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Tropical countries with widespread poverty and corruption are less effective at protecting their forests from fire, conclude the authors of new research.

The study was led by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and will be published in the July issue of the journal Ecological Applications.

S. Joseph Wright and colleagues analysed satellite data from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) between 2002 and 2004.

They looked at the occurrence of fires in 823 tropical and subtropical forest reserves in 37 countries.

The background level of fires in moist forests is normally low, so fires are a good indicator of human activity — such as timber extraction, land clearing and conversion of land for agricultural use — and therefore of the effectiveness of park management in protecting reserves.

The researchers compared the rates of fire occurrence in protected areas with those in unprotected 'buffer zones' surrounding the reserves.

The rate of fire occurrence was also compared with poverty levels and political stability in the same countries, obtained using information from United Nations records, the civil society organisation Transparency International and the CIA World Fact Book.

Most tropical countries have reserves to protect their forests, but whether they can enforce boundaries and protect forest resources depends on their political and economic wherewithal, conclude the authors.

Reserves in Costa Rica, Jamaica, Malaysia and Taiwan are most effective at preventing forest fires and — as the authors point out — they are among the better-off and least corrupt of the countries in the study.

Poorer countries beset by corruption, such as Cambodia, Guatemala, Paraguay and Sierra Leone, were the least effective at preventing forest fires.

"This research is a first step towards a long-term monitoring of the effectiveness of national parks and other protected areas in controlling deforestation," Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa of the University of Alberta in Canada, one of the researchers, told SciDev.Net. 

He hopes that forest managers will use the research to evaluate the effectiveness of buffer zones around parks and as a tool for monitoring the environment.

"Developing countries have significant conservation needs. Not only from the point of creating parks but also from the point of view of monitoring their effectiveness," Sanchez-Azofeifa added.

The researchers have also created freely available online fire-detection records for 3,964 tropical reserves and buffer zones. They hope that researchers familiar with particular reserves will use the data to understand the causes of fires and so help to prevent them.