For centuries, farmers in the upper Ucayali River region of the lowland Peruvian Amazon have used burning to manage agricultural fields, and more recently, to clear and clean pastures. Yet the landscapes of the region are being rapidly transformed by clearing for large-scale plantation agriculture, especially biofuel production, by extensive ranching, and by new patterns of smaller-scale land uses by non-Amazonian migrants who arrive in large numbers from the coast and highlands of Peru. Large fires escaped from burning fields and pastures have become common dry season events that ravage forests, farms, and settlements in much of Amazonia and recently, these destructive fires have become a major problem along this region.

The immediate causes of increased fire susceptibility reflect a variety of changes in economic policies, especially those stimulating agricultural development, and land settlement in most countries of the Amazon Basin, as well as rising prices for tropical commodities, including the recent global push to quickly produce large quantities of biofuels as substitutes for petroleum products. Many of these changes result from a series of enacted policies and decisions taken on national and local levels. The disruptions produced by rapid land use and demographic transformations are compounded by the uncertainties of a changing climate.

Apart from studies linking particular forms and scales of crop and livestock production to fire, research into human or social dimensions of escaped fires in Amazonia has lagged considerably behind inquiries into biophysical factors.The effects of catastrophic escaped fires on communities in Amazonia have been rarely discussed in any detail (Sorrensen 2003), apart from the considerable data recorded in government and NGO reports on economic losses to households in particular regions because of burned crops, houses, and other goods.

The Fires in Western Amazon project is a NSF funded research project and is comprised of an interdisiplinary team of experts in the fields of anthropology, climate change, tropical forest ecology, geography, remote sensing, economics, and environmental policy. The project team will develop and test models based on data collected from the complex climate, ecological, and social factors behind fire patterns in the Peruvian Amazon region. The insights obtained from these models will be useful for instructive purposes and for formulating appropriate agricultural, land use and development policies and for local and regional adaptation to global market and climate changes.

The project is funded by a XX year grant from the National Science Foundation (granted 2009). The project is affiliated with the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, the Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology Department at Columbia University, The Earth Institute at Columbia University, the Nyew York Botanical Garden, and The International Research Institute for Climate and Society