In December 2022, James Kaberuka lost his sugarcane plantation after a bush fire swept through a nearby savanna grassland used for cattle grazing in Northern Uganda. The four acre sugarcane plantation was his only source of income.
‘‘The dry season comes with losses almost every year because of the bush fires. The wildfire allegedly started several kilometers away from my plantation but it eventually reached here and burnt down everything,’’ says Kaberuka who resides in Uganda’s Kyeya village in Kikuube district.
Uganda’s Kaberuka is not alone.
Across the world, wildfires are causing damage to ecology and people, as they ravage through forests, after being triggered due to human and climate factors.
Last year, forest fires in Corrientes, a province in north-east Argentina damaged 9% of pastures and farms which were the mainstay of the province, while in Brazil’s Amazon forest, the 2020 forest fires killed 17 million animals. In 2015, a wild fire destroyed medicinal trees, animals and insects, and impacted soil texture in Nigeria’s Cross River State.
In this collaborative story, authors bring in the impacts and gaps in policies from across four countries–Nigeria, Uganda, Brazil, and Argentina. Across these four countries, instances of wildfires have increased sharply. According to statistics of Global Forest Watch, in 2021, Brazil lost 596 hectares of tree cover, Nigeria 178 hectares, Argentina 33.6 kilohectares, and while Uganda lost 3 hectares, its highest was in 2013 when it lost 96 hectares.
“Wildfires and climate change are a vicious circle,” states WWF’s Planet in Flames report published in 2020. Dr Nicholas Mukisa, a climate change expert in Uganda’s ministry of minerals and energy development, agrees. “Notably, wildfires are not necessarily directly attributed to climate change, however, the impacts of climate change such as long dry season periods catalyze the likeliness of these fires,” he says.
WWF’s report outlines how this relationship between forest fires and climate change is also reinforcing. As the number and extent of forest fires increase, so do greenhouse gas emissions, and the overall temperature of the planet.
WWF also claims that risk periods have lengthened, and even those areas that were previously fire free are starting to burn.
“We used to say that the fire season in Córdoba was from March to December. That no longer exists,” said Julián Guzmán, a firefighter from Argentina’s Córdoba.
Now, Guzmán explains, it’s more difficult to limit the forest fires to this season as they occur throughout the year.
While the contexts and geographies differ, the disastrous wildfires are united by common factors across these countries–the additional trigger of climate change, lack of resources to fight the fires, and dismal implementation of policies to manage the fires. Meanwhile, the major brunt of the damages faced by wildfires is faced by those living in close proximity to the forests, whose lives and livelihoods are closely intertwined with it.
The climate problem
In communities across the world, controlled fires are a part of changing agricultural cycles. In Uganda, for instance, fires are set to clear vegetation for cultivation, or to get fresh pasture for their animals. There are also cultural beliefs that fire brings rain.
Similarly in Brazil, the communities that grow cassava have a hard choice to make.“If they burn the field at the time that they used to [middle and second half of the year], then the risk of fire increases due to the months being dry,” said Katio Ono, advisor for the Socio-environmental Institute (ISA) in the Xingu Indigenous Territory, Mato Grosso. “But if they delay it, they put the following year’s food at risk. Now, studies are on to learn how to deal with this situation.”
A Brazilian indigenous teacher, Bruce Kuikuro, explained that fire had always been a part of the community’s routine–to burn the fields, to roast fish, to make pequi oil. Despite all the wisdom on how to use fire, in recent years the way they handle the material has changed. “In the old days we didn’t even bother, we used to start a fire around two in the afternoon and then it would go out by itself, it wouldn’t spread. Now, when we cultivate our fields, we have to talk to the community, put it out, clean everything so that it doesn’t turn into a fire,” Kuikuro explains. According to him, the number of farms around the indigenous territory and deforestation have contributed to the change in the behavior pattern of fire on their land.
Keeping in mind the importance of fire, Brazil’s Katio Ono says, “We are careful not to demonize fire as an agent of the landscape. The traditional communities have been telling us that there is a modification in the landscape since the 2000s, but we can’t tell if it is due to global climate change or adjacent deforestation.” In Brazil, the policies established by the Bolsonaro government are also considered factors that have contributed to a more uncontrolled form of fire use in the country.
Climate change too, has played a role in changing the landscape to trigger more wildfires in Uganda. “People no longer have pasture for their livestock due to the changing climate, and they have resorted to bush burning. The change in rain patterns has seen people ensure long spells of dry season,” says Christopher Baguma, natural resources conservation officer in Uganda’s Kakumiro district. “The biggest challenge is that people are losing their source of livelihood like plants and animals during bushfires,’’ says Baguma, highlighting that in communities already vulnerable to climate change, wildfires worsen the vulnerability.
Where forest fires are a common fare, and only becoming more intense, what kind of policy mechanism do these four countries have to manage it?
Wildfire policies–and lack of implementation
Of the four countries from where this story was reported, three have government policies that lay down the framework to tackle forest fires. In Brazil, a Bill for the Brazilian Integrated Fire Management Policy was introduced in 2018 to regulate use of fire and prevent forest fires. If passed, it would make this a national policy. Such programs could lead to optimistic results: a 2014 pilot integrated fire management program, implemented by government arms Ibama and ICMBio in three conservation units in Tocantins led to a 57% reduction in burned areas.
However, experts point out that all aspects of forest fires need to be acknowledged in policies. “When we talk about fire in Brazil, we have to address two lines. One is to combat the ignition sources of fire, to combat deforestation. The other point is directed to the management and use of fire,” explains Ane Alencar, science director at the Brazil-based Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM).
According to her, to tackle the forest fire issues in Brazil it is necessary to think of policies to reduce deforestation and improve fire management in native vegetation areas.
In Argentina, five national laws were created to prevent wildfires. But experts say that their implementation is limited. This is because every Argentinian province can adopt its own laws in accordance with the national legislation, but many times, the province’s laws do not comply with the national ones.
A larger problem is that environmental crimes are not included in Argentina’s penal code. This means that those who might be damaging ecosystems and biodiversity with forest fires cannot be punished by judges.
In Nigeria, the situation is the opposite. Section 445 of the Criminal Code Act in Nigeria criminalizes starting a fire, and calls for imprisonment for seven to fourteen years for setting fire to any standing trees, saplings, or shrubs under cultivation.
However, activists from Nigeria shed light on the minimal use of this law.
“Fires, in the forest, are mostly used for agricultural purposes but most times, these fires stretch beyond the corridors of the farm and end up destroying other crops. There have never been any formal penalties publicly declared to these offenders,” says Dr. Emmanuel Bassy, climate change activist and crop science lecturer.
“Because offenders keep getting away with offenses, it has become a pseudo-consciousness that we can do whatever we like and nothing happens.” Dr. Emmanuel Bassy, climate change activist and crop science lecturer.
In 2010, Uganda enacted a disaster policy which categorizes bush fires as a hazard, amongst other causes of fires. Amongst actions, the policy suggested “severe punishment, bye-laws and ordinances to stop bush burning practices” must be instituted. More than ten years since the disaster policy, Ugandan climate change expert Mukisa says the policy has not been effectively implemented by the government.
While the four countries are at different paces with their forest fire policies, a common implementation challenge to all was the lack of financial and human resources to fight the fires.
While forests burn, countries struggle with financial resources
Most firefighting in Brazil and Argentina is volunteer based, which tends to put the volunteers in danger. “In Brazil, the brigades are not public servants, but are hired for the period. But they have life insurance, training, and equipment. Although it is not super structured, it exists. In the case of volunteer brigades, there is no salary payment, no life insurance,” says Katia Otio. Of 114 such brigades working in Mato Grosso, 63% are temporary. Financing is a challenge, which involves not only hiring people, but financing equipment such as cars, fuel, data analysis intelligence, among others. “The investment value depends on the region, but can reach 900 thousand reais (USD 200,000) per year,” said Caroline Nóbrega, PhD in ecology and general manager of the Brazil-based Earth Alliance.
In Argentina, a source who preferred to remain anonymous said that in some provinces, firefighters are often unemployed, unable to find jobs due to the frequency and duration of wildfires that may last days or weeks. In some fire stations, it is difficult to keep firefighters motivated since they do not have a formal, full-time job.
Within Argentina, Córdoba is the only province that combines both volunteers and full-time firefighters. The civil defense fund also provides grants to volunteer firefighters’ stations that act as economic incentives.
Nóbrega also explained that many times, the government arms responsible for fighting fires do not have the expertise to carry out the fire prevention and control actions. In Brazil, for instance, case in point are the state environment secretariats who do not possess this expertise.
Working with Communities
Added to these challenges of limited resources and threat to safety is the problem of inaccessible geographies where most forest fires occur, like the Amazon of Brazil and Argentina, and tropical rainforest in southern Nigeria. Here, quick response and action are key to mitigate the fire, but is immensely challenging to carry out.
In this situation, working with local communities comes in handy.
In Brazil, since 2009, the NGO Aliança da Terra started working to help rural producers to deal with forest fires and created the Aliança brigade, in a training partnership with the United States Forest Service (USFS). More brigades started involving indigenous people, and women in particular. According to Gleicevani Inês who has worked with indigenous brigades for the last two years, the fires in the region decreased after the brigades were formed. “In the beginning, there was fire everywhere, in the whole Cerrado. After the brigade was created, the people who set fires became a little afraid,” she says.
Besides working in the brigades, Gleice learned to understand the dynamics of fire in the region where she lives and knows how to differentiate the impact of fire in the forest area and in the Cerrado region.
Indigenous groups in Brazil also create firebreaks to not dry out the soil so much, while some create rings in places without vegetation to prevent the fire from entering the forest areas. Where plants are also burned to create roofs in Xingu, adaptation works are in process to find other ways of burning thatch that could spread to raging fires. One of the solutions found was to replace the sap with palm straw. “It is an indirect adaptation to the effects of fires,” says Katia.
In Nigeria, with support from an NGO, Small Mammal Conservation Society, the Olum community has enacted a local by-law to fine or imprison anyone who sets fire in the forest without permission. Subsequently, they mounted a weather station to check to determine the period of rainfall. By this, they could inform farmers, who regularly do bush burning to clear their farms, of the period when they could set the bushes on fire.
Managing the Future of Fires
Africa and South America will continue to be face to face with the threat of forest fires in years to come. “In the long term, we have to understand what the role of climate is, because we have a change in the climate pattern, with more extreme and longer drought events. And consecutive years would be warmer,” says IPAM’s Ane Alencar.
With NASA calling Africa a “fire continent” that was home to 70% of all forest fires in the world in 2019, and South America witnessing its record high wildfire activity in 2022, supporting forest fire mitigation ought to be the need of the hour.
Considering that many forest fires are generated by people, Argentinian Head of Civil Defense Vignetta highlights the need to involve the communities by making them more aware of the consequences their actions can have in a warming climate.
Mukisa adds, “It is very important to conduct awareness and sensitization campaigns on the impacts of wildfires and their management. Institutions regulating wildfires should be established across the continent to ensure that efficient response and action is taken whenever there is an occurrence of a wildfire.’’
As the planet continues to warm, forest fires would only increase in frequency and intensity. Dealing with them and mitigating them would need policies, financial and human resources, and awareness amongst communities.