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Indigenous people demonstrate the value of controlled fire

Management of ecosystems with fire by native peoples was once widespread in the Americas, Australia and beyond. Unfortunately, colonization has largely eliminated this management scheme, favoring fire suppression instead. This change of tactic often has the opposite effect of what is intended, increasing the severity of wildfires when they do happen. 

A study from the University of Waterloo is shedding new light on the negative impact of disrupting traditional, indigenous fire stewardship. 

“Declines in biodiversity were associated with high-severity fire activity, which began with the disruption of Indigenous-controlled fire use at the onset of colonization,” explained co-lead author Dr. Kira Hoffman,       

Public opinion is set against the types of fire management used by indigenous people. Hoffman hopes that changing this view may have a positive impact on management,   

“Agency and public support for Indigenous-led fire stewardship, specifically cultural burning can revive important cultural practices while helping protect ecosystems and human communities from increasingly destructive wildfires.”

With wildfires on the rise, the importance of this research can not be understated. Study co-author Professor Andrew Trant emphasizes the implications for the future of Canada, where the research was conducted.

“Identifying and implementing human-fire interactions supporting a variety of valuable social and ecological outcomes is becoming increasingly urgent, given what we’re seeing in Western Canada, Manitoba, and Ontario, our forest fire situation that can only go from bad to worse without changes to existing strategies,” said Professor Trent.

“Importantly, Indigenous-led fire stewardship continues to demonstrate the value of routinely applying controlled fire to adapt to changing environments while promoting desired landscapes, habitats, and species while also supporting subsistence practices, communities and livelihoods,” explained Hoffman. 

The research highlights the importance of indigenous people to biodiversity and to the health of the planet. Worldwide, indigenous people make up only 5 percent of the population but protect 85 percent of the planet’s biodiversity through land stewardship. 

The research is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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