The Culture of Fire on Southern Africa on Example of Lesotho and Madagascar An Interim Report of the Working Group Forest Technology
(IFFN No. 23 – December 2000, p. 50-54)
At the stage of writing this report two countries returned the questionnaires which was circulated to GTZ projects in Southern Africa. Thus, this report is restricted to Lesotho and Madagascar (50% of the island) and a short description for Kenya.
The discussion about pros and cons of fire has and is continuing over the decades and still there is no general answer. One of the difficulties for this is, which indicators should be used for evaluation (forest area, growing rate, income etc.), perhaps biodiversity is the best indicator. Concerning this, Pyne (1995) wrote aptly: “ Biodiversity can be lost as surely through fire exclusion as through fire excess”.
The contemporary world fire situation is changing dramatically. Two elements have worked to upset any systems. One is climate, the other humanity. The trends are alarming; fire, climate and humanity have begun to interact in new ways. The rapid growth rate of population in the African countries increases dramatically the frequency of fire. This is not a question of a natural process but it is anthropogenic interference into nature. New fire climax vegetation will be created and frequently the degeneration chain will start into progress, especially where the grassland is diminishing.
Fire is a powerful tool in the hands of the farmers. It should not be forgotten that the livestock is the central element in their culture. The last area of the land is sacrificed for the animals. With regular fires the grass will be regenerated faster and succession to shrub land will be interfered with. The forest is the loser. Today in Lesotho, the forest covers only 0.2% of the country and the last forest area will disappear in 15 to 20 years if the present deforestation rate will not slow down.
It is not surprising that wildfire will be seen in the most forest projects as an obstacle. Unfortunately, it is impossible to avoid fire, both the natural as well as the human causes of fire cannot be eliminated.
The intensity and hazard of a forest fire is determined by the weather conditions and the type of vegetation. These already vary strongly on a small area (ecological zone in one country) and regionally the differences are more apparent. Therefore, it is not the task of the report to compare the differences but highlights the common characteristics.
Additional obstacles in the compilation of this article are that no statistical surveys on wildfires are available. But this could be a common problem for most African countries. Therefore, the information presented here for Lesotho and Madagascar (only 50% of the islands) has to be handled with care.
However, Kenya is an exception, as there is some statistical data available (Uvoo 1996). The average area annually affected by fire in last five years (1991-96) reveals that 2,697 ha plantations, 1,378 ha natural forests, and 4,929 ha grassland were affected by fire. The figures for grassland were perhaps underestimated, because the ratio between forest and grassland area is usually around 1 : >10.
Climate and vegetation
The two countries are located within the latitudes 30°S and 15°S. The regional climate features are marked by dry periods in winter and strong westerly winds. The humid summers favour the biological degradation process (humification) so that no tremendous quantity of dead material accumulates in grassland.
Tab. 1. Climate conditions of Madagascar and Lesotho
1000 mm – 1500 mm
> 3000 mm
600 mm – 900 mm
Highland in NW
(altitude > 2 000 m in NW)
1 200 mm
April – November
April – September
El Niño influence
Max. daily Temperature
In both countries there are favourable climatic conditions for natural forest fires especially in the dry period during the winter. The frost-killed material makes an excellent fire bed.
Also the initial vegetation form of Lesotho “picturesque patches of small trees and shrubs” (Staples 1938) can be explained with the high rhythms of recurring fires. However, the grassland is today the dominating vegetation form. The forest occupies 25% of the territory of Madagascar and less than 1% in Lesotho. The natural succession would allow the formation of shrub land. However, grazing and fire are preventing this development.
The adaptation of vegetation to fire is reflected in the formation of extensive climax form and they have local terms.
Tab. 2. The usual local names
Both countries have plantations in order of 5,000 to 10,000 ha. In Lesotho 5,500 ha are distributed over 400 locations.) In the plantations the highest losses by wildfires are to be expected, but unfortunately, there are no statistical data.
Forest and grass fires are occurring regularly during the dry period. The affected area per fire varies below 100 ha in Madagascar and below 10 ha in Lesotho. The reason for the small burned area in Lesotho is that this country offers a special superlative. The intensity of grazing by livestock is so high that the germinated vegetation will be browsed immediately. No accumulation of dead material takes place. Therefore, extensive fires are not possible because of lack of fuels. Nevertheless the few afforestation areas are endangered because these areas will be less grazing and dead material will accumulate. In addition fire will be frequently started to restore grassland.
The wildfires are marked generally by a low intensity. There is no acute threat for population. The fires would be able to get easily under control. Correspondingly, the material damage in the wild land is negligible, in the villages or towns the fences are often burned. The burnt area in plantations and the losses cannot be estimated. However, it is to be assumed that the highest losses occur in plantations.
Lightning as a cause of fire can be neglected under the current situation, in Lesotho, too. The vast majority of fires are caused by people, the reason can be grass renewal, country quarrels or negligence by the campfires from herd boys.
The legislation sets up the basis for the prevention of wildfires and is in place in Madagascar. The villagers are involved in the protection of forest (Gestion Locale Sécurisée). By contrast, the context in the Forest Act (1998) of Lesotho covers that fires in woodlots are forbidden and the responsible person has to pay a fine for damage caused.
In practice control of wildfires is not actively pursued. There are neither fire brigades nor voluntary units, only ad hoc groups are formed to protect of estates (fence, building). The reaction of people to wildfire is that of indifference because the flames come slowly and with low intensity, the danger is not really appreciated. The fire is never felt as a real threat. Maybe this is the reason why fire control issues is not taken very serious.
The field was neglected up to now. There is no information about fires, affected areas, extend of damage. In this way, no cost benefit analysis can be carried out.
Social Forestry in the context of fire
In Lesotho, transfer of the government forests to the communities has been intensely discussed over the past three years, but there has been no actual transfer. Also Madagascar gives too few examples, which can confirm that the transfer of forest to communities changes the attitude of villagers to forest. In such cases protection is realised and the crucial changes can be manifested through fewer fires, lower losses, demand in training courses etc.
Today in afforestation losses by fire occupy the third place in the losses ranking after browsing and damages through dryness. If the browsing problem will be solved, the losses by fire will be occupied the first position.
The extensions service gives advice to the villages about fire risk and prevention measures. But the reaction of farmers is sporadic: sometimes fuel breaks are constructed (Madagascar) or pruning is done at two meters height (Lesotho). However, the prevention measures are labour intensive and expensive. Therefore an immediate change cannot be expected.
The importance of ownership maybe not be immediately understood in this context. However a different situation could be realised where by individual ownership of grazing land was to be effected. The reliance of livestock owners on commoner’s land breeds a culture of non-responsibility on the protection of that area. Overgrazing and damage by fire are not under any ones control as a result.
Perspective for Social Forestry
To achieve success in forest preservation and in afforestation two problems must be resolved. One is range management, the other wildfire. It is a difficult task, which cannot be solved by forest administration alone. In Lesotho, in order to strengthen range issue the “Range Management Department” was found, but its successes so far more localised.
The second topic, the wildfire issue was neglected up to now by the forestry administration and has to be introduced in the extension service. The target group needs to be sensitised on these issues. In the case of higher state of knowledge some favourable prevention measures can be introduced successfully. The Silvopastoral System offers a very attractive and a work extensive form to reduce the fuel in forest.
To explain the control of fire the “fire triangle” (oxygen, fuel, temperature) is used. If one of the three elements is eliminated, fire extinguishes. Analogous, also for Social Forestry (SF) can be constructed a “SF triangle”. The big difference in SF is that it is impossible to eliminate any element.
If the elements in some places are out of control the tendency is to upset the cycle. The Social Forestry has to establish a balance. However, fire is only a one of the three factors.
Pyne, J.S. 1995. World Fire. The culture of fire on Earth. Henry Holt and Company, Inc., New York, 379 pp.
Uvoo, A.D. 1996. The management and role of fire in forestry management and development in Kenya. The state of forest research and management in Kenya. Proceedings, June 1996, Muguga, p.127-129.
Staples, R.R., and W.K.Hudson. 1938. Ecological survey of the mountain area of Basutholand, Crown Agents for the Colonies, London
I wish to thank to Mrs. Limpho Masilo-Motsamai
Social Forestry and Conservation Project, Forestry Division
P.O. Box 774