The fires rise and fall with the winds. The northerly monsoonal flow off the Atlantic retreats and the harmattan, parched as its Saharan source, advances south. The rains stop, the fires begin. At first they creep and smoulder, grasping at early-cured grasses and forbs. As the vegetation dries out in larger patches, the flames swell and burn more fiercely. Before the rains return, almost all that can be burned is burned.
The causes are endless, as inevitable as the dry season, as necessary as the sunshine. A register of fire is a litany of rural life. Pastoralists burn to sweep away encroaching brush, cleanse a site of ticks, inhibit snakes, and to shock dormant grasses back to life. Their flocks crowd onto the fresh green fodder, more palatable and more nutritious than the unburned stalks. Farmers burn to clean fields of rice and millet stubble, maize stalks, and sugar cane, or more broadly, the longer cycle bush-fallow of shrubs and trees. For a while they clear away competing plants, release nutrients, fumigate fungi, and drive off microfaunal pests and weeds. For a year, perhaps two or three, crops flourish. Local languages encode the best time for burning into their names for the seasons. Twi calls February Ogyefuo, literally meaning “fire farm”; Akwapin calls it Apambere, “time of collecting smouldering stems”; and Ewe, Dzove, which means simply “burn.” Farmers in Bawku will ridicule neighbours as “untidy” and slovenly who have not burned before the first rains. Hunters set fires to smoke rats out of holes and to both drive and draw game. Their flames strip away cover for snakes and flush out mice and grasscutters, sometimes into gauntlets of guns, sometimes into the collapsing circles of communal hunts; later, after the rains, the duikers and bushpigs and antelope, along with the livestock, return to the succulent green pick that luxuriates on the burn. Typically a hunting field burns as a quilt of smaller patches, moving game as one might herds of cattle. The pattern of burning also helps shield inhabited sites from cobras, ticks, mosquitoes, lions, any predator that prefers tall grass and thick scrub for cover. Others burn to gather honey, using smoke to drive bees before tossing the torch to the grass. They set fires under the dawadawa trees to promote fruiting, under kapok and mango to protect from hotter, late-season fires, and around other flora to stimulate medicines. They burn out daily the holes drilled into uprooted palms for the tapping of palm wine. They fire off the Accra Plains to eliminate the grassy dew into which mosquitoes lay eggs. They burn woodlands to kill trees for later use as fuelwood or burn them again to make charcoal. They fell snags by firing around the base. Villagers burn their trash; farmers, their refuse; school kids, tufts of grasses around their playgrounds. Travellers – hunters, fishermen, migrants, sojourners – abandon campfires that escape into the bush, toss cigarettes that kindle savannas, leave a trail of fires like roadside litter. Residents carry firesticks or vats of coals from place to place, while embers blow from cracked pots into a fire-eager bush. Fires escape from pito brewing at funerals. Prudent forest guards early-underburn through teak plantations to remove excess fuels. Wardens in Mole National Park early-burn to hold the reserve’s fabled wildlife within the bounds of its unfenced domain. Add to the mix of careless burners the malicious ones, the arsonists and warriors. Add, too, those who burn for fire festivals. In northern Ghana this consists of tossing torches high into selected trees. So extensively is the landscape firing that protective burning – burning under controlled conditions to vaccinate against wild bushfires – clears off what fuels remain. Villagers burn around their grass-roofed houses; farmers around still-unharvested crops; rice fields, and cocoa plantations; priests around sacred groves; and even foresters around gazetted reserves, all early in the season, each with a mind to erect a black, then green incombustible barrier that will last through the harmattan. All these fire causes are not unique to Ghana, but their cumulative effect – the sheer, indefatigable, unsparing penetration by fire into every biotic nook and cranny, its deep symbiosis with everything human – is that West Africa, between the desert sand and the salt sea, has the highest proportion of annual fire in the world. The scene is visible from space, imaged through satellites by day in infrared and by night in visible light, a vast spangled constellation of fires, like a Milky Way of burning, winding across the Earth’s dark matter.
Virtually everything people do in the Ghanaian bush involves fire. Remove those enabling flames and human life would collapse. Few things are as fundamental to Ghana’s national identity, and appropriately its flag records this environmental saga. Three bands of colour fill the field, with a black star in the center. The bands rise from bottom to top, one leading to another in mimicry of a year’s climatic cycle – green, the season of rains; yellow, the time of dormancy; red, the fires that follow; the black star, the ash and char that remain at the core of Ghanaian life and its ambiguous future.
No one can doubt that fire pervades Ghana. But must it? Is fire in some way “natural,” and therefore necessary? Or is it the product of human contrivance, and therefore, at least in principle, expungable? Is it like the sun, about which one can do nothing save seek shade, or is it more like malaria, for which one can invent vaccines or hope, someday, for outright eradication, or is it rather like the corruption that frequently infests regional politics, for which extinction is an ideal, worthy if unattainable? It is all of the above, and so inextinguishable.
Ghanaian fire flourishes because both nature and culture favour it. Bushfire’s environmental basis resides in West Africa’s ancient patterns of wet and dry weather. There has to be enough moisture to grow fuels and enough aridity to prepare them to burn. Ghana’s seasonal rhythms – with well-defined wet and dry seasons, two such seasons along the coast, one longer swell in the north – are ideal. That pattern follows the Intertropical Convergence Zone as it writhes across Africa, gathering winds from the north and the south and mixing them until they boil up into daily thunderstorms. When the ICZ pushes inland, winds with a fetch across the whole south Atlantic bring rain. When the ICZ slides toward the coast, those moist winds recede and arid winds from the Sahara – the harmattan – rush across Ghana. The land dries, the burning begins.
A weave of wet and dry stretches across the countryside as well as across the seasons. The far southwest is consistently wet, the northeast only seasonally so. A gradient of moisture marches between them such that rainfall decreases, trees shrivel, and soils shallow as one moves inland. An evergreen forest grades into a seasonally wet forest which thins into the wooded Guinea savanna which further opens into the edge of the Sahelian savanna. The more closed forests resist fire even in the face of drought unless their canopy cracks open and more fire-prone species invade. Elsewhere the fuel fabric shows a tightly wrought woof and warp of fine-stranded combustibles, fluffed with expansive grasses, forbs, and other fallow-thriving species. Agricultural practices loosely follow these trends. There is more herding to the north, more tree-crop cultivation (such as cocoa and palm oil) to the south.
This geographic gradient is elastic. Other, longer rhythms compound the annual cycle of the rains. The Intertropical Convergence Zone is not a geodetically measured boundary but a churning riptide of air masses that wiggles and swings around the globe. How far inland it moves in any particular year and when and for how long are not mechanically prescribed. Droughts are common and sometimes profound. In normal years, fire burns in tight patches, only where the dead grasses are thick and the woods felled and cured; the surrounding vegetation remains too moist to carry fire. But droughts crush that difference out of the land, like presses squeezing sap out of cane. Then fires can burn nearly everywhere; they can even (under severe conditions) creep into closed forests. Ghana’s geographic gradients become a climatic accordion, alternately pulled and pushed, scrunched between the sea and the sand. In one critical decade great droughts struck in 1972-73, 1976-77, and 1982-83. The harmattan blew like a furnace fan. Ghana burned inextinguishably.
But fire exists not only, or even primarily, because natural conditions favour it. Fire flourishes because Ghanaians have put it there. Burning is as fundamental to Ghanaian society and economy as to its biota. Presently lightning accounts for less than 2% of ignitions. Almost certainly that number of starts would be higher under a purely natural regime. The explanation, however, is simple. Humans burn first. By the time lightning arrives with the onset of the rainy season, there is typically little left to combust. Thus whatever affects Ghana’s people, affects its fire regimes.
In this way other cycles bonded to social life compound those of climate. There are demographic rhythms, historically tied to wet and dry periods such that regional population builds up during wet times and collapses during dry (with the surplus populations historically shipped off as slaves). There are economic rhythms, linked to the introduction to new foodstuffs and to the export of commodities beyond regional networks. Of the contemporary Ghanaian diet, only bushmeat, snails, millet, and yams are indigenous. The rest – plantains, coconuts, maize, cassava, rice, beef, pork, goat, cocoyams, groundnuts, sweet potatoes, and the rest – were invented elsewhere and brought into Ghana through trade or migration. Moreover as long as external markets have encouraged them, its farmers grew for export as well as domestic consumption such crops as cotton, copra, and kola, to palm oil and especially cocoa. All this subjected Ghana’s fire-flushed landscape to the uncertain economic winds of trade and capital. Balance of payments shortfalls proved as significant as moisture deficits; global depressions as vital as drought. These distant markets for capital could prove as influential as the Atlantic and Saharan sources of its seasonal winds.
Because in Ghana, as elsewhere, fire follows fuel, the rhythms of cropping and fallowing became the rhythms of bush combustibles. Some patterns remained cyclic, tied to the rains. But new crops, iron tools, fresh livestock (where the tsetse fly permitted), new markets for cultivated commodities, all imposed longer wave patterns, not unlike the ancient ebb and flow of decadal drought. Land given to one use changed to others. In particular, eager farmers cracked open forests to plant crops, while foresters added to the sprawl by culling hardwoods, often in association with cocoa plantations, occasionally to replace the wild woods with teak or palm oil plantations, but always, it seemed, allowing pyrophytic weeds and scrub to invade the now sun-spangled sites. And to these one should add the minerals that dazzled early-voyaging Europeans who long called it the Gold Coast. One after another commodity markets rose, then collapsed. They left behind, however, a different landscape, unable to return to the status quo. These were secular changes, equivalent to the south-encroaching Sahara. Together they squeezed and released the gradients of the cultivated landscape in ways that variously clashed, compounded, and cancelled out.
Perhaps the most visible reforms were political, for these gave shape to national borders – defined for a cosmopolitan audience the national identity – and have profoundly influenced the last century of Ghanaian life and land. Abundant slaves and gold had dotted the coast with trading posts (forts, really, so tenuous was Europeans’ hold on the interior) from Portugal, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and Britain. The strangulation of the export slave trade, beginning in 1807, rocked the economic foundations of the indigenous powers. Instead they began to redirect their enslaved throngs to colonize the surrounding countryside in weird mimicry of the plantations erected with slave labour in the Americas. By the 19th century only Holland and Britain remained, and after the final suppression of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Dutch withdrew in 1872. A year later British troops smashed the dominant political force inland, the Ashanti Confederacy, centred in Kumasi and declared the Gold Coast a crown colony in 1874. Europe’s unseemly scramble for Africa quickly fleshed out borders, duties, and rights. Twenty-six years later British troops had to return to complete the military conquest. In 1902 the British Crown formally annexed Ashanti as a protectorate to its coastal colony.
The British practised cost-saving indirect rule. At the height of its colonial presence probably no more than 4000 Britons oversaw the country. Moreover, endemic diseases and uncertain markets for goods other than minerals, and later cocoa, stalled development. But a new capital, Accra, arose; roads and even some railroads punched through the bush; fresh export crops were introduced; the standard institutions of colonial governance appeared, from forest reserves to a college, a civil service, and a branch of the Royal Society; and both trade and peoples began to move along the great gradients from the interior to the coast. These were fundamental, evolutionary reforms, not readily reversed. Then in 1957 Ghana became the first of Europe’s sub-Saharan colonies to achieve independence.
Expectations were high as Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah became the black star of African liberation. Such circumstances made the subsequent political and economic crash all the more damning. Nkrumah’s administration of excess and indifference ended in wild inflation and monetary riot followed by a coup. A downward spiral of political and economic recovery and collapse continued until 1982. By then the average Ghanaian was far poorer than at independence. Virtually every economic index had plummeted. Twenty-five years of autonomy – an era during which South Korea, beginning with the same per capita income, had quadrupled its income level – had in Ghana destroyed wealth. Yet so long as the various rhythms cancelled one another out or came in syncopation the system could muddle along with an episodic coup or default or exchange rate scandal. Then came 1982-83. The cycles compounded. Ghana crashed and burned.
A new long wave of drought settled over the Sahel beginning in 1968. By 1972-73 its depredations had alarmed the international community. Conditions abated, then worsened in 1976-77, then waned again before returning with massive effect in 1982-83. The drought spread out of the Sahel like stiff molasses. It shoved against the leisurely swells of Ghana’s geographic gradients until the desert seemingly pressed against the sea. The drought worsened beyond the scope of written records. Even Lake Volta dried up. The landscape’s traditional mosaic broke apart as its normally wet grout dried and cracked. Fires spread like swarms of locusts. Smoke crowded out even the perpetual dust of the harmattan haze. Bushfires incinerated 35% of Ghana’s cereal crops; they invaded fire-sensitive cocoa plantations; they swept over bush-fallow and pasture like flame through kleenex. They burned villages. They even probed and seared the closed forests. They complicated a vast refugee tide spilling into Ghana from the Sahel and Nigeria, which was forcibly repatriating a million Ghanaians. And they shattered the provisional political reforms of Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings’ “second coming.”
Rawlings had led a coup in 1979 that deposed and summarily executed the corrupt Gen. I.K. Acheampong and several of his cronies. Incredibly, Rawlings had then retired in favour of president-elect Hilla Limann. But conditions – social, economic, climatic – continued to deteriorate. On the last day of December 1981 Rawlings removed Limann and installed himself as head of a Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC). A year later the PNDC announced a 4-year economic plan. But the Soviet bloc informed him that it would give nothing, and drought continued to strangle the countryside. Money and rain blew away on the desert winds. With Wagnerian sweep, the fires ended Ghana’s political opera in a flaming coda. Rawlings turned to the IMF for advice, and the country began to rebuild its economy along more transparent and market-friendly lines until, a decade later, it had again become the economic black star of Africa.
Its association with Ghana’s Götterdämmerung made the reform of Ghanaian fire seem a natural part of reforming Ghanaian society overall. As the new government sought to integrate Ghana into the global economy through the advice of the IMF, so it also sought technical help for coping with bushfires. The U.S. Forest Service sent advisors in 1985. In 1998 the International Tropical Timber Organization launched a 3-year program to stabilize fire threats along the cordon of fraying forest reserves that separate the high forest from the savanna. Other international donors, including the Netherlands, proposed projects to improve bushfire protection. But exchange rate mechanisms proved easier to reform than fire practices.
Free-burning fire thrives for different reasons in different parts of the world. The world’s major firepowers – the United States, Canada, Australia, and Russia – experience wildland fire because they have reserved vast domains of wildlands. That was a legacy of their colonial history; disease and force swept the natives aside and left open, for a time, immense sweeps of virtually vacant land. These were reserved as public domain before new settlement could claim them. The greater fraction of the world, however – including the most extensive of burned lands, like Africa’s savannas and Brazil’s cerrado; including almost all of Ghana – knows fire through agriculture. Herding and farming shape fuels, and the needs of crop and herd dictate patterns of burning. Virtually every facet of rural life in some way relies on fire. As long as Ghana’s rural economy thrives, so will its bushfires.
Ghana is not unique in its fire saturation. Begin with the observation that, until very recently, almost all agriculture depended on fire for both its creation and sustenance. The nature of agriculture is to cultivate plants and animals in an environment for which they are not native. To succeed the land must be changed: it must be readied to receive exotic cultivars and livestock. Fire does this, and the need for recurring fire is an explanation of the need for fallow. An agricultural system that requires fuels must grow them.
The fire-fallow process is relatively easy to understand for swidden, or slash-and-burn. But it applies no less to field rotations. In the former, the farm cycles through the landscape, catalyzed by fire; in the latter, the landscape (as it were) cycles through a fixed farm plot, again jolted by fire. In temperate Europe, for example, fire had almost no natural presence, yet agriculture utterly depended on it. Even garden plots intensively spaded and manured relied on routinely burned outfields for the pasture that fed those dung-yielding cattle. The assertion that pre-industrial agriculture does not require fire is wrong.
But some places have more of it than others. In sites for which fire does not exist naturally, only constant human tending keeps it on the land. Remove that kindling hand, and you remove the flame. In places that are naturally fire-prone, however, fire tends to occur more abundantly and more readily escapes. The problem is not to create fire so much as to control it. Fire seems less a servant than a collaborator: the opportunities to reduce or redirect it are fewer. Where wholesale migrations are occurring, then fire displays both the shock and swirl of those movements. Fire is no more fixed than the landscapes it burns. All this is true for Ghana.
Yet there are parts of the world for which open burning has become expendable. Why? The simplest answer is that they industrialized. They no longer have an economy that depends on agriculture, or they possess an agriculture that no longer depends on fire. They broke out of – transcended, really – the endless cycle of growing and fallowing by tapping fossil biomass, which serves as a kind of fossil fallow. They still reach beyond the growing field for fuels; they still combust them. But they burn or distil coal and oil, and they do so by indirect means – by tractor-drawn plows and harrows, by artificial fertilizers, by pesticides and herbicides. So they no longer fallow, and no longer openly burn that rank growth. In such places, rural fire has faded away.
That is the simplest explanation of how countries moved beyond a rural fire regime. The problem of promiscuous rural burning was never really solved in any technical sense except in those places for which fire existed only through wilful application. So long as a rural economy flourished, so long as a rural population committed to fire-fallow agriculture resided on the land, so did fire. Something had to move the farmers and herders off the landscape. Industrialization did that, in part, by reducing the number of agricultural labourers needed and in part by creating jobs in cities. Often, however, the rural population was forcibly removed through enclosure or collectivization, or in colonial situations by disease, war, and eviction. All were violent processes; socially violent, ecologically violent, or both. None offer suitable models for today’s developing countries.
The point is that rural fire control occurred at a local level or not at all. There has been no successful “high modernist” strategy for coping with rural burning at the level of a national or even provincial government. Historically, the solution to excessive burning was, locally, to regulate it better and, nationally, to evolve beyond an economy based on fire-fallow agriculture. Rural fire thus mirrors the better known demographic transition that accompanies industrialization. The United States, for example, experienced horrific fires during settlement in the latter quarter of the 19th century. Its officials – even the creators of conservation as a political philosophy – proved unable to solve the problem in any systematic way. The prevailing belief was that the fires would vanish as settlement matured, that forest fires would disappear as forests became farms. The cycle of abusive burning continued, in fact, for over 60 years and ceased only after the rural landscape was exhausted and more or less abandoned. Instead, America’s successful “firefight” occurred on reserved public lands – precisely those landscapes not subject to the pressures of a rural economy.
There is no easy solution to Ghana’s rural fire economy. If history and analogy are useful as guides, Ghana will not control bushfire through legislation or force or persuasion. The current fire regimes will persist until Ghana evolves out of them. The critical issue is how to pass through that fiery metamorphosis without savaging the landscape beyond redemption. In particular, it is an open, but vital, question whether Ghana’s forests can survive a prolonged transition.
The burden of answering that query has fallen to the Forest Department. This being Ghana, whatever might threaten the forest will somehow involve fire, and will likely do so on such a scale that the control of fire will appear as an end in itself instead of a means. An exercise in fire exclusion would seem quixotic except that, incredibly, fire-free forests do exist. Unsurprisingly they have become objects of intense scrutiny for what they say about the politics and ecology of fire protection and thus for what they might promise for the future of the Ghanaian forest.
The best known are sacred groves. They are not many, and they are not large, either individually or collectively. But they demonstrate that it is possible to shield woods from fire if the local community wishes to do so. Some human access is allowed with priestly oversight, and some harvesting of special plants may occur (and may provide one of the unpublicized reasons for protection). The rationale behind fire exclusion is special, however. The primary purpose is religious, or more broadly, the identification of a particular site with a people’s identity; usually these are sites that commemorate the burial of a group’s founder or its ancestors or in some other way lays a claim to social memory. For this reason, the preserved woods are themselves a relic, the biotic equivalent to the symbol-charged stools that distil the tribal story and define political legitimacy.
It may be that similar principles can apply to more extensive forests. The problem of course is that protection relies on belief as well as practice, or rather on beliefs and values that sanction certain practices and ban others. It is not obvious what would serve a similar function at the regional or national level. In the United States nature reserves such as national parks and wilderness areas serve an analogous purpose. They testify to the founding conditions of colonization; they are preserved ultimately because they express larger values and share in a national creation story. It is not clear that Ghana offers an equivalent rationale. The parks of South Africa, for example, actually stress rather than reinforce nationalism. Probably the sacred groves will endure as local monuments, but are unlikely to expand.
A second fire-free zone occurs around the Nandom district in far northwest Ghana, specifically the villages around Gozrii. Here the local chief, after suitable consultation with his council of elders, banned burning. One site of several hectares has now escaped fire for 13 years. The understory has roughened, the woods have thickened. Fire critics have advertized the Gozrii experiment as a model for what might be achieved elsewhere, or even across all of Ghana. Yet its success seems to depend on special ecological and political circumstances.
Unlike conditions in wetter regions, the grasses of Nandom’s savannas can perpetuate themselves in the absence of burning and, further, they can serve as fodder for livestock which thrive in this tsetse-free sanctuary. Elsewhere, particularly to the south, the grasses are palatable only when fresh – during early growth – which is a major incentive to burn them prior to the rains. Besides, that livestock eat the grass means that there is less to burn. These circumstances are not generally typical of Ghana. Moreover, while hoeing residual fallow into the field (green manuring) is practised, it is clear that overall productivity depends overwhelmingly on rainfall. And it is not certain what deleterious effects might eventually result from fire’s exclusion rather than from a shift in its regime.
The political context, nonetheless, is both sharper and more broadly applicable. The state has proved relatively ineffective; even the Forest Department and Ghana Fire Service appear as blunt instruments. Instead control resides within the village, through the power of the local chief, or through the larger collectivity, the paramountcy. The village thus practices prevention, patrols, sanctions violators, and fights fire. The lesson is that fire can be excluded, at least for a number of years, and that the local community is the only means by which to do so. The apparent success of one village has, in turn, inspired neighbours. The moral is as clear as crystal: only a program that rallies the local community can successfully alter fire’s local regime.
That leaves Ghana’s secular groves, its reserved forests under the direction of the Ghana Forest Department. The reasons for fire’s removal are again both environmental and political. The reserves dapple a region that promotes high, often closed forests for which fire is not a natural presence and that, in fact, repel bush fires which strike along their dark border. The woods thus enjoy a certain intrinsic immunity from burning. That they exist outside the matrix of Ghanaian agriculture also excludes many ignitions. The political explanation is that they are overseen by an agency of the national government committed to fire protection. For most of the 20th century these two processes have collaborated to shield the reserves from routine fire. In all, the reserves legally protect about 20% of what were once Ghana’s high forests and are all that remain outside of parks.
More recently, both the ecological and the institutional shields have frayed badly. The Forest Department is evolving into the Ghana Forest Service, which is committed both to a strategy of collaborative forest management and to a program of self-financing its operations. The outcome is ambiguous; at a minimum, the authority as well as the bureaucratic presence behind state fire protection have receded. It is not obvious that these institutions will survive, or if they do that they will exist as more than paper bureaucracies. Still, the reserves could probably endure these political strains were they not also stressed simultaneously by environmental factors. Forest reserves now exist as islands in a sea of agricultural fire, and climatic storms (like those of 1982-83) are rapidly eroding the exposed biotic coastlines. Most of the reserves have suffered from logging, agricultural encroachment, weed infestations, and fire; some have degraded significantly. The shock is particularly acute along the so-called transitional zone between the savanna and the high forest. Whatever their legal status, the reserves nonetheless hold most of what endures of Ghana’s high forest in a form that approximates a coherent biotic system.
It is small comfort to thoughtful Ghanaians to know that their problems are again not unique. The creation of forest reserves was a colonial practice of the last century, continued for a few decades into the 20th century. Ghana’s were among the last established by Britain, but for that reason they represented a degree of acquired wisdom and for the Gold Coast, a compromise with local politics. Several false dawns appeared between 1907 and 1912, rudely based on the Indian model and assisted by an indefatigable forest officer, H. N. Thompson, loaned by Nigeria. The process collapsed under the pressures of the Great War and local protests and the office of Conservator of Forests was abolished in 1917. An acceptable new policy emerged in 1919; officials gazetted reserves; and in 1929 a revised forest ordinance accelerated the movement, which more or less achieved equilibrium in 1939. Yet ultimately the reserves remained an imperial institution: they expressed outside ideals and existed because of the power of the colonial authorities to install them.
Their origins, however, do not invalidate the reasons for their creation. In part, they existed to rationalize the timber trade. Experience repeatedly showed that local institutions collapsed when suddenly confronted with a heavily capitalized global market. Typically concessionaires scalped timber and left. Foresters promised to regulate those practices and to repair the damage done; the reserves were models to demonstrate how to accomplish this. They were a means by which the state could interpose itself between local and global processes, to protect the former and promote the latter.
Equally, reserves existed to promote larger, national values, as secular equivalents to sacred groves. It was believed that protected woods could ameliorate climate, help regulate navigable rivers, even provide a degree of solace for harassed urbanites. They spoke to national, even imperial values – the needs of a larger world – that local communities could not understand and would not support. Control thus had to reside outside the hands of tradition-bound peasants, transient hunters, and transhumant herders. In brief, reserves prevented economic monopoly, retarded the ruin of natural resources, and promoted transcendent goals. And, it is important to note, they often worked more or less as planned. Without its legacy of reserves it is probable that Ghana would today have no standing high forests of any consequence or coherence.
Nature reservations, most expansively forest reserves, appeared throughout Greater Europe’s imperium. They were most successful where European settlers displaced the indigens, less so where Europe ruled over local peoples. In the former case, the reserves were often uninhabited. They were created at a time when the indigens were gone but European settlers had not arrived in force. The lands were, in a profound sense, vacant, and they remained the property of the crown, province, or state. Where peoples persisted in or around the reserves, administration was complicated and compromised. In a few instances colonial foresters administered the reserves on behalf of local rulers. This was the case with Ghana and with American Indian tribes. The outcome is probably the least politically stable of all such arrangements.
Europe’s recession from empire left forest reserves along with other institutions in its wake. They have survived best where the national government remained strong, the reserves uninhabited, and their perception as a colonial hangover weak. The oldest reserves (those in India) have endured for less than 150 years; the youngest, like those in Ghana, for about half as long. Many exist only on paper. Most are undergoing some degree of review and reconstitution. New Zealand, for example, has disestablished its Forest Department and privatized most of its holdings, including all of its extensive Monterey pine plantations. British Columbia and Australia are renegotiating land claims from native groups, some of which will likely result in a transfer of usufruct (if not title) from public lands. This process of adjustment will almost certainly continue. It is doing so today in Ghana. In fact, Ghana’s reserves exist for several announced purposes and reveal a spectrum of usage and degradation.
So it is not obvious how to protect them. They cannot be reserved without being used, cannot be used without introducing fire, cannot be burned without changing. While bushfire is neither the source nor a driver of such change, it is a necessary catalyst, and unless it can be controlled, the reserves will erode away into weed lots and bush fallow. Without fire protection legal protection is meaningless. With respect to its forest reserves, as with the rest of its land, Ghana’s relationship is one mediated by fire.
Bushfires have entered the reserves proper because logging has cracked open their multi-layered forest canopy and then allowed pyrophytic weeds to invade. For those reserves dedicated to production forestry, logging has started a conversion that has replaced native woods with commercially valuable exotics. But whether the old forest is allowed to recover, or a new one replaces it, fires are now an inextricable part of the system. It has entered most reserves and established residence. So long as logging continues, so will fires. Logging prescriptions must now factor in fire protection, and timber harvesting must accept those expenses as part of its cost of production even as the relative value of timber among Ghana’s export commodities slides downward. A complicating factor is that the new Ghana Forest Service is expected to pay for itself through commercial logging and as the local stools receive a greater fraction of the accrued revenue both the incentives for logging and the dangers from bushfire will ratchet upward.
Outside the reserves the problem is one of fire-fallow agriculture. So long as rural life dominates Ghana’s economy, so long will fire scour and polish the land. Inevitably some of those fires will crash into the reserve border, and splash across. Yet neighbouring villagers are also the only means for bushfire control. They alone can prevent fires, fight fires, and rehabilitate after fires. They offer the only reliable source of staffing for bushfire fighting, though they have had little incentive to support the Forest Department and many reasons to resent what they consider the appropriation of “their” lands by an alien bureaucracy. The redirection of forest policy into collaborative management – obviously modeled on community-based natural resource management programs developed for wildlife elsewhere in Africa – offers a partial solution. It is conceivable that villagers will do for the Forest Department what it cannot do for itself, provided sufficient incentives are offered. The political field, however, promises to become as complex and intricate as Ghana’s polycropped farmlands.
The strains are greatest along the border. The reserves are (to put it kindly) weirdly constructed, or gerrymandered outright. Most reserves have a very long perimeter relative to their bulk, which makes them even tougher to defend. At least along the transitional zone, most borders are not well demarcated. They exist as an occasional sign and a cutlass-slashed swath through the annual flush of grass and scrub. They offer nothing to halt trespass or fire. They rely, ultimately, on the good will and discipline of the surrounding villages. The decay of their boundaries – like those at Afram and Pamu-Berekum – into fields of elephant grass and acheampong dissolve even that presumption. Without a border the reserves have no identity. Yet the Forest Department lacks the resources to defend those boundaries, and villagers, the incentive to assist them in the task.
The proposed solution – ingenious, really – is to construct a system of “green firebreaks” around the threatened perimeters. “Green” because they consist of incombustible crops; “firebreaks” because, at 40 meters width, they should halt a spreading surface fire; “ingenious” because they can enlist villagers to do the work in return for new cropland. Since the planting includes fast-growing, sun-blocking species, it is assumed that after 3-4 years the trees will overtop the abandoned fields and the fuelbreak will become sufficiently shaded and self-sustaining to both halt fires and waive the need for future maintenance. In principle, a program of such fuelbreaks could staunch the further fire-haemorrhaging of the reserves. It would leave the reformed Ghana Forest Service with administrative control and the villagers with practical access. The Netherlands has proposed a 10-year project around just such a conception.
Fuelbreaks are rarely more than a partial solution, however. They tend to serve only as an enabling device. They work best when they are built into the design of a site, not retrofitted. They help move a land from one status to another. Their assets are that they assist in the control of surface fires and that they are supremely legible to observers, whether critics or advocates. They are an obvious expression of an administrative presence. There are instances where they have succeeded – in taming prairie fires, in replanting burned forests, in protecting pine plantations. Yet they often look better than they perform. Their liabilities are formidable. They are expensive to install, especially when imposed on a landscape originally fashioned for other ends. They are even more expensive to maintain. Since they consist of plants, they grow, change, evolve, and require tending; most fall into disrepair when their informing crisis has passed. They fail during extreme fire behaviour which is precisely when the need for protection is greatest. Spot fires soar over them with complete disregard for the labour and ingenuity invested. And perhaps most tellingly, they tend not to be permanent features. They are transitional, and they suffer when the larger goals are inappropriate or unreachable. All these concerns apply to Ghana.
They apply especially to concepts imported from the outside such as the Netherlands proposal. Like the fuelbreaks it advocates, this scheme must be cobbled onto the existing landscape and so becomes awkward and transient. Behind the transfer of engineering, however, stands a transfer of culturally coded values. Would the proposal have the same punch if those “green firebreaks” were called cassava corridors or plantain patches? Would the scheme have the same political panache if it were not premised on the vision of “desertification,” on the perspective that forests converted to grasslands are outliers of the Sahara? Is not the vision behind those protected reserves one of a biotic seawall to hold back the rising savanna? Are not the Dutch imagining the shallowing forests of Ghana as they have their own shallowing seas, such that the firebreaks will act as a system of dikes with which to drain fire from the landscape? Whatever other difficulties may be embedded in the scheme, the critical one is that fire does not behave like water. Savanna is not heath. Seasons in Ghana follow the ebb and flow of rain, not temperature. The firebreaks scheme could, at most, assist Ghana over its transformation into an industrial state. It can, at best, stay the fiery flood until the compounding waves begin to disaggregate and the spring tide of rural life subsides.
The core problem remains political. If fuelbreaks work best as transitional devices, then what is the end result and how long will it take? The critical transitions are several. There is, first, the forest itself. Assuming the scheme does exclude fire, at what point has it succeeded? Particularly if logging continues, as it must to finance the Ghana Forest Service, then the fuelbreaks must remain more or less permanently, which will create serious difficulties with maintenance.
The scheme is, secondly, transitional within the evolution of the Ghana Forest Service. The institutional arrangements will be redefining themselves for many years to come, perhaps over decades. The role of the Forest Service as a viable agency will depend on the definition – the perceived value – of the reserves it oversees. Without those reserves, there is little justification for a forest bureaucracy within a state bloated by civil service patronage. But as the reserves are progressively used, so their purposes have multiplied.
The tradeoffs are tricky. The reserves’ diversity of purposes dissipates as well as concentrates a political rationale. If the reserves serve only one purpose, they will lose constituencies. If they serve too many, they risk a loss of definition, and even as the agency attracts some constituencies, it alienates others because, at particular moments, it must choose one or another. The Ghana Forest Service may simply absorb the conflicts within itself in perhaps bureaucratically painful ways. One solution is to subsume the reserve system under an umbrella organization but subdivide the various functions among separate bureaus. The Forest Service, for example, might have special interest in commercial logging and plantations. This seems to be a direction toward which the institutional momentum is headed. It may be that such definitions, like the proposed fuelbreaks, are a provisional device.
The most powerful transition is of course that of Ghana from a developing, rural nation to an industrial one. This is not something the Forest Department can create, though it will be profoundly affected by the outcome. When the rural economy subsides, so will fire pressures on the reserves. Any scheme of protection must see the forests through that phase which, barring major setbacks, will likely last for 40-50 years. A scheme should also provide protection under the worst fire conditions, such as the return of a season like that of 1982-83. One or two equivalent outbreaks – a likely outcome over the next half century – and the highly exposed reserves may simply burn away, save those in the most remote and damp locales. Climate and culture, both unpredictable and both outside the control of the Ghana Forest Service – how they mix or mash will determine the timing of large fires, and the outbreaks of those fires the success of forest protection.
Paradoxically perhaps the multiplication of purposes behind the reserves may not, by itself, add up to a compelling argument. If the forests are valued primarily for timber, then the state may seek to privatize them and international donor nations may lose interest in subsidizing them. The values that may be gained are too ephemeral and those values threatened with loss too remote. Environmentalism behaves as though on a green mission to civilize Africa that has replaced for many affluent nations the anti-slavery campaigns of old. Remove that incentive, and the public appeal will fail. If the reserves exist to promote biodiversity or eco-tourism, then a parks or wildlife agency may be the most suitable instrument. If the reserves belong to the surrounding stools, and those peoples want to determine for themselves what should be done with land, then the Forest Department becomes a bureaucratic barrier, one that is politically inexpedient. The reasons for allowing the reserves, which are after all a colonial relic, to fall away are many.
Yet a compelling logic exists for holding them more or less intact. It resides not in any one purpose or use but in the simple fact that the reserves help keep Ghana’s environmental options open. If the reserves collapse, then so will Ghana’s relic high forests. They will disappear into stumpfields and farms, and once gone they will not be restored. They were the creation of a unique period of Ghanaian history. When Ghana emerges through its industrial adolescence, it will wish it had those reserves, for purposes it cannot today define. And the only way to ensure that those woods survive as biological landscapes, not simply as hollow legal entities, is to protect them from fire. The alternative is for the country to find that the winds unfurling its symbol-laden flag have scattered its woods, that its forests have gone with the flames riding the surge of the harmattan.
How bushfire protection will happen is hard to predict. The uncertainties are too great; the complex tables of programmatic elements, detailed strategic plans, and elegant policies and declarations that appeal to international donors and IMF advisors are almost certain to be frustrated. Most likely the Ghana Forest Service and its sister agencies will muddle through, though in a vigorous and creative way. They will improvise. They will find ways to tend the necessary fires and contain the damaging ones. They will cross this period as one might hop from log to floating log across a pond, not stopping long enough to tumble over. With pluck and luck, they may carry most of the reserves along with them. A century from now Ghana will be glad they succeeded.
Acknowledgements This essay grew out of a visit to Ghana at the invitation of the U.S. Forest Service to participate in an ITTO program on bushfire protection. It stands outside my official report and represents my own thoughts, not those of the sponsoring agencies. I would like to thank Mark Buccowich and Mark Beighley of the Forest Service, respectively, for the invitation and for companionship. And I wish to convey my sincere thanks to the many Ghanaians of the Forest Department and Forest Research Institute of Ghana who made the tour possible, notably Dr. Kwesi Orgle, Dr. Victor Agyeman, Alex Asare, Kennedy Owusu-Afriyie, Godfred Ohene-Gyan, and Lucy Amissah.
Stephen J.Pyne Biology Department
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287