Despite the scientific evidence as well as the nuanced cultural, spiritual, ecological and economic importance of fires for local communities in northern Ghana, government policies still embrace the simplistic narrative that fire constitutes a disturbance to savanna ecosystems. The antifire policies and programmes instituted by the Government of Ghana and Non-government Organisations to promote conservation in savanna areas have induced a growing sense of injustice and resentment among those whose livelihoods depend on these fires.

Therefore a scientific and traditional ecological understanding of the drivers of fires and how fire management policies impact wider efforts to mitigate conflict between different resource user groups in these areas is necessary for developing more equitable approaches. Hence, the main objective of this study is to understand the complex trade-offs of shifting fire regimes and policies in the savanna woodlands of northern Ghana and whether these policies result in social inequities. By prioritising the perspectives of local resource users, a better understanding will be developed of whether farmers and herders, particularly, are differentially impacted by statutory fire management approaches. The study will involve mixed method approaches including remote sensing, in-depth interviews, key informant interviews, focus group discussions, cause and effect diagrams and seasonal calendars.

Project duration: 2021-2025

Photos: Savanna landscapes in Ghana with burnt patches. Source: Rahinatu Sidiki Alare

Leadership Team

Fire is a critical component of the ecology of African savannas and it is used by humans as a tool for rangeland management. Across much of northern Africa there has been a decreasing trend in burned area, but the drivers and impacts of these changes are not yet fully understood. These changing fire dynamics may lead to bush encroachment and changes in the extent and productivity of grasslands for livestock grazing. In the South Omo Zone, Ethiopia, fire has traditionally been used by pastoralists to rejuvenate pasture. Preliminary results have shown a reduction in burned area in the region, potentially associated with recent hydropower dam developments and commercial irrigated agriculture. The causes of these changing landscape fire dynamics and the consequences for local pastoralist communities have not yet been explored. Potential drivers include fire suppression policies, overgrazing and landscape fragmentation, and resettlement of people leading to a decrease in traditional land management practices.


This PhD project aims to investigate:

(i) how burned area has changed in protected and unprotected areas in the South Omo Zone;

(ii) the drivers of these changes;

(iii) the impact this is having on ecosystem services and livelihoods.

To investigate these dynamics, we will use satellite remote sensing, GIS and participatory methods. Satellite data will be analysed using the Google Earth Engine cloud computing platform to quantify changes in burned area over the last few decades. Spatial data layers such as land cover, human settlements and infrastructure will be used to explore drivers of spatial patterns in burned area. The project will also  incorporate traditional ecological knowledge by conducting participatory mapping with local communities to find out how peoples’ use of fire has changed and why, and the impacts of these changes on vegetation and ecosystem services (shrub cover, grassland productivity etc.). 

Project duration: 2021-2025

Photo credit:  Mariusz Kluzniak

Leadership Team

Tropical storms and wildfires are destructive natural phenomena in both ecological and socioeconomic terms. Many environmental factors that affect wildfires have been identified, for example wildfires are more probable under drought conditions, can be sparked by lightning, intensified by wind and their activities affected by El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). In addition to these, there are strong empirical evidences suggesting that connections exist between tropical storms and wildfires, yet this link is understudied. This is an instance of climate anomalies separated by large distances being related to each other, a still poorly understood phenomenon referred to as teleconnection in atmospheric science.

We focus on the study of teleconnection between the two extreme events of tropical storms and wildfires and strive to answer the following three questions:

(i) What is the mechanism behind the connection between North Atlantic hurricanes and South Amazon wildfires?

(ii) Can maritime continent wildfires be driven by West Pacific tropical storms and if so how?

(iii) Is Australian wildfire a favourable factor for tropical storm development and if so why?

We expect that our research output can help improve the forecast of these extreme events and predict their trends in face of climate change.



Tsui, E.Y.L, and Toumi, R. (2021) Hurricanes as an enabler of Amazon fires Scientific Reports, 11: 16960

Project duration: 2020-2024

Leadership Team

While deforestation rates have decreased dramatically over the 2005-2015 period, forest degradation resulting from logging and wildfires became the major source of aboveground biomass losses and the Brazilian Amazon turned into a carbon source (Gatti et al., 2021; Qin et al., 2021). Since 2015, deforestation rates and associated fires are rising again, and new deforestation frontiers are opening up in previously untouched areas in the central and western Amazon (Silva Junior et al., 2020). The persistence of fires in the regions could undermine the capacity of Brazil to reach its carbon emission reduction commitments (da Silva Junior et al., 2020).

Fire regimes in tropical rainforest are complex dynamics driven by closely intervened climatic, ecological and socio-economic factors acting at multiple scale. Despite their critical role in forest degradation and carbon emissions, fire regimes in tropical rainforest and effective ways to reduce them are still poorly understood.  The aim of this research project would be to understand the different drivers of fire regimes and how they interact using an interdisciplinary approach.

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon are related to land use dynamics: they are initially used to transform forests into pastures or cropland, frequent subsequent burnings favour the regrowth of grass over trees and can give the appearance of fertilizing the soil at a low or no cost. When nearby rainforests are dry enough, because of generalized drought over the Amazon basin or fragmentation of the forest cover, deforestation and agricultural fires escape into nearby forests and can cause large wildfires (Cano-Crespo et al., 2015). Local communities fire management practices, such as the timing of ignitions and prevention measures taken to prevent fire escape, can have an important impact on regional fires regimes. Burn experiments have demonstrated that even low-intensity fires can lead to tree mortality and canopy damage, increasing the fuel load and creating drier microclimatic conditions, ultimately resulting in larger and more intense fires (Balch et al., 2015; Brando et al., 2014).

At a regional scale, feedback between fires and deforestation exist: deforestation and smoke from associated fires reduce local precipitation, promoting tree mortality and widespread fires. Associated reduction of the forest cover decreases evapotranspiration and disrupts the hydrological cycle in the region, reducing the area with levels of precipitation that are compatible with the persistence of rainforest and potentially leading to massive forest die-back (Nepstad et al., 2008). Fire is therefore likely to act as a catalyst, accelerating the transition from rainforest to seasonal forest and savanna and preventing regeneration of forest on abandoned pastures (Malhi et al., 2009).

Regarding the limited impact of past environmental policies to reduce forest degradation, rising deforestation and the existence of strong feedback between fires, deforestation and climate that could lead to massive forest dieback, there is an urgent need to better understand the drivers of fire regimes in the region and to inform solutions to reduce wildfire frequency. Thus, this research project aims to:

  • Identify the drivers of fire regimes in the Brazilian Amazon
  • Assess the impact of the environmental policies that aimed to reduce deforestation on the fire regimes and fire management practices by local communities
  • Compare the accuracy of different disciplinary approaches and data sources for studying fire regimes and their drivers in tropical rainforest

To evaluate these aims, a spatio-temporal model of fire regimes in the Brazilian Amazon using MODIS Active-Fires data for the 2003-2020 period will be developed. The spatio-temporal model will be used to understand the relative importance of different drivers. The explanatory variables tested will relate to climatic, ecological and socio-economic drivers identified through the literature review. During the second phase of the project, fieldwork will be conducted in protected areas to investigate results from the modelling exercise, as well as fire management practices by local communities, how these practices evolved and what forms of communal governance of fires exists. Finally, the accuracy of different sources for identifying fires and a comparison of the results from modelling and fieldwork exercise will be carried out.

Fire frequency after the establishment of protected areas/indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon

Figure 1: Fire frequency after the establishment of protected areas/indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon (2003-2019 period, or after the official designation of the protected areas/indigenous land).


Balch, J.K., Brando, P.M., Nepstad, D.C., Coe, M.T., Silvério, D., Massad, T.J., Davidson, E.A., Lefebvre, P., Oliveira-Santos, C., Rocha, W., Cury, R.T.S., Parsons, A., Carvalho, K.S., 2015. The Susceptibility of Southeastern Amazon Forests to Fire: Insights from a Large-Scale Burn Experiment. BioScience 65, 893–905.

Brando, P.M., Balch, J.K., Nepstad, D.C., Morton, D.C., Putz, F.E., Coe, M.T., Silverio, D., Macedo, M.N., Davidson, E.A., Nobrega, C.C., Alencar, A., Soares-Filho, B.S., 2014. Abrupt increases in Amazonian tree mortality due to drought-fire interactions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, 6347–6352.

Cano-Crespo, A., Oliveira, P.J.C., Boit, A., Cardoso, M., Thonicke, K., 2015. Forest edge burning in the Brazilian Amazon promoted by escaping fires from managed pastures: J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 120, 2095–2107.

da Silva Junior, C.A., Teodoro, P.E., Delgado, R.C., Teodoro, L.P.R., Lima, M., de Andréa Pantaleão, A., Baio, F.H.R., de Azevedo, G.B., de Oliveira Sousa Azevedo, G.T., Capristo-Silva, G.F., Arvor, D., Facco, C.U., 2020. Persistent fire foci in all biomes undermine the Paris Agreement in Brazil. Sci Rep 10, 16246.

Gatti, L.V., Basso, L.S., Miller, J.B., Gloor, M., Gatti Domingues, L., Cassol, H.L.G., Tejada, G., Aragão, L.E.O.C., Nobre, C., Peters, W., Marani, L., Arai, E., Sanches, A.H., Corrêa, S.M., Anderson, L., Von Randow, C., Correia, C.S.C., Crispim, S.P., Neves, R.A.L., 2021. Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change. Nature 595, 388–393.

Malhi, Y., Aragao, L.E.O.C., Galbraith, D., Huntingford, C., Fisher, R., Zelazowski, P., Sitch, S., McSweeney, C., Meir, P., 2009. Exploring the likelihood and mechanism of a climate-change-induced dieback of the Amazon rainforest. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, 20610–20615.

Nepstad, D.C., Stickler, C.M., Filho, B.S.-, Merry, F., 2008. Interactions among Amazon land use, forests and climate: prospects for a near-term forest tipping point. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 363, 1737–1746.

Qin, Y., Xiao, X., Wigneron, J.-P., Ciais, P., Brandt, M., Fan, L., Li, X., Crowell, S., Wu, X., Doughty, R., Zhang, Y., Liu, F., Sitch, S., Moore, B., 2021. Carbon loss from forest degradation exceeds that from deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Nat. Clim. Chang.

Silva Junior, C.H.L., Aragão, L.E.O.C., Anderson, L.O., Fonseca, M.G., Shimabukuro, Y.E., Vancutsem, C., Achard, F., Beuchle, R., Numata, I., Silva, C.A., Maeda, E.E., Longo, M., Saatchi, S.S., 2020. Persistent collapse of biomass in Amazonian forest edges following deforestation leads to unaccounted carbon losses. Sci. Adv. 6, eaaz8360.


Leadership Team

Fire is a critical component of many agricultural and livestock-based land-use systems in the Global South where its management benefits from generations of local experience in how, when and where to set fires for maximum local benefit. In many countries, governments and conservation organisations have implemented a range of fire-related policies (from promoting ‘early burning’ to banning all burning, or undertaking controlled burning) to address concerns about impacts on nearby populations (from smoke or property damage caused by out-of-control fires), biodiversity and levels of carbon emissions. Both traditional ecological knowledge and science-based knowledge (which may have underpinned government policies) are being challenged by a changing climate and growing pressure on land to meet both conservation and development aspirations. There is therefore an urgent need not only to understand the knowledge base and value systems underpinning different fire management practices in specific contexts but also to explore the potential trade-offs between these changing fire management practices.

This project investigates changing local fire management practices in India. It looks at who takes fire management decisions (including both local communities and government departments) and on what basis, how fires are considered to benefit different groups and whether there are trade-offs with costs borne by other groups.


An awareness poster on penal provisions for starting forest fires in Uttarakhand

An awareness poster on penal provisions for starting forest fires in Uttarakhand


Project Duration – 2020- 2024

Leadership Team

Current land use practices and consumption patterns are increasingly impacting land systems, putting natural resources under greater pressure and exacerbating sustainability challenges. As consumption patterns shift towards more animal-based and processed diets, increasing land area is dedicated to the large-scale production of commodities such as soybeans and palm oil at the expense of natural areas such as forests. Occurrence and severity of fires especially within or near closed canopy tropical forests is also consequently increasing.

Corporations are prominent agents in this food system. Agribusiness actors are key decision makers, influencing production and linking production frontiers to consumers. Large financial actors possess significant corporate control globally, playing a particularly important role through behaviour and influence in companies shaping ecosystems all over the world. In parallel, spiralling deforestation and forest fires are a systemic risk to both corporate and financial actors.

Due to the importance of land use change in achieving sustainability transitions and global sustainability goals (i.e. limiting global heating to 1.5-degrees Celsius and halting terrestrial biodiversity loss) and crucial role that these agents play in markets and in land use outcomes, the consequences of corporate and financial institution anti-deforestation and fires use strategies including trade-offs, possible pareto-improvements and conditions for success warrant exploration.


This research aims to improve our understanding of how corporate and financial institutional actors involved in the food system impact forests and fire regimes through the anti-deforestation and fires use strategies they take.

Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping combined with agent-based models is used to represent interactions among corporate, financial and producer agents. Environmental and economic outcomes emerge from the coupled model. Potential implications and conditions for successfully achieving sustainability transitions and global sustainability goals are explored.

This work is focused on the EU27+UK and China as the receiving systems while Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia act as sending states with countries in the rest of the world representing spillover systems.

Deforestation and fire as rainforest burned to make way for oil palm plantation

Deforestation environmental problem. Cutting down and burning rainforest. Fire and smoke causes carbon emissions leading to climate change. Land clearing for palm oil industry

Banner image: Aerial view and directly from above of some palm oil plantations in the province of Kalimantan (Borneo) that joins with other land that has been slashed and burnt. It is unfortunate to say that because of the palm oil industry, hectares of rainforests are being destroyed to replace those natural habitats with this cheap commodity.

Leadership Team

The first part of the project is associated with the contribution to the global data collection effort and meta-analyses within the Centre, specifically by synthesising the limited number of existing available records from the Neotropics and applying new analytical approaches for disentangling fire-vegetation interactions. Within the centre, a new palaeofire database has been created. The RPD (Reading Palaeofire Database) allows an increased coverage of palaeofire the Neotropics to be assessed. The map below shows an example of current coverage within the RPD.



The second part of this project is associated with the contribution of new palaeofire data to improve coverage across the Neotropics. The history and diversification of South American ecosystems result from complex interactions between climate, ecological processes and human impact. Yet, the lack of continuous and spatially-representative palaeoecological series in many tropical regions limit our understanding of the long-term processes driving tropical ecosystem dynamics, such as for the Holocene expansion of savannas and the role of pre-Columbian communities in shaping vegetation structure and composition.  This project will develop new high-resolution pollen and charcoal series in Guyana and integrate the long-term perspective with the available Indigenous knowledge on the use of fire in the region.

This project will use the environment proxies of charcoal and pollen. These can be extracted through the collection of sediment cores. After processing the sediment in a laboratory, the pollen grains within the sediment can be analysed to interpret past vegetation patterns. These microscope slides also contain microscopic charcoal which can be analysed to suggest past fire events.

Project timeline: 2020-2024


Leadership Team

In East and Southern African savannas, there has been observed an increasing size and intensity of wildfires in Protected Areas (PAs) where human populations are low, yet the total absence of fires where growing human and livestock densities have condensed into smaller areas. This dual fire challenge, combined with ambiguity surrounding the definition of a ‘natural’ fire regime and a recent, and arguably on-going, colonial history, has engendered widespread systemic social-ecological complexities and ecosystem degradation. Despite this, the social-ecological framing of fires in Africa has been largely neglected.

To address these challenges, CBFiM (Community-based Fire Management) has been proposed as an alternative fire management framework that recognises both the double-role of fire in the landscape (both beneficial and damaging) and the importance of ‘bottom-up’ management frameworks for long-term sustainable outcomes. However, CBFiM has also been criticised for failing “to provide a systematic approach to addressing differential conditions in different locations” (Tendim et al. 2020 [pg. 237]).

This thesis identifies two key issues:

Firstly, CBFiM lacks a clear definition and has been widely applied to describe fire management models that incorporate some degree of community involvement. For CBFiM to provide a legitimate ‘bottom-up’ fire management framework, the local community must have a significant degree of input in decision-making processes. Equally, the nature of their input must be proactive rather than passive or consultancy. This is extended to the framework’s establishment and active participation, such as that they are involved in the initiation and planning of the CBFiM framework and are actively willing to engage in carrying out tasks.

Secondly, this thesis rejects the notion that fire challenges should be categorized and standardised to provide a systematic approach that can be applied across multiple temporal and spatial scales, removing them from their historical, local, and systemic context. In creating a systematic approach for addressing fire challenges, the narrative is further embedded in Western research methodologies and European languages of science, reinforcing the coloniality of knowledge. This thesis argues that fire challenges need to be investigated in their specific historical and systemic context, accounting for the interrelated local, regional, and global social-ecological processes that shape fire regimes.

This thesis explores the politics of knowledge through the examination of governance systems in social-ecological savanna PAs, specifically looking at the extent and degree in which legitimate CBFiM offers an alternative and realisable ‘bottom-up’ fire management framework, or whether it has simply been adopted as a ‘buzz-word’ within the dominant colonial fire narrative that has persisted across East and Southern Africa.

Download poster here – winner of the Centre for Environmental Policy poster competition, 2021

Project duration: 2020-2024

Research Questions

Primary Research Question

“Community-based Fire Management: A colonial narrative?”Is CBFiM an extension of the colonial narrative in an East and Southern African context? Or does it provide an alternative and realisable equitable, effective, and sustainable ‘bottom-up’ fire management framework?

Secondary Research Questions

Secondary research questions have been developed to focus the methodological process applied in this thesis to explore and answer the primary research question. Applying methodological pluralism in this research allows for the incorporation of qualitative and quantitative data to maximise reliability and validity when exploring SES, whilst also acknowledging the diversity of epistemologies that configure fire regimes. Such an approach is critical in decolonising methodologies by transcending conventional research applications and knowledge dissemination.

This research is divided into three main stages (systematic map review, stakeholder network and (historical) institutional analysis, and fieldwork and SES modelling) which are supported by two secondary research questions to guide the investigation:

Does the effectiveness of community-based fire management in savanna protected areas across East and Southern Africa differ conditionally on type of governance system?

Can equitable and adaptive governance and policy solutions, based on knowledge co-production and collaborative networks, be realised for addressing fire regimes in changing social-ecological savanna protected areas?

Aims and Objectives

General Aims

  1. To use systems thinking and decolonising methodologies for an integrated assessment of governance systems in community-based fire management (CBFiM) frameworks across East and Southern African savanna protected areas (PAs) and conditional social-ecological fire-related outcomes.
  2. To identify the opportunities for, and benefits of, decolonising fire management and institutional frameworks and governance systems for addressing fire challenges across East and Southern Africa’s savanna PAs.

Focused Aims

(i) To systematically map the governance systems of CBFiM frameworks across East and Southern African savanna PAs and associated fire regimes and burning practices.

(ii) To develop a contextual account of specific study sites concerning stakeholder and historical institutional networks in complex and interconnected social-ecological systems.

(iii) To develop a SES model based on a participatory multi-step and multi-stakeholder approach to elicit the impacts of differential CBFiM governance systems on decision-making variables and associated fire outcomes.

(iv) To apply the developed SES model to future climate change scenarios, exploring how decision-making variables and associated fire outcomes might change contingent upon local perceptions and understandings of fire in a changing social-ecological environment.


  1. A systematic map and written review of the state-of-knowledge of CBFiM across East and Southern African savanna PAs, showing the extent and nature of community involvement in project establishment, sponsorship, decision-making processes, and participation – as communicated in the existing evidence-base.
  2. A contextual account of study sites that identify actor networks and the relations between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ institutions, governance, and policy.

Formulation of multiple FCMs and their integration into one BBN to model the effects of differential governance configurations in CBFiM frameworks on decision-making variables and locally identified fire outcomes. And to explore these effects under current and future climate scenarios

Related work

Abi Croker is a participant of Wildfires at the Art-Science Interface project – see her contributions:

She also recently participated in ‘Africa Drylands: A Restoration Road Trip’ ran by the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) and the Youth in Landscapes Initiative (YIL), in collaboration with the Wageningen Centre for Development and Innovation (WCDI) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) – this is an on-going collaboration with stakeholders and researchers working towards restoring Africa’s drylands


The role of savannas in the transition to zero pollution

Leadership Team

This PhD aims to examine how behavioural modelling may provide the basis for improved representations of anthropogenic fire impacts in global-scale process-based models. It does this by quantifying the influence of human behaviour on wildfire regimes around the world and developing agent-based representations of that influence to integrate with the existing JULES-INFERNO model.

A central finding of the Fire Model Intercomparison project (FIREMIP) was that simple representations of anthropogenic impacts on fire – based on readily available data such as population density or GDP – are a substantial shortcoming in current global fire models.

This shortcoming stems from two key research challenges:

1. the absence of a systematic empirical basis from which to derive improved representations of people in global models.

2. the lack of appropriate modelling frameworks through which to capture and project anthropogenic fire impacts globally.

This project aims to address both these research challenges.

To address the first research challenge, we have developed DAFI: the first global Database of Anthropogenic Fire Impacts. DAFI currently contains data from over 500 papers on more than 1,800 case studies from 100 countries between 1990-2020. DAFI is freely available to download and you can read more about it on this poster (peer-reviewed publication forthcoming).


We presented progress on the second research challenge at EGU 2021 in our presentation entitled, Advancing representation of anthropogenic fire in dynamic global vegetation models. You can download the slides [pdf] accompanying the presentation, or view them online.

Project duration: 2020-2024

Leadership Team

There is growing interest in understanding how small-scale farmers in different parts of the world organise their agricultural and land-burning activities. This is particularly so in the case of land managers seeking to change how and when farmers burn in order to bring such activities more into line with wider conservation or REDD-related objectives. However, there is little understanding of the technical, social and cultural feasibility and impacts of changing farmer behaviour with regard to fire.

This PhD project will help to address this knowledge gap. It is based on empirical research in the Niassa Reserve, northern Mozambique. Covering approximately ten million hectares, the Reserve is the country’s largest protected area and home to large populations of farmers practicing shifting agriculture. Using a case study approach, research assesses how fire management practices have developed in the area, what the alternatives to such practices might be, and what the socioeconomic and cultural implications are in encouraging such alternatives. A mixture of data collection methods are employed, including interviews, questionnaires and remote sensing.  

Project duration: 2020-2024

Leadership Team