Fire management in Venezuelan national park: Indigenous knowledge joins latest research

As part of the global revival of traditional knowledge in conservation, indigenous peoples in Venezuela are being called on to share their knowledge of fire management to help conserve an iconic national park and its surrounding area.

Canaima National Park covers 30,000km2 in south-eastern Venezuela along the border between Guyana and Brazil. The protected area is also part of the territory of the Pemón Amerindian indigenous people.

The creation of the national park in 1962 was considered a conservation landmark due to its size and the high number of species that are endemic – found only in this area. In 1994 Canaima was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its outstanding geological, biological and cultural values.

Canaima also includes the headwaters of the Caroní Basin, influencing the stability and conservation of Venezuela’s main source of hydroelectric power.

Fire management is considered one of the major challenges for the park’s conservation. There is a high incidence of fires — 2,000–3,000 each year that burn an area of approximately 5,700-7,500 hectares.

Conflict has arisen over fire management because while fire plays an essential role in the Pemón way of life, the policy of the park authorities is to prevent fires, creating a mismatch between fire policies and indigenous burning practices.

Pemón fire practices are related to everyday activities including within forests to increase soil fertility; in prescribed burns during agricultural work; along savanna-forest borders during hunting periods to capture animals and in savannas to reduce dead vegetation and avoid catastrophic fires in nearby forested areas.

Decisions on the use of fire are based on a rich knowledge that has accumulated over generations, but recent demographic and cultural changes experienced by Pemón people are causing a loss of indigenous traditional knowledge, especially in younger people.

The high incidence of fires in savanna areas suggest that stakeholders might benefit from a change of focus from fire suppression to fire management. In considering what this would mean, a long-term experiment simulating traditional fire management methods was started in 1999 in a savanna-to‐forest area.

The results indicated that using a patch mosaic burning system in the indigenous way, in which recently burned patches of savanna serve as firebreaks, reduces the risk of hazardous wildfires, especially in the vulnerable and diverse savanna‐forest transition areas.

A recently-approved project aims to build on the ecological basis of ancestral Pemón fire knowledge to develop tools to support participatory, intercultural management of fire in the national park.

The project involves Pemón community researchers, students, academics, and resource managers. By linking research with the traditional knowledge of communities, as well as with technical and management agencies, the project is expected to develop a park management policy that better values the contribution of indigenous knowledge to ecologically-appropriate fire management.

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