Ghana: Bushfires in Ghana (IFFN No. 15 – September 1996)

Bushfires in Ghana

(IFFN No. 15 – September 1996, p. 24-29)

“As far as the bushfires continue, the grasshoppers cannot congratulate each other”

A popular Dagomba Saying (Dagomba is one of the largest tribal groups in the Northern Region in Ghana.)


The issue of bushfire (wildfire) appears as a central theme in this report because bush burning is one of the challenging ‘man versus environment’ conflicts in Ghana. Burning is embedded in the cultural values and traditional farming systems of the people. The effects of bushfire on rural livelihoods and on the ecosystem in Ghana are increasingly becoming extensive and damaging. However, it has been difficult to reduce or completely eliminate bushfires.

The difficulties of eliminating bushfires completely means that there is need for a clear understanding of the causes and effects of bushfires so that bushfire policies can address the undesirable effects with respect to forestry, arable agriculture, rangeland, soil conservation and wildlife. Although bushfires have played some part in agricultural production and in accelerating environmental degradation especially in the fragile savanna ecosystem, this issue has largely been ignored in decisions affecting the environment compared to tropical deforestation and desertification which have received considerable attention in environmental discussions.

Like many hazardous phenomena which occur occasionally, bushfires which appear as headlines in mass media reports during the dry season seem to be forgotten when the risk disappears with the onset of the rains. Consequently, there is very little in the form of published data and information concerning the frequency, intensity, duration and effects of bushfire on the environment and human welfare in Ghana.

This factor undoubtedly undermines the country’s ability to prevent, control and completely eliminate bushfires in the fragile ecosystems which are threatened by drought and desertification.

Ghana: An Overview

Ghana, a former British colony in the West Coast of Africa has a land surface area of about 23.9 million km2. The population was just over 12 million in 1984 with an average density of 52 persons/km2. In 1995, the population was estimated to be 15.5 million with a growth rate of 3 percent per annum.

The country may be divided into six major ecological zones (Fig.1). However, for convenience and for the purpose of this paper, it may be categorised into two. These are the closed forest (high forest or closed canopy forest) zone covering about 34% of the country (8.22 million ha) and the savanna zone of an area 15.62 million ha or about 66% of the land area.

The closed forest is floristically very rich and diverse and contains a large reserve of commercial timber species. About 2/3 of the country’s human population and economic activities are concentrated in this zone. The savanna vegetation has evolved under conditions of annual bush fires, which has been increased by human activities. The vegetation consists of short grasses with scattered fire-tolerant trees. The closed forest and savanna ecosystems in Ghana continue to experience major biophysical environmental changes, which are generally degradational in character, and closely associated with production pressures including slash-and-burn agriculture, uncontrolled bush burning and hunting to meet the food and nutritional needs of the growing population. It is estimated that only about 2 million hectares of the closed forest, made up of about 1.7 million hectares within Forest Reserves and 0.3-0.5 million hectares outside the legally reserves forests, have not been modified through cultivation, bushburning, deforestation etc. The agricultural land forms about 57 per cent of the total land area of which about 18 per cent was cultivated in 1990 under slash-and-burn agriculture. In the last two decades, bushfire has become one of the most dramatic of the natural and anthropogenic forces which have shaped the biotic community. This is so especially in the fragile savanna regions where biodiversity has decreased and the existing vegetation has been destroyed, or disturbed by fire resulting from human activities such as agriculture, including livestock and hunting.

The socio-economic profile of the rural population in the northern savanna zone (few employment opportunities, high illiteracy rate, low household incomes and uncertainty of tenure) shows the causes which lead to bushfires or wildfires. The practice of bush burning is so deeply ingrained in the traditional farming system that trying to suppress it would mean cutting off the means of subsistence of small-scale farmers who do not have adequate funds to employ labour for land clearing.

Clearly, measures are urgently needed to control the use of fire to ensure maintenance of biodiversity, protect wildlife and habitat for and vegetation enhancement. This requires an understanding of the causes, effects and characteristics of bushfires in Ghana and strategies that can be adopted to prevent and control the effects of bushfires on the ecosystem.

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  Fig.1. Ecological zones of Ghana

Bushfires in the Forest Vegetation Zone:

Throughout Ghana, bushfires have exacted a heavy toll of death and unquantifiable suffering on people and animals and have adversely affected the environment. There are several factors which cause bushfires and villagers have good reasons for using fire. However, some of these fires if not properly controlled end up in causing serious damage. Although bushfires occur in the forest areas, they are not as frequent and extensive as in the Savanna Zone. In the forest zone bushfires are extensive in the outer margins of the forest where the drying effects of the Savanna conditions are felt most. This may be particularly the case where the soils are dry and desiccation is rapid.

Fire is widely accepted throughout the country as being a valuable tool in the management of natural vegetation, agriculture including livestock production and in other land use systems. In the past and even in some instances today hunters, herders, farmers and cigarette smokers are the primary recipients of blame for uncontrolled and indiscriminate bush burning. Many bushfires in the forest zone are deliberately started during the dry season. In many areas, farmers and hunters do so to facilitate access by men and animals. Many farmers use fire to reduce the fuel load or combustible litter in order to reduce the potential frequency and intensity of late dry season fires.

Foresters cause bushfires to maintain or achieve a plant composition which is optimal for a specific management objective. For example, in the Guinea and Sudan Savanna regions foresters and range managers cause bushfires to promote the growth of forage for livestock. Sometimes fire becomes a good management tool for facilitating and promoting the introduction of exotic species such as improved forage species into the vegetation. Most herders believe that bush burning improves the acceptability and nutritional value of trees and other species (e.g., grasses) for grazing and browsing.

Some farmers also burn in order to control dangerous animals, insects and pests. For example, it is used to destroy or control some pests and diseases (e.g. grasshoppers, ticks, locusts, anthrax) and livestock parasites which live and thrive on the vegetation. Fire is sometimes used to create conditions suitable for particular land use systems or to create a habitat for particular species, for recreational purposes or to promote tourism. Although there are good reasons for using fire as a tool if it is uncontrolled or set indiscriminately, its effects can be damaging. Burning in certain seasons of the year can be very destructive not only of vegetation but soil structure and composition, and it increases soil erosion.

In the forest ecosystem, fire is practically the cheapest means available for clearing slash and felled trees from fields to create a larger planting area for crops. Burning is essential for a good crop with minimum of labour. Farmers share the opinion that when the vegetation is burned, large quantities of nutrient-rich-ashes are deposited on the soil surface which provides the newly planted crops with the benefits of the biomass that has grown on the site. This observation is supported by studies which confirm the availability of nutrients (e.g., ash) for growing plants.

Bushfire in the Savanna Region:

In the Savanna region, soil and vegetation deterioration is caused by human activities especially bushfires. At the beginning of the dry season, herders often start fires to stimulate the growth of young shoots. According to herders, the regrowth or young offshoots are more palatable and contain more nutrients. Burning improves ranges because grazing animals frequently are found concentrated on burned areas where the herbage is more accessible, palatable and nutritious.

Studies have shown that farm fires which heat the soil to 200° C are actually beneficial because the increase nutrient availability to plants. However, temperatures in excess of 400° C are detrimental because they completely destroy the soil organic matter and reduce the cation exchange capacity. Fires which burn large tree trunks or destroy heaped plant material at confined spots often reach temperatures in excess of the threshold value resulting in serious damage to flora, fauna and neighbouring property.

However, bushfires causing volatilization of nutrients can reach extremely high temperatures, especially at the end of the dry season when vegetation is very dry. The effects can be damaging to soil structure and plant stability. A deterioration of the soil structure hinders the quick regrowth of plants and facilitates crust formation.

Burning of bush and grass in savanna occurs either spontaneously by lightning or often by man for agricultural purposes (e.g., to facilitate the growth of new grass for livestock) and for hunting. Bushfires are more extensive in the savanna where a number of factors are responsible for the frequency and extensiveness of the fires. The grasslands, by their geographic locations, have a prolonged dry period which extends from October-April which results in a more thorough drying up of vegetation and soils. The intensity of the sun is generally felt with sparse vegetation. Wind speed is generally high. The importance of grazing is particularly significant in this region. Therefore the need for fresh green grass leads to the tendency of herders to burn off dry and undesirable vegetation (grasses) and to promote the growth of pasture.

Hunting is also an important economic activity in the savanna ecosystems, and most hunters set fires to drive out game in hunting. In the forest ecosystem, indiscriminate bush burning has been one of the major factors in the change of forest to woodland, woodland into savanna and savanna to shrubland. The Sudan and Guinea grasslands are anthropogenic climax communities maintained by grazing, bush burning and crop cultivation, and they will revert to scrub and then woodland and forest if these controlling factors are removed.

In Ghana, using fire in hunting is mainly for meat. Therefore, problems arise from the lack of alternative sources of protein/meat and wildlife by-products. They also result from ignorance of better techniques of hunting.

Since meeting protein needs of households leads to misuse and abuse of fire, incentives should be given to individuals who engage in activities which promote livestock productive to produce more meat so as to reduce the pressure on wildlife.

Drought and Bushfires:

Climatic factors, especially rainfall, vegetation and wind speed play an important role in bush burning. Weather extremes and rainfall variability make the natural vegetation vulnerable to wildfires. Where the wet season is short, lasting only three to five months, and where potential evaporation exceeds rainfall for most of the year, the natural vegetation becomes vulnerable and gets destroyed by bushfires which occur annually. Thus, the Sudan and Guinea savanna areas in the country experience more extensive and frequent bush fires than the moist, humid rain forest zone.

In the semi-arid zone, drought often aggravates bushfire or triggers them off, although four human activities -slash-and-burn agriculture and shifting cultivation, livestock production and hunting – are the most immediate causes. In Ghana, bushfires are more extensive and widespread in the semi-arid savanna regions where the rainy season is short and rainfall variability is high.

Record of Bushfires in Ghana:

There are few records on bushfires, especially fires ignited by lightning in Ghana. Data on anthropogenically caused fires dating back to the pre-independence era are also lacking. However, records of bushfires in Ghana can be traced to the frequency of drought periods because most drought years are accompanied with widespread bushfires. Droughts have obviously been occurring since the beginning of the 19th century. However, it was only after 1970 that the problem of drought and associated bushfires came into the forefront of natural concern for the environment.

Available records show that during the 1982-83 harmattan season, about 35 per cent of crops were destroyed by bushfire. In 1984-85, about 145 bushfires were reported in the northern savanna zone alone. The crops most affected were rice and maize. The average size of farms affected was ca. 50 ha, with the largest covering about 10 ha.

Ghana experienced serious bushfires during the catastrophic Sahelian drought (1973-74) and again in the period 1984-1985. Available data on the 1984-85 bushfires in all the country’s ecological zones show clearly that the Guinea and Sudan savanna areas suffered the most impact with loss of vegetation, standing crops, farms, wildlife, habitat, human lives and property.

Bushfire legislation in Ghana:

The National Environmental Policy recognises past qualitative and quantitative deterioration in land cover (forest and savanna) and wildlife resources due to frequent and uncontrolled burning of bush. In recognition of the beneficial effects of fire as a management tool, especially in the traditional farming systems and the detrimental impacts which often accompany its abuse or misuse, legislative controls were introduced in 1983. In 1988, the National Environmental Action Plan (NEAP) was initiated to put environmental issues on the priority agenda. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also designed policy actions to prevent and control bushfires that cause significant or irreparable damage to habitat, flora, fauna and ecological balance.

Tab.1. Incidence of bushfires in Ghana (1984-85)

 Source: Environmental Protection Council

Anti-Bush Fire Law:

In 1983 an anti-bushfire law (PNDC Law 46), was promulgated to prohibit the setting of fires except for certain agricultural, forestry and game management purposes. The purpose of the law is to protect land cover, wildlife and habitats.

In 1984 a National Anti-Bush Fire Committee was established and charged with:

  • ensuring that government is informed and advised on all matters relating to prevention, control and fighting of bushfires;
  • to set up guidelines for the establishment and operation of regional, district, town and village Anti-Bushfire committees;
  • to provide technical advice to these committees; and
  • to monitor their activities and operations.

The importance of education and the responsibility of the various communities can not be over-emphasised. Despite these efforts, very little has been achieved in preventing and controlling bushfires because the beneficial uses of fire in agriculture to the individual far outweigh the harm it does to common property resources.

The Forestry Department, Environmental Protection Agency, the National Fire Service and the Community Fire Volunteer Squads lack resources to implement fire policies. In the past, it was difficult to implement fire prevention and control laws, because the 1983 Bush Fire Law did not entrust its execution to any specific government agency. The power and authority of traditional rulers who enforced local rules and regulations on the use of fire in the past has been reduced by education, modernisation and urbanisation. Thus traditional norms in the use of fire appear to have broken down under modernisation with damaging environmental consequences. The role of the Ghana National Fire Service as the training agency needs logistic support as well as incentives. Making laws forbidding the cutting and burning of bush is easy; however, stopping cultivators and hunters from burning is not. Therefore, the capacity of district and local institutions to deal with the problem of bushfire should be enhanced to enable local people enforce fire policies consistent with the national prospects for sustainable development.

In searching for ways of ameliorating bushfire problems, planners and decision makers must pay more attention to preventive measures rather than cure. Penalties for abusing fire prevention and control laws should be harsh to serve as a deterrent. Farming systems based on prescribed burning must be intensified in the country to reduce the hazard of bushfires. However, effective prevention and control of bushfires demand proper enforcement of rules and regulations by local people.

Two major policies can be pursued to address the problem of bushfires in Ghana. The first involves policies to reduce indiscriminate burning through community education and environmental awareness programmes. The second involves encouraging prescribed burning. Prescribed burning, however, appears to be the most promising and viable option in the long term because it allows local people to use fire in a beneficial way only.


There are many factors and causes of uncontrolled bush fires. Among the natural and anthropogenic causes of bushfires, it appears that human activities, especially in agriculture (including hunting and livestock production), are the primary causes of indiscriminate and uncontrolled bush fires in Ghana.

Although it is a fact that the Guinea and Sudan savanna areas are most threatened by widespread bush fires, the forest zone is also vulnerable during prolonged droughts. Therefore, policies, strategies and measures to prevent and control bushfires in Ghana should pay attention to both the savanna and forest zones with active support and commitment from local people.
In the past development planners too often tended to ignore local people in decisions affecting their environment and wellbeing. The ‘top-down’ approach must give way to the ‘bottom-up’ approach which insists that local people must be fully involved in deciding how to tackle the problem of bushfires.

In developing bushfire policy, the aim should be to burn for conservation purposes or to meet clearly defined objectives such as reclaiming unmanaged grassland or to prevent the invasion of grassland by trees and shrubs. However, the development of good fire policy and plans and their successful implementation will depend on a thorough knowledge of the area (i.e., biophysical, socio-economic etc) through research and also the support of local people.

From: K. Nsiah-Gyabaah

Bureau of Integrated Rural Development
University of Science and Technology

Note from the Editor:

This contribution by Dr. Nsiah-Gyabaah had to be shortened in order to meet the standards of IFFN reports. The full text of the paper which includes in-depth information on ecological conditions of Ghana as well as on the ecological effects of fires can be obtained from the author or from the Editor’s desk.

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