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  • Writer's pictureImma Oliveras

restoring fire in the cerrado

Updated: Oct 29, 2018

A few weeks ago, while the world was facing large devastating fires, I was occupying my days on setting fire in an area that had not burn in 31 years. Why? Here’s the CerFogo project in a nutshell.

The Cerrado is a vast tropical savannah biome that originally covered more than two million squared kilometres in the Great Plateau of central Brazil. It is the second largest biome in the country, after the Amazonian rainforest, and it is the biologically richest savannah in the world.

This fascinating biome was mostly inhabited by indigenous people until the mid-1960’s, when large-scale agricultural activities settled in the region, fostered by governmental programs intended at stimulating the development of the region though generous subsidies to the agriculture and cattle production. This resulted on the complete loss of ca. 78% of the original Cerrado vegetation [1].

The Cerrado, like all savannahs, are fire-adapted ecosystems where natural fires due to lightning can easily happen at the onset and at the end of the dry season. Its herbaceous layer helps the spread of these fires that usually are fast and of low intensity. Furthermore, these landscapes have been inhabited by millennia by indigenous groups that used fire for a myriad of purposes: to clear pathways, to open small areas for cultivation, kill or drive away pests, hunting, fishing, and cultural and religious rituals.

However, indigenous groups were progressively displaced into reserves, and fire in the remaining areas of Cerrado was largely suppressed. This policy was enforced for more than 30 years, and resulted in a large increase of woody biomass in these grassy landscapes, bringing profound changes in flora and fauna species diversity [2]. Conservation units in the Cerrado were intended to protect this biome’s rich biodiversity, but they were forbidden to use fire to manage the Cerrado vegetation.

In the last decade, many Conservation Unit managers, scientists and the Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade (ICMBio) have been working hard to progressively change this paradigm. Pioneer work in the late 1990s [3, 4] and a first experimental burning program in Brasilia (Projeto Fogo) set a good precedent for re-introducing fire in many cerrado areas. Today many other Cerrado regions, like the Jalapão State Park in Tocantins (where prescribed burns are accompanied by experimental research led by LEVeg lab, at Unesp) and the Chapada dos Guimarães, are managing their landscapes with fire.

I have had the privilege to start a research burning program in Serra das Araras (EESA), a conservation unit that had not seen a single fire since 1991, which contains an unique mosaic of Cerrado, Pantanal (wetland) and Amazonian flora and fauna. This project is joined collaboration with the State University of Mato Grosso (UNEMAT) and ICMBio, and aims at studying the changes in the vegetation structure and composition, and on ecosystem productivity, after re-introducing fire.

Apart from the various positive reactions from my colleagues, collaborators and students, the most striking thing was to witness the excitement of the elder EESA managers on setting fire back. The first EESA director since the Conservation Unit establishment, and who managed the station for 18 years, came explicitly to witness the moment that fire would return to EESA. He said that during his years as manager (early 80s to late 90s) he always had wanted to do controlled burning in order to keep the vegetation relatively open and promote certain species of animals and plans, and that for many years felt an enormous frustration towards the fire exclusion policy that was causing the loss of many species in the savannah regions of the EESA. Seu Vicente, a recently retired forest ranger that was born and raised in the village next to Esec (called a Salobra), and who worked at Esec guard his whole life, was excited as he listed all the species that he had seen disappear in the reserve due to the ‘lack of fire’ and said that he is expecting to see many return as a result of this research project.

I hope to start a successful and progressive set of research and fire management objective together with my collaborators, but I am also actively seeking for new collaborations and active students who wish to pursue some research in the area – so please do not hesitate to get in touch!!!!

To read some of the published material on the matter (in Portuguese), please refer to

Kielmeyera rubriflora burning during the experimental fires. This species has a thick bark with compunds that enhance its flammability. It usually starts resprouting within 6-8 weeks after the fire. Photo I. Oliveras

Flowering and initial resprouting 3 weeks after the fire. Photo: M. Feitosa

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