Aligning herders with society for wildfire prevention

While Southern and Eastern Mediterranean nations suffer from the impact of the excessive use of their forests, most northern-rim countries of the Mediterranean basin face increasing challenges due to the progressive abandonment of forest-related activities. One of its consequences is the accumulation of biomass that may facilitate the evolution of big wildfires. Brotons et al (2013) discussed the role of fire suppression strategies in explaining fire regime under climate change scenarios. Also important to consider is vegetation structure which is likely to constitute a relevant component of fire behaviour and whose management could contribute to key opportunities for fire suppression.

A study by the University of Barcelona has looked at the economic characteristics of wildfire prevention, their beneficiaries and the legitimacy of funding sources to cover related costs. Theoretical discussion argues that fire protection is consumed collectively and can be co-produced by beneficiaries. Moreover, the appropriation of prevention benefits can be distinguished according to the location of potential burnt woodland: potential beneficiaries are homeowners in Wildland-Urban Interfaces (WUI), landowners or society at large.

goats1_250.jpg : 64.3671875KbCollective action may emerge where social groups benefiting from natural resource management are defined and constitute a relatively small group, with interaction patterns. Specifically, beneficiaries of fire prevention in these contexts could interact with agents able to conduct forest interventions that diminish the fuel load, such as herders through localised, intensive grazing. In Spain, several local experiments provide incentives to shepherds to manage their animals in this way, including public contracts with shepherds, public grants for herders and voluntary agreements between private forest owners and herders. The aim of such contracts is to lower biomass in fuel breaks, either in the middle of the forest or in the perimeters of WUI. The study has tested features that facilitate agents’ coordination in the emergence of decentralized solutions and the role of economic incentives and government intervention for successful low-risk maintenance.

A Delphi survey and in-depth literature review revealed the challenges for successful, spontaneous self-management solutions.
1) The accumulation of shrub biomass in forests is a relatively recent phenomenon of which agents may not be aware, thus limiting their capacity to react to the problem. Indeed, private forest owners’ agreements with herders are more likely to take place in areas with previous experience of cooperation, high risk perception and with potential complementary subsidies for herders.
2) Government involvement is present in all cases, to differing degrees, justified by the conservation of forest externalities for society at large. Results also show that external (usually government) support is required for catalysing decentralised agreements and covering start-up expenses.
3) Compensation payments are seen as a deserved reward for herders grazing in less attractive areas for their business.

There is significant expectation attached to this pastoral approach, which is seen as potentially more financially sustainable than traditional mechanical interventions: administration costs are reduced while providing a marketable product (mainly meat). Secondary benefits can also accrue, including innovation in the social role of herders and incentives for the conservation of indigenous cattle breeds. Enforcement of normative measures obliging direct beneficiaries to take care of their own fire prevention may also lead to similar programmes.

More information: Elena Gorriz, elena.gorriz (at) ctfc.es; MSc thesis, Economics at the University of Barcelona, supervised by Dr. Jordi Roca

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