The Spanish digital newspaper El Diario has published an article entitled “Bet on Pastoralism for Preventing Forest Fires,” which was written by a consortium of researchers and professionals involved in the ‘Platform for Extensive Animal Breeding and Pastoralism.’
The article can be read here (available only in Spanish).
A condensed summary in English follows:
“A recent bout of forest fires in Cantabria has attracted much media attention, involving mixed accusations and leaving little space to analyze the root causes and determine real solutions.
What is certain is that it is a situation that recurs periodically, which alarms citizens and often lacks the scientific rigor and attention demanded by problems related to land management. In the words of Ricardo Vélez, “forest fires are a manifestation of unresolved tension between people and their territory.” As both humans and natural ecosystems are complex entities, a single causative factor cannot typically be identified. Indeed, this complexity leads us to search for varied solutions involving the diverse aspects and people involved.
Research shows that the root cause of a wildfire can be multi-faceted. Atmospheric conditions, local topography, and vegetation characteristics are all key factors governing the potential risk of fires. Unfortunately, the outlook for atmospheric conditions is bleak, with climate change trends predicting higher temperatures, wider fluctuations, and longer and more intense droughts, all of which may augment the risk of wildfires. One more reason to fight against the progression of climate change by reducing our CO2 emissions, including those from forest fires themselves.
There is a general consensus that accumulation of flammable biomass majorly increases the risk of wildfires. In this context, and avoiding simplistic views that see vegetation as merely combustible material, it is vital to adopt integrated points of view that support fire prevention while also considering the wide importance of vegetation for the ecosystem, the landscape, and in a cultural perspective.
Vegetation of the landscapes in Spain has traditionally been modelled by wild, and more recently, domesticated herbivorous animals. Their grazing, in combination with agrarian and forestry activities (such as timber and firewood production), has transformed a diverse mosaic of landscapes characterized by dense mountainous areas and forests interspersed with cultivated and grazed areas interrupting the fuel continuity. These activities thereby diminished the fuel available for uncontrollable wildfires, and simultaneously facilitated the traditional management technique of small prescribed burnings.
Unfortunately, such landscapes are currently being abandoned and degraded, now that traditional practices that sustained them are becoming less and less viable under current socio-economic conditions and less recognized in agrarian policies. The result is that these mosaic landscapes are disappearing from areas where industrial agriculture is difficult to execute. There is no longer cultivation, lower consumption of available fuel, fewer flocks of animals, and colonizing shrubs are invading forests, thereby creating areas of dense vegetation that are prone to large wildfires. A wildfire can consume hundreds of hectares of land without running into a shortage of fuel, placing high nature value ecosystems as well as infrastructure, homes, and human lives in direct danger.
Mechanical clearance of biomass is costly and labor-intensive. An effective system for converting biomass to fuel could be part of the solution, if it were more widely used. Prescribed burnings are another option, but of course only under strict caution and with technical support to prevent them from evolving into uncontrolled wildfires. With these considerations in mind, pastoralism turns out to be a key strategy for removing flammable biomass as well as in the maintenance of open and cleared areas. Obviously the grazing must be properly planed and managed in order to be successful, and should be combined with other management strategies to optimize conservation of the land and natural ecosystems.
The major advantage of grazing is that the animals can convert this cleared biomass into human-digestible protein and valuable, high-quality products, contributing significantly to local economies. The rural populations in Spain have the know-how and the genetic and technical resources, including local breeds, to confront this issue, although it cannot be overcome without public support.
The development of a sociopolitical context favoring pastoralism should also be a high priority of our society, in recognition of its power as a land management and fire prevention strategy. The current legal and institutional framework, in contrast, often constructs a barrier against its employment. Public administration should avoid the temptation of pointing fingers, and realize that only a holistic and unified strategy involving the whole of society will be capable of tangible victories against the increasing incidence of wildfires and the tragedy underlying this phenomenon; the abandonment of rural areas and ways of life.
It is not a simple task, and cannot be achieved solely from offices and cities. It will be necessary to roll up our sleeves and work in the rural environment, at many scales and with various instruments, and trust in a model of collaboration between all sectors of society, including public administration, the primary production sector, ecological organizations, and animals breeders. Combined with the changing climate, it is urgent to find effective, efficient, and sustainable solutions. To this end, extensive animal breeding is positioned to be a fundamental pillar in a new rural policy.”
All credit is due to the original authors (in alphabetical order): Georgina Álvarez, Mª Ángeles Balbás, Lara Barros, Lucía Cobos, José Ramón Guzmán, Pedro M. Herrera, Julio Majadas, Gerardo Moreno, Alberto Navarro, Koldo Osoro, Begoña Peco, Sonia Roig, Elsa Varela, and Pedro Mª Herrera