R.S.S. The impacts of shifting cultivation on tropical forest soil: a review. (Impactos da agricultura itinerante sobre o solo em florestas tropicais: uma revisão). Boletim do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi. Ciências Humanas, v. 8, n. 3, p. 693–727, 2013.
For centuries, indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the Cerrado and Amazon regions have designed and wisely managed complex agricultural, extractive, animal husbandry and fire-prevention systems based on their profound knowledge of local ecosystems. Fire is an important element among practices used in those systems and is part of the peoples’ and communities’ ways of life, ensuring high enough yields to sustain their livelihoods. This form of landscape management also enables the maintenance or even the enhancement of biodiversity.
It is essential to understand the rationale for the use of fire and the specific traditional practices adopted in agroextractivist, animal husbandry and landscape management systems, to be able to oppose its criminalization, promote agroecology and demand accountability for those who violate rights.
Angela May Steward is a professor and researcher at the Amazon Institute of Family Farming, Federal University of Pará – INEAF/UFPA
Antônio Veríssimo da Conceição is an indigenous leader and environmental activist, Cocalinho Village, Apinajé Land, Cachoeirinha, Tocantins
Fábio Pacheco is the coordinator of the Agroecology Program of the Tijupá Agroecology Association in Maranhão
Franciléia Paula de Castro is an agronomist and educator at FASE – Federation of Organizations for Social and Educational Assistance, in Mato Grosso
Geraldo Mosimann da Silva is an agronomist, researcher and independent consultant in Belém, Pará
Paulo Rogério Gonçalves is a technician at the Alternatives for Small Farming Association in Tocantins – APA-TO