In a world with an increasingly hotter climate, news of forest wildfires become a humming undertone of our daily lives. While the most famous cases include California burning or Indonesia’s peatlands smoldering, they are not the only regions affected by an increasing rate of fires. The Greater Mekong Subregion, in short the GMS, is also crackling with heat, and that’s not just because it is located in the tropics.
Human-caused fires, fueled by economic development, an increasing population and greater pressure on natural resources, have multiplied throughout the past decades. Yet, preventing them has proven exceptionally difficult, as it often translates into smothering traditional ways of living. This is because a lot of people depend for example on shifting cultivation, a practice where new land is burned and afterwards planted while previously burned land is abandoned and eventually overgrown by the forest again. In itself a sustainable traditional form of management, the added pressure to produce more for more people leads into larger areas being burned more frequently than the ecosystem can sustain. Especially in ecologically sensitive places like protected areas and national parks, excessive human-induced fires can push an ecosystem over the edge and permanently change its nature, while in this process the former inhabitants of this ecosystem are evicted as well.
During the “Forest Fire Ecology, Management and Monitoring Workshop in the Greater Mekong Subregion”, held by APFNet and co-hosted by the Forestry Administration of Cambodia from September 11-14 in Siem Reap, the city most famous being situated right next to the UNESCO world heritage site Angkor Wat, Prof. Kobsak Wanthongchai from Kasetsart University in Thailand emphasized: “There are what I would like to call good fires and bad fires. For one it is important to clarify what type of ecosystem we are in. Is it a fire-dependent ecosystem or a fire-sensitive ecosystem? In a fire-sensitive ecosystem, like a moist evergreen forest, you really don’t want any fire at all. Fire-dependent ecosystems, however, need fire in order to exist. The key is finding out which type you are in and determining the right burning frequency that prevents ecosystem decline.”
Adjusting fire management to ecological requirements of forests is one of the most important aspects to be considered, together with the local use of those forests. Often, for instance, forests are not burned to be cleared, but rather to promote the growth of fire-dependent NTFPs, an endeavor where it’s of mutual interest of both the local community and the government to only burn sustainably without degrading the forest.
In either case it seems, though, being aware of the fires is the first step to controlling them. This, fortunately, is precisely where APFNet and its project partners has been able to gain experience through the forest watcher system. This system and the towers were first installed in a 2014 APFNet project in Lao PDR. APFNet is now supporting its operation in three different economies, that is Cambodia, China and Lao PDR. During the workshop the system, which was invented in 2011 by the China Forestry Star company, was introduced in more detail. It is based on individual towers that have both a normal and infrared camera, called the “forest eye”, which is connected to a command center that can see the video footage on screen. If a fire breaks out within the 15km radius of the tower it is automatically detected through the system.
Following this introduction, on the second day the participants went to see one of the forest watcher system APFNet installed in the Khun Ream research station, about an hour from Siem Reap city. Mr. Seab Kimsrim, a workshop participant and manager of the station, described the multiple uses of the forest watcher: “We don’t only use the system to detect fires. In fact, telling and showing the community that the forest eye can see them has also deterred them from both illegal burning and illegal logging.” The China Forestry Star company emphasized the versatility as well. Wu Yuanyuan, a Business Engineer at the company, showed in her presentation other uses currently in application in China: this may include the automatic tracking of large high value conservation species like leopards or manually watching out for illegal loggers. As during a panel discussion Dr. Hla Myo Aung, the Assistant Director of the Forest Research Institute of the Myanmar Forest Department, pointed out, considering the comparatively high price point of a high-tech solution like the forest watcher, the installation of the system should be focused on areas where its multiple uses can be taken full advantage of, such as national parks or transboundary areas, as illegal logging and poaching are serious problems there.
The six different economies, that is Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, also introduced their respective approaches to fire management. Currently there are still vast structural differences, as some economies, such as Thailand, have their own division responsible for forest fires, while in other economies, like Lao PDR, no specific organization to address forest fire has been established, yet. Rather they rely on a combined approach where the Department of Forestry works with lower level administrations and local villagers.
As such working with communities, who as mentioned often act as fire fighters, is crucial. Thus, it was an honor to welcome the venerable Bun Saluth, a monk from the monk community in Oddor Meanchey in Cambodia, to give a talk on how they work with villagers to protect the forest. Allowing people to still collect NTFPs, but keeping tally on the amount they take, has proven fairly efficient to date. Of course, in the monk community’s case the respect that monks receive also has contributed greatly to the success of the community forestry approach.
Overall, fire management is much more complicated than it may seem. It’s not just about preventing fire. It’s about adjusting fire management to the ecology in a given area, ensuring the fire frequency will not deteriorate the forest. It’s about detecting fire early enough to prevent escalation. But it’s also about making sure that by reducing fire the local people will not lose their livelihood, but rather will benefit from it. Ultimately, it’s about practicing Integrated Fire Management, where social aspects, ecology and the ideal of prevention will be balanced.