Bushfire is often seen as symbolic of environmental catastrophe on Madagascar. But is it? A global comparison of fire regimes based on satellite image data suggests care in jumping to such conclusions. A recent article in Global Change Biology, led by Leanne Phelps and to which I contributed, finds that the island’s fire regimes have analogues to 88% of fire regimes in the global tropics with similar climate and vegetation. Madagascar’s fires, while exceptionally vilified, are not exceptional. It also demonstrates that the large, landscape-scale grassland fires common across highland and western Madagascar have no relationship to forest loss; indeed forest loss occurs in places without large-scale fires.Read the rest of this entry »
I recorded a short video last summer for an interdisciplinary workshop that outlines in a brief way my work on highland Madagascar. You can watch it here on YouTube.
The video was made for a fantastic workshop on the grassy biomes of Madagascar held online last summer, bringing together archaeologists, diverse types of ecologists-biologists-botanists, palaeoecologists, geologists and more. Other videos are available here.
Malagasy grasslands are often ignored, or worse, deplored. Biological research concentrates in the forests, many still shrinking despite conservation efforts. Yet research by plant ecologist Cédrique Solofondranohatra adds another layer of argument to the case that Malagasy grasslands have an ancient history and are important reservoirs of biodiversity themselves. Despite this, recent tree-planting efforts for climate change mitigation (of the ‘trillion trees‘ mode) often seem to take the easy path formed by a century of habit: planting exotic pines, acacias, and eucalypts in the grasslands, perceived as open, available, fire-damaged, and worthless. A much more laudable goal would be to restore trees to areas recently deforested.Read the rest of this entry »
The recent media storm over Amazonian flames recently caught up with me – here’s the result, in French, published in La Liberté (Fribourg), Le Nouvelliste (Sion), and Le Courrier (Genève), and in pdf. I laud the journalist Thierry Jacolet for his efforts to understand and not just populate preconceived soundbites with academic authority. Read the rest of this entry »
The terrifying and sad images emerging from last Saturday’s fires in central Portugal struck me in their similarity to the 2009 Black Saturday fires around Melbourne where I used to live. But the similarity is more than the day of the week, the record-high numbers of fatalities, the images of charred cars trapped along the road, and the human tragedy. The other similarity is the vegetation: a fairly impressive portion of Portugal is covered by “neo-Australian” landscapes of introduced eucalyptus trees, as well as acacias and hakea.
A quick and dirty look at the extent of the fire in comparison shows clearly that the fires spread largely in eucalyptus forests:
Eucalyptus trees, as well as other elements of Australia’s vegetation, are of course highly fire adapted. Native Iberian cork oaks and pines are of course also no strangers to fire, but the question that has increasingly been raised in the press is to what extent eucalypts are to blame in the recent tragedy (in English, see articles for instance in Politico, LA Times, NYTimes). Read the rest of this entry »
The thorny bush Lantana camara, with its attractive pink, yellow, and orange flowerlets, covers vast areas of forest understory, fallow lands, and hedges in the hilly mountains fringing the southern end of Karnataka state, India. These upland areas are also home to several marginalized cultural groups (‘scheduled tribes’, or ‘indigenous people’) as well as a diversity of wildlife – elephants, tigers, bears, gaur, three kinds of deer, monkeys, boars, wild dogs, leopards. On our recent scoping trip to the Biligiri Ranganaswamy Hills some four hour south of Bangalore, we discovered that there were at least three ways one could talk about the lantana situation, each following familiar tropes: as a story of invasion, of dispossession, or of creative redemption. Read the rest of this entry »
There are three main types of fire in Fiji. Sugar cane farmers burn their fields to facilitate hand harvesting. Village farmers clear forest plots, fallow fields, and secondary vegetation for diverse crops using fire. And finally, the fires that cover the most ground are those set in the grasslands of the drier, lee-side of the islands. And of course there are occasionally fires that cause trouble – late last year I saw a major fire burning through the pine plantations in southeastern Viti Levu.
An exciting archaeological find by Bob Dewar  and colleagues suggests the presence of hunter-gatherers on Madagascar around 4000 years ago, which essentially doubles the length of the history of Madagascar’s human settlement. Their discovery, published in PNAS , suggests four thousand years of people living, burning, cultivating, shaping, transforming, and developing the island’s environment, instead of around two thousand . From a pyrogeography perspective, Dewar and colleagues make an important point towards the end of their paper: Read the rest of this entry »
The prehistoric dynamics of fire, vegetation, and humans in Madagascar are still not resolved, though one might get a different impression from the simplified narrative told to galvanise conservation action. Clearly, humans visited, hunted, and eventually settled the island over the last several thousand years, and lit the vegetation on fire throughout. But what kinds of fire, in what kind of vegetation, how often, and with what impact? Charcoal and pollen in lake sediment cores and archaeological digs have informed most of our recent scientific understandings of fire history on the island. Perhaps further answers and hypotheses can be found from innovative botanical, remote sensing, and modelling research being done in Africa. Most striking perhaps – in the face of all the alarmist discourse about the menace des feux de brousse in Madagascar – is how unimpressive Madagascar’s fires appear in any remote sensing image that includes neighbouring Africa (this one is taken from Archibald et al. 2010 in the International Journal of Wildland Fire).