The matter of forest fires is urgent, even in Africa

My people where I come from have a saying that when the house is on fire, even the owner enjoys the warmth. This is to say that, despite the calamity, all is not lost.

The proverb is, however, often used in happier occasions. When, say, a bull is being feasted upon, its owner may summon the proverb in that artfully indirect manner of many an African idiom to self-deprecatingly welcome his amused guests. It adds to the cheer.

The saying came to mind with the news that our major forests in Africa, like those in South America’s Amazon, were also on fire. I thought that, if its literal meaning was to be applied to the shocking coast-to-coast blaze observed from space, it would have made for quite a cruel metaphor.

Images taken by the US space agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), showed the wildfires spanning the coast of Angola on the Atlantic Ocean through Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia to the Tanzanian coast on the Indian Ocean.

The images, taken last month over two days, recorded 6,900 fires in Angola and close to 3,395 in DRC, compared to 2,127 in the Amazon.

The scale of fires was surprising to many Africans, given that the continent did not seem to garner as much global attention as the Amazon.

This has to do with the causes of the fires, which explain the difference in scale and threat to the environment as scientists have long observed.

There is consensus that the cause of wildfires in the Amazon often is industrial-scale deforestation as farmers clear the forests to free up arable land to plant, for example, soya used in animal feed.

In contrast, the fire in Africa is applied in slash and burn farming, mostly in the less dense though extensive Miombo forests. The slash and burn is where every year at the end of the dry season, farmers set fire to the bush and use the ashes as fertilizer. This adds to the impact.

The European Space Agency estimates 25-35 per cent of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions come from biomass burning, which includes cooking and fires that are intentionally set to clear land for farming.

The majority of those fires occur in tropical regions of Africa, as the numbers above show.

The scale of greenhouse emission, however, is not at the level of the Amazon. The tropical forests of Africa have yet to see widespread deforestation driven by industrial-scale agriculture that is transforming parts of the Amazon.

Experts say this may be due, in a large part, to limitations in Africa of existing infrastructure and lack of access to global markets, the two main processes that drive large scale agricultural expansion elsewhere.

It is, however, acknowledged that our forests are not safe. Global economic forces could potentially change the current state of forests in the continent as countries in East Asia, particularly China, seek to expand trade relations with African nations.

It is also acknowledged that the slash and burn practices that need to be better managed. This includes stopping the current rates of deforestation on the continent.

Currently, some African countries are losing forest at a rate of about 2-3 per cent per year, in some countries much faster.

This needs to be stemmed. It, however, is not easy. Remember that forests also support communities, including indigenous communities who traditionally live in them, making it not just a matter of conservation and protection.

Efforts, therefore, should ensure that livelihood options, as well as economic opportunities for the local communities, are developed.

Such a project in Rwanda is training people in bee farming around Gishwati forest as an alternative economic activity. The beneficiaries are grouped in cooperatives in Nyabihu District to help them build alternative livelihoods to logging and animal rearing.

The complexity of the problems means that tackling the underlying causes of deforestation requires collaborative efforts. This is because, as The Economist observes, the processes that force climate change are built into the foundations of the world economy and of geopolitics.

This means that measures to check climate change have to be similarly wide-ranging and all-encompassing.

As is also becoming increasingly clear, the matter is urgent. 

Thus, among the aims of the UN Climate Change Summit that is starting on Monday in New York is to develop ambitious solutions for sustainable agriculture and management of forests and oceans, as well as resilience and adaptation to climate impacts.

As for my people’s proverb, our forests make our home bringing clean air, preserving natural habitats and biodiversity, and protecting our environment. Should they all burn down, I am not sure all would not be lost.

The views expressed in this article  are of the author.

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