Setting Fire to the Future

Setting Fireto the Future

1 March 2007

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Cotonou, Senegal — It’s the season for bush fires inSenegal, and there are once again concerns that vast tracts of fertile landcould be set alight, and ravaged.

The season extends from October to May, with most of the fires occurring in thesouth and south-east of the country, notably the regions of Tambacounda, Kolda,Ziguinchor, Louga and Matam.

Over 2005 and 2006 more than 400,000 hectares were affected in the course of anunusually severe series of fires. Almost a tenth of the southern Linguèreregion was burnt, and more than nine percent of the Bakel area. Several smalleroutbreaks were also documented.

People often start fires in an effort to clear land of bush, so that theterritory can be used for farming. This enables them to avoid the laborious taskof clearing manually.

Loss of soil fertility means that farmers are consistently in search of newland. According to Papa Mawade Wade, a specialist in desertification, Senegalhas experienced a 25 percent drop in soil fertility and loss of 80,000 hectaresof forest cover annually since the great drought of the 1970s in West Africa.

Notes agronomist Mansour Fall, “since independence in 1960, the totalsurface area reserved for the agricultural sector remains unchanged in as far asthe new farm land only replaces that which is lost because of the decrease insoil fertility”.

However, the fires often get out of control, fuelled by vegetation that hasbecome dense during the rainy season. “Annual losses in forest area due tobush fires are estimated at 350,000 hectares of forests,” notesdocumentation issued by Senegal’s National Programme of Action to FightDesertification, adopted in October 1998.

The Ecological Tracking Centre (Centre de suivi écologique) has recommendedthat areas rich in vegetation be identified before the end of the rainy season,and that committees be set up and equipped to fight fires in parts mostsusceptible to outbreaks.

In addition, people should be encouraged to put in place and maintain firebreaksat the end of September, in areas where this practice has been well mastered.

Water, forestry and national park officials burn firebreaks along roads andrailways, and in the vicinity of villages in the Tambacounda region to preventlater blazes. But, communities may fail to start firebreaks under the requiredconditions, again allowing fires to get out of control.

Authorities have already taken steps to raise awareness of fires in northernSenegal, where fewer are recorded. There are almost no fires in the far west,the site of large urban areas and agricultural regions less susceptible tooutbreaks.

The centre of the country, where peanuts are cultivated, is just slightlyaffected — again because of the lesser vulnerability of planted areas.

Fall states that only a fraction of the land in Senegal lends itself to farming.A systematic reduction in this area through bush fires would result in anagricultural deficit.

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