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Global decline in subsistence-oriented and smallholder fire use


Controlled fire use for hunting, gathering, smallholder agriculture and pastoralism shapes ecologies and enhances livelihoods worldwide. Yet, at global scale, we know little about how these practices influence human well-being, ecologies and wildfire risk. As a basis for global syntheses, we collated information from the literature about fire practices in 587 case study locations spanning the globe. Here, we assess the coverage and completeness of these data. Limited quantitative data, particularly, present a challenge for improved modelling of anthropogenic influences on fire regimes. We also analyse global trends in fire practices from these studies, finding evidence that subsistence-oriented fire practices have declined in recent decades, while market-oriented fire practices have increased. Implications of these changes can include reduced biodiversity in fire-dependent ecosystems, increased wildfire risk, reduced household income and loss of cultural identity. The case studies point to important drivers of changing fire practices, especially economic pressures and state governance.

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Fig. 1: Map showing case study locations in the LIFE database.
Fig. 2: Trends in market- and subsistence-oriented practices in the LIFE database.
Fig. 3: Completeness of LIFE database for selected variables.

Data availability

The full LIFE database and accompanying metadata are available on figshare at

Code availability

The R computer code supporting the analysis presented in this study and a file containing the subset of the LIFE database analysed using the code are available on figshare at


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We thank J. Millington for advice on quantitative aspects of the LIFE database. Our research was funded by Leverhulme Trust grant no. RC-2018-023 (C.S., O.P. and J.M.).

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C.S. and J.M. conceived of the research and the LIFE database. C.S. and O.P. conducted the literature review, data analysis and created the figures. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Cathy Smith.

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Nature Sustainability thanks Cynthia Fowler, Ole Mertz, James Welch and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information about literature searches and database metadata.

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Full results of binomial tests.

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Smith, C., Perkins, O. & Mistry, J. Global decline in subsistence-oriented and smallholder fire use. Nat Sustain 5, 542–551 (2022).

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