Postcard from the Field: Fire
By Cassie Sevigny
The Connections between Water and Rural Production project (CAP) investigates whether and which farmers adapt their production systems when they experience water variability, what adaptations they make, and whether these adaptations reduce income losses when droughts occur. Improved understanding of these feedbacks will inform efforts by government agencies and civil society to help farmers respond to water scarcity. I accompanied economist Katrina Mullan to Brazil while working on my Masters in Economics.
Driving on the highways around Ouro Preto do Oeste, I noticed billowing wisps of white smoke coming from the roadsides. It was the dry season, so I was surprised. In Montana, only small controlled burns to prevent large forest fires are allowed when it’s hot and dry. One of the CAP supervisors, Geovanni, told me the government burns the roadsides for “beautification” purposes. Likely this refers to controlled landscaping and clean lines, also improving lines of sight for drivers. Personally, I find lush green plants prettier. But I am someone who likes overgrown gardens and weeds.
Fire has other purposes in Rondonia, too. Farmers might burn their land in an attempt to improve the soil. One local farmer, Kassia Freire, said this doesn’t work. The soil is dusty in the dry season, especially on unpaved rural roads. She says burning the land kills the soil and makes more dust. Not only is it annoying, but the dust can give people breathing problems. Kassia complained of many people suffering respiratory infections. This makes fire a health hazard beyond the effects of smoke that Montanans are familiar with. Dry dusty soil is easier for rain and flooding to wash away, too.
As the world learned in 2019, farmers can also use fire to clear forest to expand their farmland. Burning more than 50% of their property is illegal, and the government can track forest clearing with satellite images. Sometimes the amounts farmers clear are small enough sections that satellites can’t detect them. Though less of a problem in Rondonia, out of control fires can burn down buildings and fields and destroy forest no one intended to clear.
Viewing this from an economic perspective humanizes the issue for me. Just like people everywhere, farmers in Rondonia want to provide for their families. It doesn’t mean that farmers don’t care about the environment. An economic lens considers the ways people interact with tradeoffs, especially difficult ones like choosing between prioritizing forest conservation or agricultural productivity. The chance to understand these situations better is part of what drew me to the project. The team cares passionately about helping people and sharing what we learn.