Changing the conversation about forest fires through social innovation

The old ways become the new solutions. With increasing wildfire risk across Europe, policymakers must embrace new, collaborative approaches to land management and fire prevention, including social innovation on a local level.

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Source: Pixabay

In 1986, fires raged rampant on Montserrat Mountain. As over 70,000 hectares of forest land burned throughout Catalonia, the wildfires drew dangerously close to the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey, an important Catalan landmark located northwest of the region’s capital in Barcelona. Uncontrolled wildfires had long been a reality in Catalonia, as was (and is) typical across the Mediterranean region; but this time, it was personal. The Monserrat fire riled public emotion, and triggered a series of protests appealing the regional government to create a more effective system for fighting wildfires. At a loss, the government turned to the region’s rural communities, which had for years been operating autonomous, volunteer-based firefighting groups with success on a local scale.

Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey

A spark for local innovation

A few months later, the regional government responded to the social alarm by announcing special measures for wildfire prevention through a new programme they called “Foc Verd” (Green Fire). One of the proposed actions was the institutionalisation of these pre-existing community groups, an act which created a network that they decided to call Forest Defence Groups – “Agrupacions de Defensa Forestal” (ADF).1

The newly minted ADFs received public funds and training from professional technicians. During the first year of the Foc Verd programme, 140 rural community groups registered as ADFs, and the number of groups in the network has grown steadily since then.

Today, ADFs play a key role in fire prevention and suppression throughout Catalonia. They support professional firefighters in the event of a wildfire, and carry out fire prevention tasks, as well as surveillance activities, during the fire season. In some cases, the role of the ADF goes beyond mere extinction and prevention: the groups form an active presence in the territory, raising awareness, aiding reforestation efforts and forging connections between local institutions and forest and fire management bodies. At their core, ADFs originate from deep-rooted Catalan groups formed by “pagesos” (Catalan farmers or agricultural labourers), who have traditionally helped each other to protect their farming and forestry properties from wildfires. The success of the ADF network can, in many ways, be attributed to their high levels of cooperation and connections to local social structures and patterns.2

Photo: SFADF Catalunya. ADF in action.

An increasing threat

Forest fires transcend boundaries: both between countries, and across levels of governance. Regional, national, and European policies may impact prevention and extinction, but the effects of forest fires are inherently local. The livelihoods, natural heritage, and cultural values of communities are threatened by an increasing risk of wildfires throughout the Mediterranean region.

And the threat is indeed increasing: the occurrence of wildfires in Europe last year was 43% higher than the average over the past ten years.3 According to European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid & Crisis Management Christos Stylianides, this frequency is putting more pressure on local actors to manage fires without regional support: “In 2017, only 10 support and solidarity requests for forest fires were fully answered at EU level. Mediterranean countries had to fight simultaneously […] and could not deliver assistance to ongoing forests fires in the neighbour countries.”

To address this threat requires a range of approaches: increased awareness about the risk of wildfire; investment in prevention, rather than a focus on end-of-the-line firefighting; and perhaps most importantly, fire-conscious forest management to reduce the risk and mitigate the spread of forest fires.

Old ways become new solutions

However, stopping the dangerous spread of fires in Europe also requires changing the conversation on a policy level. It calls for innovative governance approaches, like the ADFs, that engage local and regional cooperation and which promote new, holistic paradigms for problem solving.

Junior Researcher at the European Forest Institute Mediterranean Facility (EFIMED) Carmen Rodríguez’s ongoing research seeks to uncover the resilience potential of Catalonian ADFs, and may serve to bring the successes of locally grown innovations to a broader scale— with implications for policy and practice across Mediterranean rural areas. This research is carried out as part of the SIMRA project (Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas), coordinated by The James Hutton Institute in Scotland, which is working to “advance understanding of social innovation and innovative governance in agriculture, forestry and rural development, and how to boost them, particularly in marginalised rural areas across Europe.”

Photo: EFIMED. Christos Stylianides, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid & Crisis Management.

Changing the conversation

New connections and conversations are taking place at a higher level, as well: a recent seminar co-hosted by the European Commission and EFI emphasised a new vision for mitigating forest fires in the Mediterranean and across Europe. “Facing forest fires: towards a new paradigm for Europe and the Mediterranean” brought together leading experts to exchange ideas and strategies to address this ever-increasing threat. Important European leaders, including Commissioner Stylianides and representatives from regional and national government, scientists, and research groups gave presentations and engaged in a roundtable discussion on EU efforts to tackle the enormous risk of fires. The focus of the seminar reinforced cooperation not just across policy levels, but between sectors, encouraging links among scientists, fire fighters, land managers, and policymakers to move toward collaborative solutions to the forest fire problem.

Just as the community members who would go on to form their own ADFs rose up in response to the Montserrat Fire, so is the European community rising to meet the threat posed by uncontrolled forest fires. As the conversation continues to evolve and transform, top experts are sending clear messages about the need to engage civil society and shift mindsets in order to efficiently fight the dangerous wildfire threat we face. To increase the resilience of our landscapes, it is time to bring local people on board.