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Climate Change: UNESCO Commits to a new approach to integrated fire management in the region

Latin American and Caribbean UNESCO Sites, Climate Change, Risk and Resilience Platform builds capacity on integrated fire management

Climate change is here and affecting us all. In 2020, hurricanes Eta and Iota devastated much of Central America, affecting more than 8 million people. The Chaco region in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay is suffering its worst drought in over 50 years, putting the livelihoods-- and even the lives-- of millions at risk. This year, South America’s second longest river dried out.

The loss of forests is a serious problem and a factor that contributes significantly to the release of carbon dioxide. According to a report by FAO and UNEP, in Latin America between 2000 and 2016, almost 55m hectares of forest were destroyed, in other words, 91% of the world’s total loss of forests. Part of this loss was due to out of control wildfires.

What does UNESCO do?

The Organization works with extensive networks of partners that live in and manage 132 Biosphere Reserves which are home to over 104 million people and spanning a total of more than 3.250.000 square kilometers in 22 Latin American and Caribbean countries. There are also eight UNESCO Global Geoparks. Together the multistakeholder management committees, indigenous peoples and local communities work together to define strategies for conserving the biological, geological and cultural diversity of the site, sustainable development and knowledge generation.

Through national and international networks, stakeholders engage in capacity-building, knowledge exchange and policy dialogue. UNESCO supports these country-driven processes with a wide array of technical tools. UNESCO’s Regional Sciences Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean hosts the Latin America and Caribbean UNESCO Sites Platform Climate, Risk and Resilience Platform that supports UNESCO sites to be more resilient to climate change and risks and to support learning from sites’ experiences.

Seminarios web de la UNESCO sobre el cambio climático y el manejo integrado del fuego

In September 2021, the UNESCO Sites Platform, with support from the company umgrauemeio, held a series of webinar on “Climate change and fire management in UNESCO Global Geoparks and Biosphere Reserves” in Iberoamerica. More than 60 experts from 16 countries exchanged experiences and knowledge that will allow the development of tools to implement effective fire management in UNESCO sites. They shared how, despite the devastating economic losses to local communities, biosphere reserves and UNESCO Global Geoparks were able to use innovative approaches and tools to respond and rebuild.

For instance, Professor Catia Nunes da Cunha (Federal University of Matto Grosso), who works with the Pantanal Biosphere Reserve of Brazil, shared how more than 30% of the largest tropical wetland in the world burned in 2020, killing an estimated 17 million vertebrate animals. She revealed that this was due in part to climate-related drought but also to a long-term decrease in groundwater in the wetland. She concluded that it is necessary to establish long-term land management regimes and conservation to avoid the kind of out-of-control wildfire emergency that was experienced in 2020.

Professor Bibiana Bilbao of Simón Bolivar University and Comandante Miguel Matany Luque of the National Parks Institute presented their work in Canaima World Heritage Site, Venezuela. To respond to a changing fire regime, they worked together with Pemón indigenous people to develop an integrated fire management plan based on an intercultural perspective. This experience, which they have since expanded nationally, is a concrete example of climate change adaptation that also supported the revitalization of Pemón culture.

What’s next?

Serena Heckler, UNESCO’s Regional Programme Specialist for Ecological and Earth Sciences and the coordinator of the Climate, Risk and Resilience Platform said,

“The range and depth of case studies showcased during the fire webinars shows the power of UNESCO sites as observatories for climate change. In 2022, aside from continuing our work on fires and further developing our tools for vulnerability and risk evaluation at the local level, the UNESCO Sites Climate, Risk and Resilience Platform will develop initiatives on flooding and indigenous peoples, two further priorities identified by our international technical and scientific advisory group.”

Through the UNESCO Platform, expertise on biodiversity, climate change, hydrology, cultural and social issues and sustainable development is being brought together to provide cross-cutting approaches to today’s most complex problems.