The spectacular devastation of the bushfire
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CTA. 1989. The spectacular devastation of the bushfire. Spore 23. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/45128
Bushfires are an age-old scourge. Even in 2500 BC a Carthaginian king noted in his travel diary the existence of farm-fires in West Africa. In those days and up till quite recently they did not cause too much damage environmentally. Population...
Bushfires are an age-old scourge. Even in 2500 BC a Carthaginian king noted in his travel diary the existence of farm-fires in West Africa. In those days and up till quite recently they did not cause too much damage environmentally. Population density was low, and fires were unknown over vast expanses of land. The fields which were burned off had years of fallow in which to regain their fertility. Nowadays, there are many more mouths to feed, and shifting cultivation is limited by lack of space. Thus fields have to be burned off every year, which has grave consequences for the vegetation and for the whole environment. However, these are not immediately apparent - despite the impression of desolation given by the landscape which is charred for six months after the fire, the plant cover does then grow again. Michel Malagnoux, research scientist at the Centre Technique Forestier Tropical (Tropical Forest Technicai Centre) CTFT /CIRAD, says: 'In setting a light to, or refusing to put out, a fire, the peasant farmers are endangering their own environment. Even if it seems that nature takes over again soon after a fire, in reality there is a heavy price to pay.' Fires operate a sort of 'jungle law' in the plant world. They destroy perennial plants, grasses, young shoots and ageing trees. Strong mature trees may survive, but natural regeneration is impaired. Those trees which do survive will fall prey to the first stress which occurs (drought, disease, another fire), and will die without propagating themselves. Fires are very selective Fire is additionally selective in a way which is less obvious to the untutored eye but nonetheless just as serious, in that - by killing off the most vulnerable - it limits the number and variety of plant species which are vital for a balanced environment. A variety of species ensures protection against different threats. Some plants are insecticidal, others protect themselves with their thorns against animals, others need very little water or can exist in high levels of salinity. Also, even if plants have survived fire, they will be far less resistant to other scourges such as drought, disease, or pests, and so all plant life may be lost In the countries most at risk from these fires those concerned are not unaware of the hidden delayed effects of bushfires. Widescale campaigns to counteract them have been mounted, especially the creation of fire-breaks. These are corridors of varying width where all vegetation has been removed in order to stop fire spreading. This technique, however, is costly and, as yet, little used Law versus tradition In Mali Togo, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania it is completely forbidden to light fires yet the bush still burns. Burning is a tradition, which the forest authorities find it hard to stop: shepherds fire the grass to promote its growth; beekeepers smoke their hives so they can collect honey without being stung - and sometimes hundreds of hectares burn for the sake of a few kilos of honey; hunters set light to the bush to flush out game. Fire is also part of religious and social ritual. The Water and Forestry Departments find themselves fighting both local traditions and the fires themselves. Forestry agents who go round collecting fines often meet with passive resistance, as villagers will club together to find the amount of the fine - and thus pay to perpetuate their own customs. This is why other countries, such as Senegal, use methods more in tune with local traditton. They advocate an 'early' firing system whereby the vegetation is burned early on in the dry season, so that any later fire finds the vegetation resistant, less dry and much stronger having developed natural defences. Unfortunately if this method is not carefully controlled, whole villages can burn accidentally. To Michel Malagnoux 'the best and most realistic solution is neither a total ban on fires nor 'early' firing. Each grower must be in total control of his own fires, and catch them in time before plant life is completely destroyed and before they spread to other people's fields' This solution would entail some restructuring of land rights and the law of ownership, which is an enormous task, but necessary if farmers are to feel they are truly responsible for their own land. In the meantime everyone - small farmers, academics, government authorities - must develop patterns of thought and action which will protect the environment.