Socio-Ecological Dynamics of Pastoral Fire in the French Pyrenees

EPA Grant Number: FP917243
Title: Socio-Ecological Dynamics of Pastoral Fire in the French Pyrenees
Investigators: Coughlan, Michael Reed
Institution: University of Georgia
EPA Project Officer: Zambrana, Jose
Project Period: August 13, 2010 through August 12, 2013
Project Amount: $111,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2010) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Fellowship - Science & Technology for Sustainability: Environmental Behavior & Decision Making , Academic Fellowships


The goal of my proposed research is to understand change and continuity in the relationships between humans, fire, and landscape over the long-term. The research asks how household level socioeconomic processes influence long term fire ecology through both land use and the practice of pastoral fire. I will answer this question by undertaking an historical ecological analysis of human-fire-landscape dynamics in the French Western Pyrenees.

The proposed research investigates fire use among shepherds in the French Western Pyrenees using ethnographic, dendroecological, and geospatial methodologies. Pastoral fire practices have helped maintain landscapes conducive to conservation goals concerning biodiversity, watershed function, and carbon emissions. This research asks how local knowledge, practice, and social relationships can mediate the effects of broad-scale socioeconomic processes on long term fire ecology.


The proposed research design relies on a combination of ethnographic, dendroecological, historical, and geospatial methodologies to collect and analyze data. The research is divided into four phases: (I) Archival and dendroecological data collection will provide the data necessary for historical analyses of household economic strategies, land use, and fire history. Data sets will include current and historical maps, demography, forest stand records, land-use records, and the natural archives recorded in the annual growth of trees. (II) Ethnographic data collection will include participant observation in pastoral fire events as well as interviews with key informants to document the ethnographic contexts of fire use. (III) Dendroecology samples will be processed and read in the GEODE lab at the University of Toulouse - Le Mirail. A standard procedure will be used that consists of drying, mounting, planning, and sanding samples with ever-finer sand paper until cellular details of the surface are exposed. Cores and cross-sections will be cross-dated and fire histories recorded using standard dendrochronological methods. (IV) Data will be analyzed and synthesized using a combination of Bayesian and local analyses, along with content- and network-focused ethnographic approaches.

Expected Results:

My proposed research will contribute to our understanding of long-term socioecological interaction by identifying the historical parameters influencing human-fire ecology. Research will correlate dendroecological reconstructions of parcel-level fire history with a dynamic land use change model based on ethnographic and ethnohistoric data about household economic strategies and the fire practices they engender. These results will provide important and relevant information not only for understanding how people self-organize to achieve sustainable livelihoods, but also for understanding how local knowledge, practice, social organization, and landscape dynamically interact with broader-scaled environmental factors such as climate and political economy. This research also has relevance for defining the specific factors contributing to the recent decline in livelihoods-based fire management, a significant concern for forecasting future ecological conditions for the design of conservation policy.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection
Fire-related land management issues are global in scope and present a range of concerns and challenges from the conservation of biological diversity to human vulnerability and well-being. The proposed research will contribute a framework for modeling future fire management scenarios that can help design conservation policy that both draws from and is sensitive to the livelihoods, identities, and knowledge of local peoples.

Supplemental Keywords:

Historical ecology, pastoral fire use, anthropogenic fire, agro-pastoral livelihoods, land use/land cover change (LULCC),

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2011
  • 2012
  • Final