Located between 6°30’-12°30’N and 1°00’-3°40’ E, Bénin is a small country situated in West Africa with an area of 112 622 km². It has a total population of about 5.5 million inhabitants. Sixty-five percent of the country is covered by vegetation dominated by savannah woodland (9 percent) and tree savannah and shrub (56 percent). The country straddles three main climate zones: a tropical coastal Guinean climate in the south part (6°30’-8°00’N) with two rainy seasons. The northern part is tropical Sudano-Guinean (8°00’-9°00’N) climate and Sudanian (9°00’-12°00’N) climate with one rainy season. These last two zones represent more than 70 percent of the total area of the country. This percentage is more or less the same for most countries in West Africa and constitutes the ideal environment for wildfires.
Fire environment, fire regimes, the ecological role of fire common to the country
In Bénin, and particularly in the northern part of the country, burning represents a cultural tradition, which is not easy to overcome. Used as a work tool generally by rural populations, fires serve for land clearing for agricultural purposes, pasture management for breeding, and animal tracking for hunters. These practices are common to most countries in West Africa covered by dry forests, or savannah from Guinea to Nigeria. Concerning Bénin, it has been noted that 95 percent of wildfires in forestland are human-caused. The habitual period for lighting fires is between November and May. The majority of damaging fires are observed from January onwards, due to the high temperatures during this period (30 to 35 °C) and also to the influence of the hot and dry Harmattan winds flowing from North to South between December and March. However, the importance of fire varies from one zone to another. Therefore, the area situated above the latitude 8°15’ N in Bénin is more exposed to wildfires, mainly because of cotton and yam production. These two crops require high soil fertility and more space, so farmers clear new forestland each year.
Narrative summary of major wildfire impacts on people, property, and natural resources during the 1990s
The most important impacts of wildfire are ecological. In fact, for a long time, and particularly in the latest decade, increasing occurrence of wildfires has devastated and reduced the area of forest lands and caused the disappearance of sensitive species, exposure of soils to wind and water erosion, and destruction of wildlife habitats. In Bénin, because of the high proportion of dry forest lands, about 75 000 km² of forestlands are exposed to fires each year. In 1991-1998, there has been an increase of agricultural land and reduction of forest and woodlands area as shown in Table 1. In the same time, there has been an increase of about 30.96 percent of fuel-wood and charcoal production (FAO 2000). These situations are mainly favored by fires used for clearing and shifting cultivation.
Tab.1. Change of forest area between 1990 and 1998
Area (in 1000 ha)
Main annual increment
Forest and wooded lands
* Available data for 1994 Source: FAO (2000)
The economic and social impacts of wildfire concern the destruction of living conditions and harvests (cotton, yam, maize, sorghum, etc.) in rural land. Also, the perturbation of fruit production of spontaneous and planted species occurs which represents an important income. Such food sources include Vitellaria paradoxa, Parkia biglobosa, Anacardium occidentale, and Adansonia digitata. Besides these impacts, the annual loss of wood products, medicinal plants, wildlife, nuts, wild fruits, and honey is high but could not be quantified.
Operational fire management organizations and fire database
Since bush fires are one of the main causes of land desertification and the degradation of natural resources, several governments in Bénin have supported fire control projects. At present four major government organizations take an interest in wildfire problems:
Direction of Forests and Natural Resources (DFRN). This institution is decentralized at province (or department) and commune (district) level. The main tasks of this organization, through forest projects, concern the monitoring of fires events, organizing local populations, and development of tools for fire prevention and suppression, mainly in the state forests (natural forests and plantations).
Regional Centre of Action for Rural Development (CARDER). This agency is the equivalent of the Ministry of Rural Development at the province level. It is decentralised at the commune and village levels and has the same mission as DFRN. The main difference is that this organisation is connected to the local level and takes into account all forestlands (state forests and other ownerships). It directs the activities of Local Fire Committees and provides information to rural populations through networks at the local level.
Forest Research Unit (URF) of the National Institute for Agricultural Research of Bénin (INRAB). The main activity of this organisation concerns the development of strategies and tools for sustainable management of forestlands by providing scientific information to the users concerned.
Bénin Environment Agency (ABE). Its wildfire activity is focused on the dissemination of information.
Outside these organisations, some Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are also focused on the fire problems. However, their activities are very marginal compared to the importance and frequency of wildfires.
All these organisations are facing common problems: lack of coordination of efforts and actions, low resources and reliability for monitoring and evaluation, and insufficient resources (financial, materiel, and human) for wildfire and forest fire projects. A statistical database of the country is not available.
Very few fire research projects are present in Bénin today. There is one project concerned with diagnosing the impacts of fires on natural regeneration; and developing a reliable schedule by agro-ecological zones for the use of early burning for forest management.
Use of prescribed fire in the region to achieve management objectives
Taking into account the socio-economic situation of Bénin, it has been apparent for some time that absolute forest protection against bush fires in dry forests, although possible, will eventually cause an undesirable accumulation of combustible material; and may increase the risk of diseases and insects. Therefore, early burning is prescribed in order to reduce the combustible material with least damage to tree growth and natural regeneration. The philosophy of this practice is that the early burning (burning at the end of rainy season) is the best tool to prevent destructive wildfires during the critical dry season. The practice of early burning is widely used in Bénin as well as in many countries in West Africa.
The recent research result from Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Bénin suggest that early burning in dry forestlands has positive impacts on natural regeneration, tree growth, and the regulation of the density of harmful insects and parasites.
Sustainable land-use practices to reduce wildfire hazards and wildfire risks
The construction of firebreaks and fuelbreaks is an important practice. However, due to the high costs involved, this practice is mainly used to protect plantation forests and agricultural lands. Breaks are produced by roads, paths, or planting vegetation strips, e.g. two or three lines of Gmelina arborea around Tectona grandis plantations in South Bénin, or the use of Mucuna altilis as cover vegetation in Anacardium occidentale orchards in North Bénin.
Also, agro-forestry practices are promoted in which crop production, forestry objectives, and the creation of pasture zones for breeders and nomadic herders are combined.
In addition to these practices, Local Fire Committees have been created in the villages for fire prevention, detection, and suppression in collaboration with forest rangers and local agricultural officers.
Public policies concerning fire
For a long time, wildfires in Bénin have been considered a major problem for environmental stability. Since the colonial period, many laws have been initiated to regulate fire use by populations. The most recent legislative acts are Law N° 93-009 of 2 July 1993 (Articles N° 56 and 57) and Decree N° 96-271 of 2 July 1996 (Articles N° 76 to 79) which stipulate that the setting of bush fires is forbidden in the whole country except for the use of early burning to prevent wildfires. Modalities for early burning, particularly the time period, have to be defined each year by a joint decision of responsible ministries.
The problem with this legislation is that the laws concern populations that are largely illiterate and poor. The second difficulty concerns the lack of materials and human resources for informing populations about the law and training them on the prescribed methods to manage fires. These are the major constraints of implementing policies that address wildland fires in Bénin.
Agbangla, D. Gaétan et al. 1983: Les feux de brousse en Côte d’Ivoire en 1983: Cas de la région d’Oumé – Conséquences et méthodes de lutte. Mémoire d’étude de l’IAB/Bouaké, 98 pp.
CIPC/FAO 1991. Projet de gestion des ressources naturelles renouvelables: mission de préparation. Textes principales et annexes 1-5. Rapport 16/91-CP-BEN 31 du 8/2/1991.
FAO 2000. FAOSTAT Statistical database 2000.
Ingen, T.V., and G. Oloni. 1991. Gestion et contrôle des feux de brousse. FAO/BENIN, Document de Travail, pp. 12-26.
Korem, A. 1985: Bush fire and agriculture development in Ghana. Ghana Publishing Corporation, pp. 35-90.
Ministère du développement rural et de l’action coopérative. 1991. Présentation du projet d’aménagement des bassins versants et lutte contre les feux de brousse. Projet PNUD/FAO/BEN/85-006, 33 pp.
Ministère du plan, de la restructuration économique et de la promotion de l’emploi. 1997. Etude de la filière bois au Bénin. Rapport final. SIECGWVL/Bénin Consulting Group, 163 pp.
Sirois G.P.G. 1984. Protection contre les feux de brousse et les incendies forestières. FAO/BEN/81/003, 67 pp.
Tandjiékpon, A., and Z. Yacoubou. 1996. Rapport d’évaluation scientifique des essais vitrines sur les feux de brousse dans le département du Borgou. Premier rapport-synthèse de consultation. URF/CARDER-Borgou/BOAD.
Tandjiékpon, A., and Z. Yacoubou. 1997. Rapport d’évaluation scientifique des essais vitrines sur les feux de brousse dans le département du Borgou. Deuxième rapport-synthèse de consultation. URF/CARDER-Borgou/BOAD.
Tandjiékpon, A., and Z. Yacoubou. 1997. Influence of bush fires on the dynamics of dry forest: the case of degraded forests in North Bénin. Proceedings of International Symposium on Assessment and Monitoring of Forest in Tropical Dry Regions. IUFRO/CNPQ/GTZ/Universidade de Brasilia, Novembre 1996.
Unité de recherches forestières. 1990. Rapport annuel de recherches forestières du Bénin, pp.1-8.
André M. Tandjiékpon
Forest Research Unit
06 BP 707 Cotonou