Could forests in African tropics be burning more than Brazil?

When the wildfire engulfed part of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, a global outcry ensued. But new data now shows forests in the African tropics also catch fire

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Could forests in African tropics be burning more than Brazil?

When it comes to wildfires, the spotlight has been on Amazon or Australian forests which recently experienced massive bushfires. But data released by NASA this week shifts the attention to Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to NASA’s satellite images, the size of the forest fires in central Africa appears alarmingly large. It looks like a red chain, with fires extending from Angola across Congo and Mozambique to Madagascar, similar to the flames in Brazil’s Amazon that have triggered global outcry.

The NASA satellite is said to have detected 6902 fires in Angola and 3395 in Congo. However, in Brazil, 2127 fires were detected during the same period. According to this, Brazil ranked only third according to the current number of fires, said US media company Bloomberg.

But to some, fire is an essential part of the savannah.

“The first thing to know is that the impact of a wildfire depends more on where and what it is burning, than on how big it is, or indeed how many fires there are,” says ecologist Colin Beale.

Moreover, he says, fires are usually lit by cattle farmers as part of their traditional management of the savannahs where their animals graze. Some fires are started to stimulate new growth of nutritious grass for their animals, others are used to control the numbers of parasitic ticks or manage the growth of thorny scrub.

Mr. Colins makes a key observation, that around half of the grasslands of the Serengeti in Tanzania known worldwide for its safari animals and wildebeest migration burn each year.

His sentiments are shared by Angolan minister for environment Paula Francisca Coelho.

“What is currently happening in Angola are small slash-and-burn operations, mostly on arable land. These are traditionally carried out by the rural population to prepare the fields for the next season,” said Coelho.

Carbon emissions
But African wildfires regardless of size come with a costly phenomenon-Carbon emission. The explanation to this issue depends on who you ask. In 2016, authors of a science journal Nature Communications said that Africa’s tropical land released close to 6bn tonnes of CO2.

The emissions were blamed on substantial land-use change including deforestation and fires associated with agriculture. The journal also blamed “strong” El Niño as the major contributor of carbon emissions. El Niño is a natural phenomenon that periodically affects weather in many parts of the world. In the African tropics, it can cause unusually high temperatures and drought.

To others fires are a natural cycle in the Savannah because much of the vegetation that burns in the dry season grows back in the rainy one, he said.

“It’s a relatively carbon-neutral process, and it’s something that does happen every year, and in fact, what we see with the fire season is that it oscillates between northern tropical Africa and southern tropical Africa every six months or so,” says Mark Parrington a Copernicus researcher.

Nevertheless, for World leaders like president Emmanuel Macron African fires are something worth looking into just like the Amazon fire. G7 nations have pledged US$20 million on the Amazon, mainly on fire-fighting aircraft.

One of the countries that have openly sought for help to tackle wild fires is Madagascar. Fires razed more than 1,300 hectares (3,200 acres) of forestland in Madagascar’s Ankarafantsika National Park in August and September — four times the size of New York City’s Central Park.

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The park, in northwestern Madagascar, is home to the country’s fast-disappearing dry deciduous forests. Less than 5 percent of the country’s original dry forests survive today. The park also includes swamp forests and riparian forests that adjoin water bodies.

Farming activities
The fires have been associated with farmers who burn vegetation on arable land ahead of a planting season.

“Every year, around 120,000 hectares [297,000 acres] of forest disappear, mostly as a result of slash-and-burn farming,” Alexandre Georget, Madagascar’s environment minister, told Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. “If the destruction continues at this rate, Madagascar will be completely deforested in 40 years.”

The government has tried to educate farmers on the dangers of this practice with little success. Authorities are now arresting villagers burning land.

The government also plans to use security forces to fight fires in parks and other protected areas in Madagascar.

“Fighting fires is one of our priorities. We are calling on everyone who can help us, especially European countries,” Georget said in the interview with Deutsche Welle published in September. “We urgently need fire-fighting aircraft because, at the moment, we are unable to react quickly and effectively to fires.”

Fire Management
For Sally Archibald from Centre for African Ecology, School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, fire management is key in tackling frequent bushfires in Africa.

“Human impacts on fire regimes accumulated slowly with the evolution of modern humans able to ignite fires and manipulate landscapes, “She says.

“Modern fire management challenges involve balancing the needs of a large rural population against national and global perspectives on the desirability of different types of fire, but this cannot happen unless the interests of all parties are equally represented, “she adds.

Sally puts human activities at the centre of most fires in Africa especially the savannah fires.

“In Africa, ignition numbers increase fairly linearly with population density as humans start living in closer proximity to each other.

Ultimately, she says, when it comes to Africa, the focus should be shifted from how much burns, to how it burns to enable management plans that are feasible, and create more common ground for decision-making.

But with cultural practices on farming entrenched in Africa societies coupled with inadequate skills and equipment to fight the fires when they occur, the battle of wildfires in Africa could be far from being won.

Forest fire management strategies
According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the number and severity of forest fires are increasing in Africa and it is becoming more difficult to predict them. With support from the international community, countries are developing mitigation procedures for wildfires, the majority of which are caused by human activities.

But the fundamental question is how to advance and implement strategies that balance the technical aspects of fire suppression with those related to human causes.

African countries need to put into practice efficient technologies and management systems for fire detection and suppression. Many others have achieved encouraging results through participatory fire management schemes or schemes that incorporate both aspects.

FAO’s checklist for participatory fire management activities suggests, among others, the supply of necessary firefighting tools to the local fire units and training the local fire units in prescribed burning.