In the Andes, prior to the arrival of the Spanish and the introduction of the plow, the practice of burning fields carried a penalty of death because it damaged the soil, seen as the lifeblood of good crops. In the Indo-Gangetic plains near the towering Himalayas, communities valued stubble as an important resource, gathered after harvest for livestock bedding or fuel for the home hearth. Today, more communities are re-discovering biomass from the agro-forestry sector as a valuable resource, including to combat climate change.
Open burning refers to a common agricultural practice found today throughout the world, including where it impacts important cryosphere regions and related water resources, such as the Himalayas, Andes, Alps and even some East African highlands. It comprises a variety of uses of fire, for a broad variety of reasons in the agro-forestry sector, including such burning practices as:
- Removal of previous harvest crop stubble;
- Renewal of pasturelands or savannah used for grazing;
- Clearing of forest or orchard understory prior to fruit or timber harvest;
- Complete vegetation removal to clear “virgin” uncultivated land, or previously cultivated land abandoned for some period of time.
The reasons for such burning vary greatly between different regions and crop systems. For crop stubble, reasons may range from combating weeds, pests and vermin thought to hide in straw such as rats or snakes; to safeguarding a plow that might break in thick stubble. Removal of understory makes reaching orchard fruit easier, or allows access by timber-clearing teams or machinery for timber harvest. For all lands, especially pasturelands, there also often exists a belief that burning “enriches” the soil or “renews” the grass, strengthened perhaps by the appearance of black, burned soil as “neat” or “enriched” and where new growth has a greener appearance.
Patterns of burning also however can shift rapidly due to changing conditions and understanding. For example, burning in the former Soviet Union (FSU) increased markedly during the late 1980’s and 1990’s as regulatory systems (including regulation of burning) collapsed, along with the livestock industry that previously provided a market for bedding straw. Lack of financing for new and better-quality steel plows also led to higher burning levels, especially after high-yield years that left thicker stubble which the older poor-quality steel plow could not handle, as farmers sought to avoid the cost of replacement. During this same time period, in contrast burning in the European Union decreased rapidly as governments provided incentives for no-burn methods, and eventually banned burning entirely as part of new air quality guidelines.
By 2003, satellite measurement of burning in comparable regions of the EU were 8% those in the former Soviet states nearby (more on this in the Monitoring section). More significantly perhaps, when Poland and the Baltic states sought to join the EU, their measured burning levels moved from those of the FSU to the radically lower EU levels in less than five years thanks to education and financial support through rapid transition policy, leapfrogging decades of change in Western Europe while reaping the benefits of improving crop yields and incentives.
Change, even rapid change is therefore possible with proper motivation and support. The below sections outline some of the considerations and challenges for such a transition globally, with additional focus as appropriate on Indian Punjab and surrounding regions with similar rice-wheat cropping systems.