Adaptation and resilience after forest fires

In January, Chile suffered the most catastrophic fires in its recorded history, which destroyed around 600,000 hectares of plantations, native forest, grasslands and agricultural land. The fire was so strong that entire communities were destroyed.

As Chile begins the huge task of recovering the landscapes razed by the fires, we have an imperative and an opportunity to do things better. On this NGP study tour, co-hosted by Mininco, Arauco and WWF Chile, we are heading to the region of Maule in central Chile, which suffered the greatest damage. During November 21-25, participants from around the world are learning and sharing insights and experiences as we seek to develop solutions for restoring landscapes, retrieve ecosystem services for local communities and strengthening their resilience.

It’s clear that new approaches are needed. As we seek to restore the forests and landscapes destroyed by the fire, we need to rethink our approach to landscape design and management to reduce fire risk under the new climate paradigm. Replacing large contiguous areas of single-aged monoculture plantations with mosaics of different species and ages, interspersed with biodiversity corridors, restored areas of native vegetation and agricultural areas may help improve fire resistance. But this alone is not enough: more adaptive strategies with strong local community involvement are needed to enable rapid and effective responses to unpredictable events.

This blog is written by a participant at the study tour Barney Jeffries. You can also follow the tour on #NGP2017

Adaptation and resilience after forest fires

Day 1
Fires and the future

In January 2017, Chile suffered the worst forest fires in its history. Around 600,000 hectares of plantations, native forest, grasslands and agricultural land were destroyed, 11 people were killed and many more lost their homes and livelihoods.

It was the beginning of a year of catastrophic wildfires, from Portugal to California. But 2017 wasn’t an anomaly: as climate change brings hotter temperatures and longer dry seasons, all the signs suggest that we’ll be seeing more frequent and more extreme fires in the years ahead.

So we have two urgent imperatives. We need to restore the landscapes lost to fire. And we need to find ways to reduce the risk of fires in future.  

It’s to seek solutions to these challenges that participants from around the world have come to Chile for this NGP study tour. The event kicks off in Santiago with a one-day seminar attended by more than 100 people. During a day of presentations and discussions, we’re introduced to various visions for landscape restoration, plans for improving resilience to fire, the barriers in the way, and possible solutions to overcoming them.

Arauco and CMPC, Chile’s largest forestry companies and co-hosts of this study tour suffered significant losses in this year’s fires. Both have since launched plans for restoring plantations, forests and other land destroyed by fire, and to prevent and combat fires in future.

They include various practical measures for combating fires, like removing flammable material to create buffers around towns and villages, setting up neighbourhood fire strategies, and investing more in fire-fighting equipment, including planes and access to water.

A crucial point is the importance of good community relations – particularly when 99% of fires are started by people, accidentally or otherwise. This is summed up nicely by Julian Ozanne, from the New Forests Company, NGP’s newest participant from East Africa: “We always said that a sign of our success would be that if we had a fire, all of our neighbours would come out to help fight it.” That’s only going to happen if those neighbours have a good relationship with the company and benefit from the presence of plantations in the area.

While wildfires may be disastrous, the response to them can be positive. The need to restore land razed by fire, and for multiple stakeholders to collaborate on combating and preventing fires, offers the opportunity to manage whole landscapes in a more inclusive, resilient and sustainable way.

This connects with a number of global initiatives, including the Paris Climate Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Bonn Challenge on restoring degraded land. As Rodrigo Catalan, WWF-Chile’s conservation director, points out, we need to grab the moment and harness this momentum.

Over the next few days, we’ll be discussing how. 

Day 1 - Fires and the future
Day 2
Recovery in Santa Olga

On January 15, the first fires began around 50km away from the town of Santa Olga. Ten days later, a series of fires had joined together to form a conflagration 200km long, advancing at a rate of 1.5km or more every minute. Fires are classified as “extreme” if they burn with an energy of over 10,000 kilowatts per minute. This one was over 30,000 kilowatts.

On January 24, Santa Olga’s 6,000 households were evacuated. The next day, the fire consumed the whole town.  

When we visit the site today, the scars are still raw. On the hillsides all around are the charred trunks of pine trees, and next to nothing remains of the town itself.

But the recovery is well underway. Families have begun moving back into newly built houses, and plans have been drawn up for a new school and community centre.

It’s an impressive effort, involving close collaboration between the Ministry of Housing, local government, members of the community, NGOs and private companies – including Arauco and CMPC, whose forestry operations dominate the landscape in this region. These different parties sprang into action quickly, but not before they had come up with a reconstruction masterplan that everybody could agree on.

Rather than just restoring what’s been lost, the plan is to make things better than before. Along with new housing, some 25 other projects are planned which will offer employment opportunities as well as improving the community’s quality of life and resilience.

One project involves bringing in a mains water supply. Water scarcity was already a problem before the fires, with a well and a small stream providing the only source of water for the town’s growing population. Now, with support from Arauco, water will be pumped in along a 15km pipeline, giving Santa Olga’s residents access to a reliable supply of clean water.

There’s also going to be a new park, a green space full of native vegetation along the banks of the stream. This will provide a space for recreation and cultural events, as well as improving the local environment and water catchment.

In Santa Olga, the tragedy of the fires has brought people together, and there’s a real opportunity to build a better future. Can the same thing happen on a larger scale, by restoring whole landscapes in a way that brings benefits to people and nature?

That’s the question we’ll be pondering as the study tour progresses.

Day 2 - Recovery in Santa Olga
Day 3
Looking to the landscape

Yesterday we saw the efforts that have gone in to restoring the town of Santa Olga. But it’s one thing to pour resources into the reconstruction of one small town: restoring a whole landscape is a different matter.

The scale of the devastation caused by this year’s fires – and of the task ahead – is almost inconceivable. For mile after mile, nothing remains but the blackened skeletons of pine trees. Some areas have been cleared already, but salvaging all of this timber before it rots will be a huge undertaking – particularly for the younger trees, which have little economic value. Then there’s the need to secure the bare hillsides against erosion and landslides.

That’s before even thinking about replanting. In Arauco’s nursery, our first stop of the day, they’re ramping up production with the aim of propagating 45 million seedlings, ready to plant next April:  30 million radiata pine, 10 million eucalyptus and a variety of native species.

There’s a feeling, though, that what comes next shouldn’t simply be a repeat of what’s come before. The fires give us a blank canvas to design something better – not only to reduce fire risk but also to create a landscape that’s more resilient to another climate, environmental and socio-economic shocks.

Maule is Chile’s timberland. Historically, much of the region has been planted with large blocks of single-species plantations – and in many places, the economy too lacks diversity. While Arauco and CMPC are the largest players, there are more than 150 small sawmills in the region, which are likely to feel the effects of the fires for years to come.

In places like Empredrado almost everybody works in forestry – but many now face an uncertain future. Here, Arauco has been supporting a cooperative that collects and sells mushrooms and medicinal herbs gathered from the forest – though they’ve now had to turn to different species as what grows has changed in the aftermath of the fires.

The company also markets an energy drink made from native maqui berries – a “superfood” gathered from the forest. Initiatives like these help to add value to the native forest and an alternative income in rural areas.

There are also pressing conservation concerns that need to be addressed following the fires. Ruil is a critically endangered tree species endemic to the region. Last year just 350 hectares of ruil forest remained in the world – and more than half was destroyed in the fires.

We visit one such site, which CMPC has designated as a high conservation value (HCV) area, and is committed to restoring and enlarging (conserving and enhancing HCV areas is one of NGP’s core principles, as well as an FSC requirement). It’s going to be a major undertaking.

Our final stop of the day is Name, where the fires have accelerated one of Arauco’s HCV projects. Here, pines had been planted right up to the edge of an important wetland. Following the fires, these have been removed, and a 50m buffer of native vegetation is being replanted – to the benefit of the black-necked swans and many other species that flock to the lake.

But a few isolated projects and conservation areas isn’t enough. The big challenge is to build on these efforts and link them to others across the whole landscape. It’s a challenge that’s regularly raised in NGP and many other forums. It’s also far easier said than done. But now, at least, is the time to try.  

Day 4
In vino veritas

What can we learn from wine?

Cucha Cucha vineyard is more than just a beautiful location for a reflection session after our final day of field visits. The oldest vineyard in Chile – some of it vines are over 250 years old – it’s located close to Arauco’s gigantic pulp mill in the Itata Valley.

When Arauco built the mill, the valley’s 5,000 small winemakers were worried about the impact. So Arauco bought this vineyard and set about proving itself a good neighbour.

Most of the growers are very small scale, and few could make a living just from their wine – which was mostly sold off cheap to intermediaries to bulk out larger operations. And though they’re passionate about their wine, the techniques and equipment they use are mostly those handed down from their grandparents.

Arauco hired an oenologist to work with nearby winemakers, providing training and technical support, and helping some of them set up as cooperatives to improve their negotiating position. The company lets them use its bottling machine and cellars. It also opened up a wine shop in the valley, where small producers now have a chance to sell their wines direct and make a name for themselves.

It’s had a major impact. One winemaker, Don Goio, now sells his award-winning sparkling wine worldwide, and other growers have seen the price they can charge for their grapes triple.

Arauco, meanwhile, has big plans for Cucha Cucha, including a hotel to attract wine tourists and put the Itata Valley on the map. That’s only going to work if the small winemakers around are also producing excellent wines – so helping them is in the company’s own interests.

It’s a great example of creating shared value, a concept we talk about a lot in NGP. Similarly, the work that the companies have been doing with local communities to improve fire prevention can also have mutual benefits – for example, projects to improve water supplies in remote areas not only benefit the people living there but are also important in combating fires. Equally, experience from elsewhere teaches that people are much less likely to start fires – and more likely to raise the alarm – when they have a stake in the success of the plantations.

Shared value initiatives can also help to improve communication, build trust and bring people together – and that’s crucial for the success of landscape-scale approaches. Restoring these landscapes in a resilient, inclusive way is going to require cooperation between a whole range of stakeholders.

What the result’s going to look like is far from clear, but at least there are good relationships in place to begin the conversation – maybe over a glass of wine.

Day 5
Questions ans answers?

Over the course of this study tour, we've been asking questions. Our last day is an opportunity to at least begin to find answers.

Specifically, we’ve been discussing the overarching question introduced in our think piece: How can landscape restoration after large-scale forest fires improve socio-ecological resilience? And we’ve been investigating the different approaches needed to make it happen: the policies and stewardship initiatives, the business models and financial mechanisms, and the management practices on the ground.

At various points during the week, we’ve split up into six groups to discuss these questions. Today, we come together in our groups again to narrow our ideas down to our two best solutions in each area. Each group then presents these to the rest of the participants – and we all get to vote on our favourite ideas. This introduces some healthy competitiveness, though in truth there are lots of great proposals and a good deal of overlap between them.

Though Chile has its own unique challenges, as ever it’s really valuable in these discussions to bring in the perspectives of international participants – from China to Brazil, Portugal to Uganda. And, conversely, many of the things we’ve seen and heard in Chile are equally relevant in other contexts.

We’ll be summarising these discussions in a separate report, but certain key theme reoccurs:

  • When it comes to fire, prevention is better than cure – and that largely comes down to working with communities. If they benefit from the presence of plantations in the landscape, then they have a vested interest in preventing forest fires – not starting them deliberately or carelessly, raising the alarm quickly and helping in the first line of defence.
  • Diversity – in the landscape and the economy – increases resilience. But there need to be ways to incentivise other land uses and activities beyond timber production. Payments for ecosystem services, carbon credits, tax breaks or subsidies, non-timber forest products, agroforestry and green bonds are among the ideas discussed.
  • Government is conspicuously absent in Chile’s extremely deregulated forest sector, but there’s an agreement (including from the big companies) that it has a role to play – in helping to coordinate and implement landscape-scale visions and plans, and providing both carrot (subsidies/tax breaks) and stick (legislation/enforcement). Something for Chile’s new government to consider…

Participants in the room from WWF, the World Resources Institute and other NGOs, as well as the companies themselves, are already involved in initiatives working towards the outcomes we all want to see, and a number of concrete proposals are put forward.

What’s vital is that these discussions don’t wither on the vine once this week is over. Last summer’s fires are a catastrophe we can’t afford to see repeated – and an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.

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