Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean
Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Wildfires, the biggest cause of environment degradation in Central American isthmus, fought with mixed results
Wildfires are the single biggest cause of environmental degradation in Central America. They seriously affect the quality of the air, the soil, water, and even biological diversity through loss of habitat or the sheer number of casualties. Yet efforts to reduce their occurrence and impact continue to meet with mixed results.
According to the Central American Commission on Environment
and Development (CCAD), Costa Rica did the best job in 2002, significantly
reducing the surface affected by wildfires by 82% in protected areas,
and by 70% in the province of Guanacaste, the driest in the country and
the most prone to such emergencies. Other countries in the subregion actually
experienced an increase in the impact of forest fires.
The main cause of such fires in the isthmus, from Belize to Panama, is human activity. Fire is widely used to change land-use with minimal labour costs and extend the agricultural frontier, including cattle-raising activities, or simply clear the land of stubble after a harvest. Since this is frequently carried out without any previous planning concerning containment or other preventive measures, the result is often devastating forest fires that affect other resources of incalculable environmental value.
Forest fire control, like forestry regulations in general, remains embryonic in Belize—in spite of the fact that the total land surface affected by fires in has been increasing year by year, largely as a result of migrations from neighbouring countries in search of fertile, non-titled land.
Guatemala established its National Forest Fire Prevention and Control System over a year ago. The body is directly answerable to the President of the Republic and strives to find interinstitutional solutions to a problem made more complex by virtue of the country’s diverse ethnic mix. The Petén region, one of the most vulnerable to wildfires, has also been the one that has responded most actively and in the most organized fashion.
At the beginning of the 1980s, Honduras was the regional leader in forest fire protection. This is not surprising, given the significance of forestry for the economy of a country with a significant cover of native pine forests. At present, however, the problem of forest fires is getting worse, not better. Some experts attribute this to the fact that wildfire response remains centralized within the Corporación Hondureña de Desarrollo Forestal or Honduran Forestry Development Authority (COHDEFOR), neglecting the knowledge and enthusiasm of countless environmental organizations and community groups that could do much more at the local level, particularly with a certain degree of national coordination.
The situation in El Salvador is significantly different
from that of the other countries in Central America. In the most densely
populated nation in the area, deforestation is widespread, which means
that most wildfires take place in pastures and stubble fields. It is ordinary
firefighters, then, who fight wildfires, and mainly to protect human lives
and assets, not the environment. The sugarcane industry launched an aggressive
controlled-fires program two years ago, including legislation to force
all producers to implement prevention and control measures, in the hope
of reducing the economic costs associated with the loss through incineration
of a valuable commodity.