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Political Ecology of Madagascan Fire

Wildfire Fuels Debate Over Land-Burning In Africa

The sense among conservationists, he [biologist Chris Birkinshaw] said, is that current rates of burning "are too frequent and impoverishing ecosystems." He hopes the current study will help reveal an answer to the question of how much fire is good for Madagascar's biodiversity.

... When the French colonized Madagascar in 1896, administrators, conservationists, and scientists sought to control the rates of burning to stem the loss of forests and prevent soil erosion.

... However, [political ecologist Christian] Kull said anecdotal evidence and government data suggest that rates of burning have remained consistent for the past century. This burn rate serves Malagasy needs to renew pasture, fight brush encroachment, and prevent the buildup of fuels, he said

... "The ideal frequency of burning is unknown and would depend on the desired abundance of fire-tolerant versus fire-intolerant species—something that is probably subjective. But presumably one would want to approach the natural state," Birkinshaw said.

According to Kull, determining the ideal rate of burning is a complex process. Madagascan farmers "use fire to shape biodiversity to their needs. From a botanical perspective, this probably means less species. But from a human perspective, this is what we do," he said.

It's a longer excerpt than I usually do, but I couldn't have invented a nicer example of the role of political ecology than the one this article gives. For the biologist, the usefulness of fire is still suspect, subject to further scientific tests. He takes the ecological criterion of maximum biodiversity as his standard. On the other hand, the political ecologist looks to the welfare and practices of people, seeing environmental quality as relative to human needs. This is not to say the biologist is all wrong -- human needs and values change, and biodiversity is one that has been growing in significance. Good ecological science is important for critically appraising the effects of our practices. But it is also crucial to remember why we take biodiversity to be significant (i.e., it's a value brought in by humans with a certain orientation), and to remember that we're dealing with an inhabited landscape.


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