September 2015

Fire in the Fields – “Burning” the Cryosphere

“Open burning” refers to a common agricultural practice found today throughout the world: the regular and periodic burning of lands, supposedly cheaply and quickly to remove excess vegetation.  This may be crop residue such as straw, weeds, lands to be cleared, or in forestry understory prior to lumbar harvest.  In contrast to popular belief however, it is hardly a traditional practice – the Inca and Aymara never burned, and indeed some sources indicate burning was punishable by death because it damaged the “lifeblood of the soil.”  In the Himalayan region, straw was seen as a valuable resource – used for animal bedding, fuel for cookstoves or simply mulch on the fields.  Nor is modern technology necessarily to blame – only in very recent years has burning begun in Nepal in response to new combines that cut straw much higher than the old ones – so high it was difficult to gather.

City dwellers tend to think burning enriches the soil.  Farmers see burning as a “quick and cheap” tool for clearing fields, and many people today now believe burning enriches the soil by leaving ash. In reality, however, while certainly “quick,” open burning is not really “cheap” at all:  it acutely damages soil by destroying the humus and soil structure vital to good production (the Incas had it right!).  With each successive burn, soils become less fertile and water retentive and more prone to erosion, increasing the need for fertilizer, irrigation and run-off systems.  Agriculture-motivated set fires also often spread to surrounding fields and forests: in most nations, a majority of so-called “wildfires” originate with the practice, and several studies (including ICCI’s 2013 On Thin Ice report with the World Bank) indicate that countries who have changed to no-burn practices (see below) decrease their overall amount of fires by 80-90%.

Only recently have experts also begun to appreciate the damage caused by open burning as an accelerant for climate change, especially near delicate cryosphere zones; where deposited black carbon speed warming and melting of glaciers and snowpack already impacted by the global rise in temperatures from CO2 emissions.

Farmers however lack the tools and knowledge to adopt alternatives.  Nevertheless, cost-effective ones abound: chiefly Conservation Agriculture (CA), use of straw for fuel, or simply “low-till” practices that incorporate straw into the earth to enrich the soil, ultimately increasing yields and profits.  Although such alternative practices are spreading rapidly, especially in the Americas and Europe, this lack of tools and resistance to the perceived economic risk of change allows burning to continue, accelerating snowpack and glacial melt, threatening water supplies already under pressure from climate change.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) seeks to reduce harmful short-lived climate pollutants from a variety of sectors, with an Agricultural Initiative that includes methane from livestock and rice paddies, as well as black carbon from open burning.  ICCI’s work under the Open Burning Component seeks to demonstrate at the local level that changed agricultural practices are feasible; and can successfully reduce both climate warming and health-damaging emissions, while at the same time increasing soil fertility and water retention. In a changing climate, no-burn practices are ideal to improve soil fertility and crop yields, providing adaptation benefits during more frequent weather extremes of both drought, and heavy rains. In addition, FAO and UNEP have identified CA as a primary means to meet the two-degree goal, with a consensus that these methods fix more soil carbon than traditional plowing methods.

ICCI’s recently released report, “Fire in the Fields: Moving Beyond the Damage of Open Agricultural Burning on Communities, Soil, and the Cryosphere,” summarizes what has been learned from the CCAC-supported work on open burning in the Andes and Himalayas, through an 18-month project scoping the scale of the problem in these two regions:  the “what, who, when, where and why” of open burning; identifying the major alternatives applicable to each region; and suggesting some low-hanging fruit “catalyst” projects to begin the process of change that may be supported by bilateral donors, private sector foundations, multi-lateral development banks or the CCAC itself. These include “shovel-ready” programs that can lead to increased awareness among farmers, public sector officials and other stakeholders of the dangers of open burning; and more rapid, widespread adoption of these affordable and sustainable better agricultural practices.

Rapid change is demonstrably possible.  With sustained effort and good political will, open burning can and will become an exception, bringing the practice of agriculture full circle to earlier sustainable, truly traditional no-burn practices: making open burning once again an unthinkable crime against the “lifeblood of the soil.”

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