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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - IRI THESys

Conflicting fire regimes and social-ecological projects. The political ecology of wildfires in Catalonia

Dr. Iago Otero Armengol was a postdoctoral researcher at IRI THESys from 2014-2017. His research interests included the political ecology of wildfires and wildfires as catalysts of social-ecological and political transformations

Large wildfire of Sant Llorenç Savall (Catalonia) - Photo by M. Castellnou (11 August 2003)

Photo: Large wildfire of Sant Llorenç Savall (Catalonia), by M. Castellnou (11 August 2003)

From the standpoint of Political Ecology conflicts over wildfire prevention, extinction and regeneration policies are analyzed as effects of competing visions of different social actors over desired territories. The adjective political stands in contrast to apolitical ecologies, which tend to attribute environmental problems to a range of causes that stand beyond the realm of collective choice.

In this project I will explore how different visions of wildfires and forests cooperate, antagonize and synthesize in Catalonia, a highly flammable country of the Mediterranean region with recurrent catastrophic wildfires. I am interested in understanding how such different visions of wildfires are related to equally different social-ecological projects, i.e. the ideal society envisioned by each social actor.

Previous research reveals a clear antagonism between different visions of wildfires in the Catalan society, which clash specially after a catastrophic event. Actors in favor of fire suppression conflict with those arguing for a proper use of fire as both prevention and extinction tool. Local actors – proud of their traditional ecological knowledge – conflict with firefighting units – holding sophisticated knowledge on fire ecology and management. Actors from outside metropolitan Barcelona state that increasing wildfire hazard is related to an uneven development pattern leading to population concentration in urban areas and the abandonment of the peripheral countryside.

Interestingly, out of the complementarities and frictions between different visions, a new resilience approach has emerged during the last decades. This is embodied in the special firefighting unit GRAF within the Catalan firefighters. GRAF approach aims at producing a landscape where large and catastrophic wildfires are not possible. This is done through the enhancement of a low and medium perturbation regime including prescribed burning, selective coppicing, extensive grazing and farming. GRAF and the resilience paradigm stand uneasily – discursively and institutionally – among other dominant social visions on wildfires.

Through participant observation in GRAF during the wildfire season 2014 I will explore how such tensions play out in the daily extinction activity. A resilience-based wildfire prevention scheme for one selected study region will be jointly designed between GRAF and IRI-THESys and implemented through the participation of local stakeholders. Hence I will try to understand how new knowledge on wildfires is produced; investigate the limits and challenges of this social learning process; and evaluate to which extent wildfires may act as catalysts of social-ecological transformation. Additional interviews to key actors will allow me to scan the whole political spectrum in wildfire prevention and extinction.

Research Group: Changing urban-rural linkages across the world
Publications resulting from the project

Otero, I., Nielsen, J.Ø. (2017): Coexisting with wildfire? Achievements and challenges for a radical social-ecological transformation in Catalonia (Spain). Geoforum, Volume 85, October 2017, Pages 234-246 (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.07.020)


Iago Otero Armengol Photo: Anne Dombrowski
Photo: Anne Dombrowski



Iago Otero Armengol, Former Postdoctoral Researcher
E-Mail: iago.otero.armengol@hu-berlin.de