Traditional Amazonian communities have used fire for centuries to open up small farming plots in a rotational system that allows the forest to regenerate and biodiversity to be preserved.By contrast, the fires used to clear livestock pasture or to clear away vegetation after forest clearing tend to burn uncontrolled and permanently destroy vast swaths of the rainforest.With the climate crisis rendering the forest drier and more flammable, villagers living alongside the Tapajós River, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon, have had increasing difficulty maintaining their traditional fire management practice.Traditional safeguards such as creating fire breaks can help, but a project in the Brazilian state of Pará is bringing residents and researchers together to both create a fire warning and prediction system and transition away from the use of fire for farming. TAPAJÓS NATIONAL FOREST, Brazil — “Fire is becoming a dangerous thing,” says Pedro Pantoja, better known as Seu Pedrinho. “If there were another way for folks to plant their crops without burning, all the better.” At 69, Seu Pedrinho is one of the oldest residents of the riverside community of Jamaraquá in Tapajós National Forest, in Brazil’s Pará state. Here, each farmer has their own small plot to grow cassava and a specific schedule for when they may clear a new area by burning to prepare for the next season’s planting. “In October or November, closer to the rainy season, people get together to organize the burning,” Seu Pedrinho says. Tapajós National Forest, named after the river that’s one of the main tributaries of the Amazon, is among the most visited conservation units in northern Brazil, and one of the most studied in the Amazon. The Tapajós River Basin is one of the largest and most scenic in the entire Amazon, known for its white-sand beaches. The river passes through the world-famous tourist district of Alter do Chão in the city of Santarém, where air-conditioned inns with restaurants specializing in local cuisine have English-language menus. The national forest itself is home to more than 4,000 people spread across 23 communities and three Indigenous villages, where the tourism is rustic and the river is the center of community life. In Jamaraquá, one of the national forest’s largest communities, the tourism industry is just getting started but is already one of the main sources of employment and income — alongside the cultivation of rubber and fruit trees — for the 40 families who live here. The small plots that each family farms are cleared through the use of fire, given the lack here — as in much of the Amazon — of mechanized methods such as the use of tractors. From the cassava they grow, the residents make flour for their own consumption and sell the surplus at the family farmers’ market in Santarém. For these riverside communities, cassava and fire have been a part of life for generations. Preparation of cassava flour in Tapajós National Forest. Cassava is the main crop of the riverine people, cultivated with the use of controlled burning. Image by Flavio Forner. Seu Pedrinho says that community members are aware there are other farming techniques that don’t require burning the land, such as agroforestry or the use of tractors to till the soil. But for those, they would have to rely on external aid and expertise. “We don’t have technical support. If you want to go on planting cassava, you need to clear the bush,” he says. The bush, in this case, is what the locals refer to as capoeira, a Tupi word referring to low-lying secondary vegetation. After harvesting the cassava, the farmers let the land rest for years, while cultivating an area next to it. During the fallow period, the vegetation in that area regenerates and contributes to environmental services, such as maintaining biodiversity, filtering water and preventing soil erosion. When the time comes to reuse the fallow land, Seu Pedrinho cuts down the capoeira and burns the biomass to fertilize the land with the nutrient-rich ashes. The agricultural management fire is characterized by fires in areas previously deforested and now given over for farming and ranching, like clearing large pastures, and also when smallholders like Seu Pedrinho, indigenous peoples and traditional communities use fire in subsistence agriculture. Scientists classify two other main forms of burning in the Amazon: deforestation fires, which are set to clear away vegetation after forest clearing, an activity that is almost always illegal in the Amazon; and wildfires, caused when any of the other types of fires spread into standing forest. “Fire stewardship in the Amazon requires an understanding of what is burning, which factors influence the extent and spreading of forest fires, and how different aspects combine to make forests more flammable,” says Jos Barlow, a researcher at Lancaster University in the U.K., who has studied the Amazon for the past two decades. Farmers from the Anumã community in the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve work on a water dam. Image by Flavio Forner. This differentiation is important for several reasons. One of them lies in the fact that officials in the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro have repeatedly blamed the spread of wildfires on the traditional use of fire by small farmers in rural communities. But the data don’t support this narrative: According to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), 22% of fire hotspots recorded in 2019 were on rural properties considered medium or large (greater than 440 hectares or 1,090 acres), while 9% occurred on small farms of less than 440 hectares (the rest of the hotspots were distributed among other land-use categories). In the first half of this year, medium and large properties alone accounted for half of all hotspots in the Amazon. Complementary analyses connect the burning even more directly to deforestation. A new fire-mapping tool developed by NASA shows that 54% of the fires this year in the Amazon were caused by deforestation. This suggests the most effective way to fight fire in the region would be to drastically reduce deforestation. “If there is no ignition source, there is no way for the fire to escape to the standing forest,” says Erika Berenguer, a Brazilian biologist at Oxford and Lancaster universities. Timber from illegal logging is seized by inspectors from IBAMA, the national environmental protection agency, and stored in a yard in the lower Tapajós River region. Image by Flavio Forner.