Community-based fire management at La Sepultura Biosphere Reserve, Chiapas, Mexico
Huffman, Mary R.
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Within La Sepultura Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico, human communities depend upon tropical pine-oak forests for survival. Management of this federally protected natural area is cooperative between government officials and local farmers and ranchers (producers). Producers conduct subsistence milpa agriculture and, by regulation of the reserve, have limited access to timber resources. I used a participatory, interdisciplinary approach to study community-based fire management in two communities within the reserve: Corazón del Valle and Valle de Corzo. Members of these two communities apply extensive traditional ecological knowledge in fire management. Focus groups and interviews revealed that producers integrate 40 environmental and social factors in their traditional burning practices. Frequent, low-intensity controlled burning with hand tools is customary to reduce fuels and to care for the forest. A shared concern of government managers and producers is reproduction of the dominant tree species, Pinus oocarpa. Producers had the opinion that trees grown from seed produce superior timber compared to trees grown from resprouting stems. Analysis of size class distributions of trees, seedlings and resprouts in 37 controlled burn plots confirmed that the density of seedlings is lower than would be expected under a typical reverse-J distribution. Seedling densities in two subjectively located wildfire sites were higher (mean = 3423 ± 2163 seedlings/ha). Despite very low-intensity fire behavior generated by producers in traditional controlled burning, seedling top-kill was high (82 percent). Because altering burning techniques would be unlikely to calm fire behavior any further, I tested two simple fuel removal treatments to try to reduce seedling top-kill. Removing fuels from a one meter radius around seedlings with a rake or machete reduced seedling top-kill to 52 percent. Removing fuels and covering seedlings with freshly cut green leaves reduced top-kill by 100 percent. Only by examining the social, ecological and physical aspects of traditional fire management was I able to arrive at practical methods for addressing the shared concern of post-fire pine seedling survival. Continued collaboration by reserve managers, community members and researchers can further refine management of tropical pine-oak ecosystems within the context of protected natural areas in Mesoamerica.
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