Cynthia Fowler’s “Ignition Stories”: Anthropological explorations of fire ecology and social justice

ENGAGEMENT Blog editor Micha Rahder recently spoke with Cynthia Fowler to discuss her recent book, Ignition Stories: Indigenous Fire Ecology in the Indo-Australian Monsoon Zone (2013, Carolina Academic Press), and its broader contributions to fire management and social justice debates in Indonesia and around the world. This interview is the latest in an ENGAGEMENT series that explores how environmental-anthropological book projects have profound and important impacts on the world around us.

The Author Walking Through a Recently Burned Grassy Field on the Coastal Plains_Photo taken by David J. Cook_180 dpi

Author Cynthia Fowler Walking Through a Recently Burned Grassy Field on the Coastal Plains (Photo taken by David J. Cook)

MR: What is the theme of your new book?

CF: The theme of the book is that fire is a product of social relationships as much as ecological relationships, that fire produces life and life produces fire.

MR: How does your book address broader questions in environmental anthropology?

CF: Broader questions in environmental anthropology are related to interdisciplinarity – that is one of my big goals here, to bring together fire ecology and anthropology. I was on the side of fire ecology for a while, and thought, ‘anthropology could bring so much to the table here.’ So I was trying to do something for fire ecology at the same time that I was trying to do something for ecological anthropology.

Some of the other issues that it addresses in ecological anthropology have to do with the role of people in environmental change, so the role of anthropogenic change in long-term environmental change, and short-term as well. The book addresses some of the ways that ecological anthropologists try to think about the dynamic processes of ecosystems, ecologies, or environments by grabbing hold of the concepts of succession and disturbance and trying to see how human perceptions of the environment, or human interactions with the landscape, play into what seem like – from an ecologist’s point of view – very ecological processes.

It seems like there’s a lot of space to explore how human culture reflects succession and disturbance. If they are such critical processes in the environments where we live, then it seems like our mythologies, our rituals, our systems of knowledge would reflect those changes in environments that humans partly create.

Green Alang Grass Sprouting Post-Fire Next to the Previous Season's Dessicated Alang Grass

Green Alang Grass Sprouting Post-Fire Next to the Previous Season’s Dessicated Alang Grass

MR: How did you engage with different communities, such as local people, or fire scientists, as you were doing the research for your book? How has your research sparked lasting collaborations and/or engagements in your field site?

CF: The book was based on more than a decade’s worth of engagements with this specific field site, and that period of time is going to continue as I write future projects and gather additional data. I’ll be interacting with the community by doing more fieldwork, and hopefully also eventually taking students there and doing research projects with students from Wofford, which is an undergraduate institution. We have some really strong initiatives now, which would include doing study abroad projects.

I was definitely trying to engage the fire ecology community. What I’d like for them to take from this is a broader conceptualization of the kinds of technical issues that they’re looking at with fire, for example things like defining fire regimes. I’ve gotten a little bit of push back from some fire scientists who say: ‘well, you know fire regimes, that doesn’t include anthropogenic fires.’ So my idea is, why not? Maybe it could. How interesting would it be if we opened it up to that?

Also with regard to the fire ecology community or fire science community, I’d like them to think about how fire is handled in the non-Western world, outside of the U.S. I think that Australians might have more awareness of indigenous fire ecology practices and have incorporated this in their national practices, strategies, and policies more than Americans. A lot of fire managers in the U.S. also think about Native American burning practices, for sure, but maybe this book will help them think about it a little bit more, push themselves in that direction a little bit more.

I think that fire ecologists could think about the practices of indigenous peoples who live near where they work. Not only in terms of how to design their own fire management practices or design their own ecosystems – which our fire managers do, and they do it pretty well, along with loggers, horticulturalists, and agronomists, plant biologists, et cetera. I’m thinking of public lands specifically here.

But also, more critically, I think there are really some interesting issues related to what our fire managers in the U.S. are doing (and maybe elsewhere in the world too) with regard to referencing Native American burning practices as a means for justifying what they want to do with fire. I don’t think they’re thinking about it critically like anthropologists do. What are they accomplishing by saying that they want to recreate the ecosystems that Native Americans created? And what do they mean? What knowledge do we have about those ecosystems? What knowledge do they have and where does that knowledge come from, and how incomplete is it? Because the science is still in development.

Fire in a Coastal Plain Savanna

Fire in a Coastal Plain Savanna

MR:  What are the broader contributions of your book to public and policy discussions about environmental projects, or social and environmental justice?

CF: The biggest conversation I was having in this book related to policy was addressed to policy makers in Indonesia. That was true in the beginning of the writing process, but by the end I was also trying to talk to policy makers at the international level, who are dealing with climate change and REDD+ projects. The main issue in Indonesian fire, from an anthropological point of view from the past 15 years, has been related to the catastrophic fires that have occurred periodically on some of the larger islands of Indonesia. These seem to be resulting from landscape management policies that aren’t really good for indigenous peoples in those areas, and aren’t really good for the kinds of ecosystems that ecologists might want to see. For example, many of these fires that have gained the most attention on Borneo and Sumatra in the last two decades seem to be resulting from land clearing for plantations.

So there are a lot of social justice issues wrapped up with that, because indigenous people are being displaced to make plantations, for one thing. For another thing, indigenous people a lot of times are blamed for the fires, because of their subsistence practices. They’re using fire in clearing gardens and so forth, but it seems that there are other places where the blame deserves to go, rather than to indigenous people.

Another justice issue is that because the idea is that indigenous people are starting the fires, their subsistence practices need to be outlawed. And in fact they are: burning is outlawed in Indonesia. It’s tolerated to a great degree, even though it’s illegal. But in a hypothetical world, if that policy were enforced, it would have devastating implications on people’s nutrition and survival. That issue is definitely forefront in this book.

Part of the argument involves trying to recommend to any policymakers who might ever read this or hear about what I’ve written that they not make blanket policies to cover all ecosystems and all communities in Indonesia. It’s such a vast and diverse place, culturally and ecologically, that the role of fire in Bornean and Sumatran ecosystems – well, that varies because there are a lot of ecosystems on those islands, but it’s not always the same as the role of fire in ecosystems in other parts of the country. Like the dry, extremely seasonal places like Sumbo, which is one of the driest parts of the country, fire has a very different role there.

Ester and Pua Walking Down the Road to Kapapa

Ester and Pua, two main characters in Ignition Stories, walk through a landscape where evidence of anthropogenic change is apparent in the new road and the burned garden.

MR: How is your book being used beyond the academy? Is it actively shaping the management of nature in your study site?

CF: I don’t have any sense that it is being used that way, not yet. I would love for that to happen. It would be really exciting, but the possibility of it happening really scares me too. I don’t know how it would be received by policymakers or land managers in Indonesia. It’s hard to imagine because fire is so wrapped up in so many legal issues, and, as I said, it’s tolerated. Many policymakers are practical; they know that subsistence farmers need to use fire to produce food. But if they ever considered enforcing the law, and they had all of these fires documented by me, the potential for how they would use them is scary to me. Which is why I use pseudonyms for every person and place in the book.

I would love to see the Indonesian fire service or other land management agencies want to talk to me about this book, or even the US forest service, who work to train Indonesian fire fighters and land managers. I would love to talk to them about how they could use this information to adjust their policies, or about the problem of unwanted fires vs. the fires that are necessary or good for people, and good for places that are fire-adapted or fire-dependent.

MR: Finally, What is the key message or key point you hope people take away from reading your book?

CF: One key message would be that people’s relationships to fire, and the relationships people have with one another—with things in their environments and with landscapes—can be really intimate, can involve very personal, very emotional, and very intimate kinds of things. And that that intimacy is the kind of thing that I think ethnography is especially skilled or able to pull out of a study about people and fire. So many things you read about fire are so technical, and ethnography is so great at pulling that whole human story out of something that has been really submitted to the scientists.

Cynthia Fowler is an Associate Professor at Wofford College, Secretary of the Society of Ethnobiology, and Co-Editor of Ethnobiology Letters.  Cynthia conducts transdisciplinary research on society and nature with a special interest in the social relations of fire ecology and of mapping. In her fieldwork in Eastern Indonesia’s dry monsoonal tropics, she studies the materialization of fire; that is, fire as a creative expression of social relations and ecological perceptions. 

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