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Anthropological Center for Training and Research on Global Environmental Change

A Research Center of the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at Indiana University Bloomington
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2000-2003: Human Strategies for Coping with ENSO and the Growing Flammability of Forests in Amazonia (funded by NOAA)


Description: This project undertook an analysis of human coping strategies to ENSO-related drought, in light of the growing flammability of forests in two regions of the Brazilian Amazon. Recent studies suggest that 60% or more of areas currently experiencing burning in the Brazilian Amazon burn unintentionally. In the past, tropical moist forests were sufficiently resistant to fire disturbance because closed canopies maintained high moisture levels in the understory, suppressing fire penetration at ground level. Fragmentation of forests, selective logging, and other anthropogenic driving forces have opened the canopy and created warmer and drier conditions at ground level that are more conducive to the spread of fire. This drying of forests is exacerbated during ENSO events. In the El Niño of 1997-98, researchers estimate that over half of forests burnt in the Brazilian Amazon during that time were a product of the unintentional spread of fire due to extremely dry conditions. Research on the extent of biomass burning and cumulative trace gas emissions in Amazônia has paid insufficient attention to the growing proportion of unintentional fires and the human dimensions of this growing vulnerability. Human vulnerability to climate varies among social groups, depending on property size, land use and technology used, and their access to forecasting information. It is not widely recognized that Amazonian forests can catch fire. This misperception on the part of scientists, policy makers, and forecasters may be implicated in the way information is communicated to end-users. Our goal was to reconstruct the timing, content and dissemination of forecasts for the 1997-98 ENSO, trace household responses, and evaluate land-cover change in order to improve dissemination and future use of forecasts, reduce socioeconomic losses due to drought, and minimize spread of fire into forests.

To accomplish these objectives, a combination of social and environmental field research methods and analysis of remotely-sensed data were used. Field methods included archival and survey research to reconstruct the history of land use and determine: 1) people=s assessment of changing local fire spread and its relation to ENSO forecasts, 2) people=s trust in the forecasts by source, 3) how the use of the forecasts was affected by fiscal policy and by the growing health risks from the heavy smoke from fires, 4) the changing economic value of forest in each area, and 5) to measure the extent of unintentional fire spread. Interviews with policy and decision makers assessed their awareness of ENSO forecasts, and their understanding of their relevance for the study areas. Remotely-sensed data was used to track changes in land cover, and changing land use as influenced by forecasts and changing moisture levels. The study also examined the growth of cities in these two regions, and what role urbanization may play in exacerbating or ameliorating this situation.

We selected a medium-sized city, Santarém (population~260,000) and a small city, Altamira (population~85,000) and their rural periphery. The number of medium and small Amazonian cities has grown rapidly and they have notable importance in land-use and land-cover change because of growing rural-to-urban migration, and the growing proportion of urbanites= wealth in rural real estate. The process of assessment by individuals and groups as they organize to bring about reduced vulnerability to the consequences of ENSO events and to the spread of fire was of particular interest in this study. The last ENSO was accurately forecast, 85% of the population in the study areas regularly view television news programs that include information about ENSO, and yet, little is known of the coping strategies of this past forecast in order to understand how best to prepare the population for future ones, and reduce their growing vulnerability from fires. How results have furthered the field of understanding and analyzing the use of climate information in decision-making :

This is the first study to examine how ENSO affects rural and urban populations in the Amazon, and the coping strategies of the population to the 1997-98 ENSO, and we plan to see the responses also to the currently forecast ENSO. In Brazil it does not appear that the climate community felt that it was worthwhile calling this an ENSO event. However, in October some farmers were describing this ENSO as almost as severe in the early stages as the one in 1997-98.

One of the challenges of global change research is to make scientific information more relevant to decision makers at the local and regional level. This study has already begun to engage local actors (NGOs, government agencies, TV and other local media, information Abrokers@, and individual land users) in the process of evaluating the use of climate forecasts. All those interviewed expressed surprise when they discovered that the Aother@ agency also had not transmitted a local forecast. It seems each media source assumed another media was doing so! The 1997-98 ENSO is the focus of attention, but other forecasts are being used in assessing the use of information. In addition, experiments in focus groups will be conducted with the above local informants to see how severity, magnitude, and other characteristics of the forecast influence their propensity to make different decisions about the use of fire, the use of land, and other economically relevant strategies (e.g. sell cattle, not harvest crops). The impact of drought is mediated by access to adaptive technologies, crop prices, subsidies and insurance. Access to these adaptations is highly variable by region, sector, and social group. Smallholders, for example, have been noted to lack the financial and technological means to make firebreaks, but some of them do--Why? ENSO can be forecast with three to twelve-month advance notice, and the potential impacts of ENSO on agriculture, health, water resources, and fire can be evaluated before, during and after the event. Since the Altamira-Santarém region is considered a particularly important agropastoral production zone, a goal of the study is to evaluate how well decision makers use available information and adaptive technologies to reduce vulnerability of people in the region. Does the size of the city influence the flow of information or trust in it? Are the dominant crops particularly vulnerable to precipitation shortfalls (pasture vs. tree crops)? Does one region have a more effective method of delivering climate forecast information than the other? Are special fiscal instruments made available in a timely fashion to reduce risks to all, or only some, stakeholders?

A. Where appropriate, describe how this research builds on any previously funded HDGEC research: This research builds on earlier work funded by NSF and NASA. These other studies permitted accumulation of very detailed data on vegetation, soils, and land cover classes. The current work under NOAA allows us to address the coping strategies of farmers and their responses to the possibilities of widespread fire risk as a result of drought associated with ENSO. Without this support, we would not have addressed these fire-related questions.  This research was partly built from previous studies on the impact of fire use on biomass burning in the agricultural frontier of Santarém, Pará, which was funded through a NASA Earth Systems Science Fellowship which is a part of their HDGEC programs.

B. Suggestions for Future Research Future research will need to focus more on increasing the network of micromet stations and ensuring that these data are reported and used in forecasts. Currently, the data is archived more than used and there is very little effort to make data available to users or even researchers. Efforts by NOAA, together with their Brazilian CPTEC equivalents, to have an open-access policy on precipitation data in close to real time would be a huge step forward.