Senegal: Setting fire to the future

Senegal: Setting fire to the future

2 March 2007

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Senegal — It’s the season for bush firesin Senegal, and there are once again concerns that vast tracts of fertile landcould be set alight, and ravaged. The season extends from October to May, withmost of the fires occurring in the south and south-east of the country, notablythe regions of Tambacounda, Kolda, Ziguinchor, Louga and Matam.

Over 2005 and 2006 more than 400,000hectares were affected in the course of an unusually severe series of fires.Almost a tenth of the southern Linguère region was burnt, and more than ninepercent of the Bakel area. Several smaller outbreaks 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 farmersare consistently in search of new land. According to Papa Mawade Wade, aspecialist in desertification, Senegal has experienced a 25 percent drop in soilfertility and loss of 80,000 hectares of forest cover annually since the greatdrought 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 ofcontrol, fuelled by vegetation that has become dense during the rainy season.”Annual losses in forest area due to bush fires are estimated at 350,000hectares of forests,” notes documentation issued by Senegal’s NationalProgramme of Action to Fight Desertification, 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 encouragedto put in place and maintain firebreaks at the end of September, in areas wherethis practice has been well mastered. Water, forestry and national parkofficials burn firebreaks along roads and railways, and in the vicinity ofvillages in the Tambacounda region to prevent later blazes. But, communities mayfail to start firebreaks under the required conditions, again allowing fires toget out of control.

Authorities have already taken steps toraise awareness of fires in northern Senegal, where fewer are recorded. Thereare almost no fires in the far west, the site of large urban areas andagricultural regions less susceptible to outbreaks.
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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