Community-based Wildfire Management in Mongolia

(IFFN No. 23 - December 2000, p. 57-60)


Preface

It is a fact that the number of wildfires has increased since the early 90s corresponding to changes in social conditions. Though, there are currently three distinct fire seasons which effect the forests of Mongolia, the evolution of the spring and fall fire seasons, accounting for approximately 85-88 per cent (Valendik et al. 1998), is a reflection of increased anthropogenic pressures responsible for wildfire ignition. Hence, the dramatic increase, particularly within the past three to four years, has been "socially" induced by humans. Drastically increased human activities within natural areas have caused a strain on natural environments, effecting an unnatural increase in wildfire occurrence in Mongolia. Recent increased human activity within natural areas has been recognized to be the cause of the current increase in anthropogenic wildfire. The study has revealed that the current problem of wildfire in Mongolia is only a symptom of the dysfunctioning relationship between humans (caused by their activities) and their natural environment. The reasons explaining the causes of human activity responsible for the increase in wildfire occurrence are more indirect and less apparent.

The Social Conditions of Wildfire in Mongolia

Political

For the first time, a nominally democratic system is now in force in Mongolia. A wide range of tasks has thus been decentralized and delegated to local authorities. Many local governments have been overwhelmed by the enormous commitments referred to them by the central government and ministries (Bruun 1996). Responsibilities are neglected and policy implementation has suffered as a consequence. Apparently, the blurred division of authority has made decision-making less transparent and also less legitimate in some localities, as compared to the state of affairs before the introduction of democratic reforms in local governance.

Economic

In January 1991 Soviet aid disappeared and Soviet advisers left the country. As a result, Mongolia has suffered from external shocks to the economy. The loss of trade and aid left large gaps in external trade and fiscal balances which were too wide for Mongolia to cover with stabilization measures alone (Rana 1996). One of the main problems to the implementation of effective economic reforms is the natural geographical barriers of distance. Coupled with very poor infrastructure the country has had to suffer great polarities in economic development distribution. Whereas the command economy in practice suspended the significance of geographical distance by means of cheap and abundant energy supplies, the transition to world market prices on fuel has certainly sharpened the Mongolians’ awareness of distance, both within their own country and in terms of their location in the world. Especially those living in rural areas are unable to buy or sell products. The distance and lack of available, or affordable transportation make trading nearly impossible. When trading does occur then only under the conditions as set by travelling merchants, thus rural people are at a highly disadvantaged position for fair trading. In rural areas, only an average of thirty per cent of the total income is said to be in cash while the rest is in kind. In urban areas the average is seventy per cent in cash (Bruun 1996). However, it has been said that semi-nomadic livestock herders tended to suffer less than their urban countrymen during the national crisis of the early 1990s (Bruun 1996) which is perhaps the reason for the fact that herding is becoming increasingly popular during difficult economic times.

Social

The poor economic situation in Mongolia has led to a breakdown of social services which were once heavily subsidized by the state under the socialist system. The lack of income among the increasing number of poor in Mongolia and the limited options available to better the situation has meant a turning toward the only alternative possible under such conditions – dependency on natural resource utilization. The collection of natural resources for both personal consumption as well as sale is often seen as the only option for survival. The result of this dependency on natural resources has led to dramatically increased pressures on natural surroundings and protected areas. The majority of the population now relies on natural resources for its subsistence. It is estimated that particularly the young are forced to sell natural resources to support their families. Some of the main activities conducted for purposes of income generation include logging, fuelwood collection, hay making, hunting and fishing, and, most importantly, non-timber forest product collection. Since the overriding majority of the population heavily depends on these resources for their subsistence and overall survival, issues of natural ecosystem maintenance and sustainability have become a clear concern.

Trends in Findings Pertinent to Anthropogenic Wildfire Occurrence

Increase in Occupational Herding

A direct result of economic and social pressures is the trend toward an increase in occupational herding which heightens the potential risk for anthropogenic wildfire occurrence. Risk factors include intensive natural resource utilization and rangeland preparation - possibly with the use of fire. The growing influence of this group should be recognized when considering the implementation of fire management plans. Hence, it is to be expected that an increase in occupational herding, unless better controlled, will inevitably bear a significant impact on the environment and fire management. Especially due to the recognition of the growing influence of herders, alternatives to this occupation should be sought to alleviate the pressures on natural areas and their resources before problems of natural degradation or wildfire become uncontrollable. Sustainable herding practices would mean a reduction in the numbers of herders and the creation of better infrastructure to better promote avenues for business and trade, while education, particularly targeting male youths must become more accessible to increase levels of qualification for other occupations.

Increased Physical Mobility

A noted increase in migration has been observed in Mongolia particularly within the past five years as the effects of market economy have made their toll. Since the beginning of the transition process, open unemployment emerged for the first time in Mongolia (Schmidt 1995). In rural areas some estimates of unemployment run as high as 80-90 per cent of the population. The trend toward increased physical mobility is economically related. The lack of infrastructure, income, employment opportunities, and means to financial assistance are the primary motivators of physical mobility as individuals seek to improve personal situations. The increase, particularly in urban to rural mobility is a great concern for discussions on wildfire management since this trend is also largely connected to the trend in a return to occupational herding practices, as mentioned above. Urban to rural mobility also has a great impact on the increased numbers dependent on natural resources. When life becomes unaffordable in urban centres people are forced to move into the country where subsistence often does not depend on money but rather on resources for trade and barter.

Increased Social Deviance in the Adherence of Laws

In addition to the problem of poverty is the establishment of new laws that are deemed inappropriate and inapplicable given the current social conditions in these areas. An example is the law prohibiting entry into protected areas for the collection of natural resources from 10 March to 1 June which only serves to eliminate previously established forms of control. Whereby compulsory registration for forest entry and natural resource extraction were commonly practiced, the inappropriate new law now prevents this form of control. Such laws are not only counter productive to ensuring that natural areas be protected, but also undermine the authority of enforcement officers leaving them powerless to control the situation and, in the case of fire occurrence, to detect the person responsible. Hence, the enactment of inappropriate new laws and the inability of locals to change their current behaviour are felt to be a couple of the main problems in the area of law implementation.

As law enforcement officers in natural areas are limited in their means and authority to better control the situation, legal structures are additionally weakened. Law enforcement is largely ineffective as, for some, no "real" punishment can be issued for illegal use or entry into the forest, since often the only risk is confiscation in the amount of fee payment. Permits for forest use and prohibition laws are often of no use and not enforcable under such difficult living conditions. Persons who cause fires cannot be penalized when the individual, as is true in many cases, has no means of paying fines. To make matters worse, enforcement officials are in a position where they are unable to properly enforce laws, as situations are so drastic and the number of those breaking the law greatly outnumber officials. Due to governmental constraints in funding, patrolling must be currently done with privately owned modes of transportation (e.g. using one’s own horses). Even articles for purposes of self defence are the private property of officers. Hence, environmental law enforcement is weakened resulting in haphazard, largely inefficient, and non-standardized practices. During seasons of high fire risk, few rangers are available to patrol vast areas of forest, making it virtually impossible to effectively control trespassers. Given the current state of affairs, assistance to rangers has become practically non-existent as locals are in a position to empathize with each other resulting in conscious inactivity in matters of public control. Enforcement in the prevention or early detection of fires is thereby hindered as enforcement controls are weak at a time when society is simply unable to conform to prescribed regulations, and enforcement officers are limited in their options for penalizing offenders. Environmental lawlessness is born out of the survival needs of the people who are currently living in difficult economic times. Should the above mentioned problems be reduced or eliminated, the natural consequence could very likely be a turn to the adherence of laws.

Discussion

Though considerable progress in wildfire suppression has been recently achieved due to the GTZ Integrated Fire Management (IFM) Project in Mongolia, long distances, restricted access and steep slopes continue to make fire prevention the key to sustainable development. As illustrated, the complexity of the trends is due to the effects of more basic and widespread issues of poverty and inappropriate development. With this recognition, most trends are inherently interrelated. Hence, a reduction in the lifestyle trend toward increased subsistence herding would automatically have an effect on improvements to the implementation and enforcement of environmental laws as current pressures on natural areas would consequently be reduced. In the same way, if the trend toward increased division of urban and rural wealth disparities were to be adequately addressed then changes to the trend in lifestyle would also be noticed. These trends are reflections of ongoing and dynamic social conditions, i.e. the same conditions which effect the current trend in increased anthropogenic wildfire occurrence. Thus, the natural and social environments of Mongolia affect and are simultaneously effected by these current trends.

An understanding of these trends is thereby crucial when considering the implementation of an effective wildfire management plan. The establishment of the office of Ministry for the Protection of Nature and the Environment in Mongolia to address the growing expressions of concern for the natural environment is but only a first step. Proper recognition of the underlying reasons affecting the apparent problems is fundamental for successful and sustainable policy implementation. Similarly, an effective fire management plan greatly depends on how these problems are addressed. In order to do so, the recognition of social trends is necessary to better understand the potential influences and impacts which these trends may have on fire management plans.

Conclusion

The above given trends in human activity show under which social conditions the occurrence of wildfire are dependent for its reduction or increase. Though it is often assumed that the problem of increased wildfires is the result of decreased awareness through reduced propaganda or education warning against fire, the study has revealed that a general awareness of the dangers of fire does exist, but that out of general need, people are currently not in a position to effectively eliminate the occurrence of anthropogenic wildfire. Social need must first be addressed. Hence, awareness, though it does play an important role, is not the key issue to be addressed for the long-term reduction of wildfires. Education is not enough as measures must be taken to ensure a more stable social environment. The true problems must be recognized before they can be suitably addressed. Resonance of the state of the social environment goes on to effect the surrounding humanly-influenced "natural" environment. The uncovered trends serve to assist in the recognition of the social conditions currently having an effect on the increase in anthropogenic wildfire for the areas of Batschireet and Mongonmort in Mongolia.

It must be remembered that wildfire occurrence is only one expression, one symptom of larger underlying problems prevalent within the social environment. Human activity and its effect on natural surroundings can no longer be denied. To ignore the social issues as noted would only result in the generation of new, recurring, and / or continued existence of current undesirable symptoms within the environment in Mongolia – natural or otherwise. Action must be taken or irreparable damage to the natural environment through wildfire occurrence could very well be nature’s final means of addressing the problem for us. A socio-ecological balance must, therefore, be sought.

Literature

Bruun, O., and O. Odgard (eds.) 1996. Mongolia in transition: Old patterns, new challenges. Curzon Press Ltd., Richmond, Surrey. 272p.
Rana, P.B., and N. Hamid (eds.). 1996. From centrally planned to market economies: The Asian approach. Vol. 2. People’s Republic of China and Mongolia. Oxford University Press, New York, U.S.A.
Schmidt, S. 1995. Mongolia in transition. The impact of privatization on rural life. Verlag für Entwicklungspolitik. Saarbrücken, Germany.
Valendik, E.N., G.A. Ivanova, and Z.O. Chuluunbator. 1998. Fire in forest ecosystems of Mongolia. Int. Forest Fire News No. 19, 58-63.

 

Contact address

Soo Ing
Fire Ecology Research Group
Max Planck Institute for Chemistry
c/o Freiburg University
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79085 Freiburg
GERMANY

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E-mail: fire@uni-freiburg.de


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