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Media release

How should we burn our landscapes? : The question of fire abatement programmes for Africa

04 February 2013
Scientists, government officials, and fire managers will debate the pros and cons of introducing fire abatement programmes to the African continent during a meeting of the Southern African Fire Network (SAFNet) taking place at the Tanzanian Forestry Research Institute (TAFORI) in Morogoro from 5 to 7 February.
Often described as the fiery continent, Africa contributes about 50% of the global emissions of carbon from burning vegetation. Vast savanna grasslands cover about 70% of the continent and burn frequently.

This makes the continent an attractive option for fire abatement programmes that aim to provide rural communities the opportunity to generate carbon credits, which companies can then buy to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. In northern Australia savannah fire management is an approved offset methodology under the country’s Carbon Farming Initiative.

However, warns South African fire-ecologist Dr Sally Archibald, the question of when and how to burn can be quite a complicated matter, with far-reaching consequences for both the environment and rural communities. Archibald is a principal researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa, and regarded as one of the foremost specialists on fire ecology in the country.

It works as follows, she explains: the Australian program aims to burn more early-season fires, and less late dry-season fires. Early-season fires are smaller, burn less of the landscape and are less intense; so they burn less woody vegetation and release less carbon to the atmosphere. Moreover, this “patch-mosaic” burning pattern should improve the biodiversity of the Australian savanna, and can provide much needed fire management jobs for local people.

There are several reasons, though, why she thinks we should be tentative when considering such schemes for Africa: “In Africa, because most fires are lit by people, we already initiate many small, early season burns, so the mitigation potential of fire abatement programs might be totally over-estimated compared with Australia”. Seeking to optimise a single output, carbon sequestration in this instance over and above the broader livelihood benefits of these ecosystems require careful consideration.

In terms of local livelihoods, grassy savanna ecosystems provide important resources for cattle grazing, crops, building materials, wild foods and medicinal plants. In many regions African farmers are struggling to combat bush encroachment – which is a process by which woody species grow so thickly that they eliminate grass and reduce grazing potential. Large intense fires called ‘fire storms’ are one of the only tools farmers have to deal with bush-encroaching species, so fire abatement programs might be exactly the wrong thing to be doing,” she argues.

The ideal fire management approach probably depends on the particular management and conservation needs faced in different parts of Africa. With experts from Tanzania, Gabon, Mozambique and other African countries, Archibald will lead one panel discussion on this issue during the SAFNet meeting where the arguments for “fire storms” to combat bush encroachment, and “fire abatement programs” to promote carbon storage will be laid out. The aim is to develop recommendations for national strategies around fire management by providing balanced, relevant information to fire managers and policy makers about the pros and cons of fire abatement programs and fire storms in Africa.

Also under discussion will be the use of the Advanced Fire Information System (AFIS) as part of the EU-supported project on Africa Monitoring of the Environment for Sustainable Development (AMESD) and the use of Earth Observation data in general to support the implementation of operational fire management in various countries in Africa.

The Tanzanian minister of Natural Resources and Tourism, Hon Ambassador Sued Kahasheki will be opening the meeting which has representatives from 13 countries in Africa and Brazil and Germany.

Facts about fires in Africa

  • Wildfires in Africa make up about 70% (2,5 million km²) of the global burned area of about 4 million km2.
  • These fires are generally grass-fuelled fires, which means they are of fairly low intensity and do not burn a large amount of biomass.
  • The main extent of fires is in the seasonal savannas north, south, and east of the Congo Basin rainforests, but fires also occur in more arid systems in Africa and the Fynbos biome.
  • Fire in Africa is used as a management tool to control unwanted trees and promote productive grazing land.
  • People have been the dominant ignition source in Africa for thousands of years and currently light about 97% of the fires. Research suggests that while human ignitions have shifted the fire season earlier, the amount of land that burns each year is probably very similar to a lightning-driven fire regime.

Southern African Fire Network (SAFNet)

The Southern African Fire Network is one of several regional networks of Global Observation of Forest and Land Cover Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD). SAFNet’s goal is to foster collaborative efforts in fire monitoring and management in southern Africa and it is funded by and funded by the System for Analysis, Research and Training (START). For more information, see the websites at http://gofc-fire.umd.edu/ and http://safnet.meraka.org.za/

Advanced Fire Information System (AFIS)

Developed by the CSIR, AFIS is a satellite-based fire information tool that provides near real time fire information to users across the globe. See http://www.afis.co.za/

Tanzania Forest Research Institute (TAFORI)

The Tanzania Forestry Research Institute (TAFORI) is a national institution with the mandate of conducting, co-ordinating and promoting forestry research for sustainable forest management in the country. It aims to enhance socio-economic and environmental benefits to the present and future generations See http://www.tafori.org/.

 Africa Monitoring of the Environment for Sustainable Development (AMESD)

AMESD program addresses the need for improved environmental monitoring towards sustainable management of natural resources in sub-Saharan Africa. It aims to increase the information management capacity of regional and national institutions and to facilitate sustainable access to Africa-wide environmental information derived from Earth Observation technologies. See http://au.int/amesd/

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)

The CSIR is one of the leading scientific and technology research, development and implementation organisations in Africa. Constituted by an Act of Parliament in 1945 as a science council, the CSIR undertakes directed and multidisciplinary research, technological innovation as well as industrial and scientific development to improve the quality of life of the country’s people. See http://www.csir.co.za

Technical enquiries

Dr Sally Archibald
E-mail: sarchibald@csir.co.za
Tel: +2712 841 3487

Media enquiries
Tendani Tsedu
E-mail: mtsedu@csir.co.za
Tel. +2712 841 4326

Please note: Good quality photographs of typical African savanna fires are available on request.


Contact Person
Tendani Tsedu
Email: General and technical enquiries
Tel: +27 12 841 3417

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Last updated : 05 February 2013

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