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Livelihood Vulnerability to Uncontrolled Fires Among Campesino Communities in the Northern Bolivian Amazon

By Michelle Fournier


The effects of climate change have now reached all parts of the world, and for many people, climate-related stressors add an additional layer onto the complex environmental, social, and economic factors already contributing to their vulnerability. Rural communities that rely to a great extent on local ecosystems for their livelihoods may be greatly affected by seemingly minor alterations in climatic conditions, which then catalyze other environmental changes. In the northern Bolivian Amazon, climate change, land cover change, and fire use in land management are interacting synergistically across multiple scales to generate an elevated risk of uncontrolled fires. This study explores how uncontrolled fires have affected the livelihoods of one group of actors in this region, campesinos, and the implications for ecosystem-based development interventions. It also touches on how campesino communities, civil society organizations, and the Bolivian forest and land management agency, ABT, have responded to the elevated risk of uncontrolled fires. I carried out a total of 43 semi-structured interviews with residents of five campesino communities in the department of Pando, Bolivia, from May to August, 2013. Focus group discussions, participatory mapping, and household surveys in the focal communities, as well as interviews with local civil society organization staff, served as supplementary sources of information. Residents of four of the five focal communities reported that they had experienced uncontrolled fires at least once between 2003 and 2013. In three of the communities, some residents had experienced significant damage to annual crops, agroforestry systems, wild cacao, or Brazil nut trees. The effects of uncontrolled fires have implications for ecosystem-based development interventions that are being carried out in rural communities throughout the northern Bolivian Amazon. Local civil society organizations, supported by international donors, are promoting the development of agroforestry systems, commercialization of cultivated and wild cacao, and increase of Brazil nut harvesting income, among other interventions. Because these productive systems are susceptible to uncontrolled fires, the increasing incidence of fires in the region has the potential to derail these interventions over the short or medium term. There are already indications that without additional fire adaptation measures, agroforestry systems are no longer appropriate in some communities. Separate interventions by civil society and the ABT to reduce and control the use of fire as a land management tool have mainly focused on campesino communities. Given that uncontrolled fires are caused by multi-scaled factors ranging from global climate to regional land use patterns to local fire use practices, I suggest that campesino communities have limited agency and may not be the most appropriate actors to target for such interventions. Other local actors, particularly owners of large cattle ranches, appear to contribute much more to uncontrolled fires, including fires that spread to community land, and may therefore represent a higher priority target for fire mitigation interventions

Topics: Livelihood, Climate Change, Landuse Change, Bolivian Amazon, Fire
Year: 2014
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