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Fire, People and Ecosystems in the
Honduran Mosquitia

An Assessment of Caribbean Pine Savannas

In 2005 a team of Nature Conservancy fire ecologists visited the Caribbean pine savannas of eastern Honduras to gather information on the fire management needs and issues of the region. This area also contains tropical broadleaved forests, palm thickets and flooded grasslands, but almost all fires originate in the pinelands.

Frequent, low-intensity fires are the norm in the pine savannas, ensuring the survival of  pinelands in areas where other vegetation types would otherwise predominate. Some of these fires occur naturally; others are set by local communities which use fire to meet a variety of needs.

Indigenous Burning

Indigenous communities in this region ignite fires to improve grass for grazing, to attract game animals to green regrowth, to control ticks and other pests, and to facilitate travel and access by keeping trails open and vegetation low. In fact, there is a general perception on the part of the people who set fires that the fires are needed to “clean up” the pine savanna. “Los pinares se ponen feo sin quemar” is a common refrain among the indigenous communities.

Ecologists observed that although the pine savannas are fire-dependent, they are probably burning too frequently in many areas. Over time, annual burning kills seedlings, effectively preventing all regeneration. On the other hand, in the relatively few places where savanna fires were being suppressed, dense fuel was accumulating, increasing the chances that these places will burn eventually. When this happens, the fires will burn hotter than usual, killing economically important mature trees. Hence the long-term survival of the pine savannas is threatened by both too frequent and too infrequent fire.

Implications for Biodiversity

Few studies have been made on the ecology of Caribbean pine and its associated species. However, slash and longleaf pine savannas in the southeastern United States are known to be ecologically similar to Mesoamerican Caribbean pine savannas. As a result, members of the assessment team were able to use their experience working in the United States to make inferences about the ecology of pine savannas in Honduras.

Scientists in the southeastern United States have found that the majority of biodiversity in pine savannas resides beneath the trees, in what is known as the “ground cover” component of these ecosystems. In fact, some researchers have found more than 30 different plant species in just 1 square meter of ground. The vast majority of these species are able to resist fire, and some may even depend on fire to prompt reproduction.

Ecologists concluded that the Mosquitia of eastern Honduras has some of the best examples of tropical Caribbean pine savannas and related ecosystems in Central America. Throughout Mesoamerica and the Caribbean few examples of tropical pine and pine/oak ecosystems are protected for their biodiversity and natural processes. Where protection does occur it is usually under the umbrella of intensive silviculture and fire protection that favors pine production at the expense of the biotic diversity and landscape mosaic found in dynamic natural systems.

The team recommended engaging local communities and applying Integrated Fire Management principles to ensure that human and biodiversity values can be maintained. Where possible, forest management and silvicultural practices that disturb the ground cover should be prohibited.

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