Ivory Coast — For Dua Kouadio, it is déjà vu of the worst kind: the destruction of yet another harvest by a bush fire run amuck.
“This is the second time that this has happened to me. Last year, some people started a fire which destroyed my yams,” he tells IPS, seated in a scorched field that previously housed three hectares of cashew nuts — his entire, annual harvest of the crop.
Many other residents of the eastern Ivorian region of Bondoukou where Kouadio lives have had similar experiences: according to water and forestry officials, this part of the country is more ravaged by bush fires than any other.
“There is no year when bush fires aren’t recorded in this part of the country, in spite of threats and awareness raising,” Madeleine Zio, head of water and forestry in Bondoukou, told IPS.
Between 1999 and 2006, 17 people were killed, and 3,370 hectares of crops and 337 huts destroyed by fire in Bondoukou alone, said Zio.
According to the latest official statistics for Côte d’Ivoire as a whole, fires claimed 122 lives between 1983 and 2002, along with more than 110,000 hectares of vegetation — including 33,000 hectares of coffee and cocoa — and some 246 villages and camps.
Traditional practices are the cause of this destruction. People have long used fire to prepare land for cultivation, hunting and pasture, says Joseph Séka of the Ivorian Ministry of the Environment. But these fires, once started, often prove impossible to control.
Djézou Konan, deputy administrator for the neighboring Sorobango region, also in the east of the country, agrees.
“At present, it’s the hunting season in my prefecture (an administrative department), and tens of hectares of fallow land and crops are burning every day just because of hunting,” he told IPS.
Séka warns that the risk of seeing all the West African country’s forests go up in smoke is a real one, and that quick action must be taken — claims echoed by the National Committee to Defend Forests Against Bush Fires (Comité national de défense de la forêt contre les feux de brousse), which forms part of the environment ministry.
This body notes that the north, centre and east of Côte d’Ivoire already bear the scars of bush fires, and that the south may soon follow — taking the last of the forests with it.
Statistics from the committee indicate that Ivorian forests extended over nine million hectares in 1965, but just three million hectares in 1991. By 2006, this had been further reduced to 2.5 million hectares.
Along the road between Bondoukou and Tanda further north, vegetation is — already — almost non-existent. Those trees still in place are stunted and beaten down by fire. The forests of the past have given way to savannah.
The over-exploitation of forests for timber and firewood is also to blame for this state of affairs, notes Mélaine Bohui Kouassi of My Forest (Ma forêt): a non-governmental organisation located in Bingerville, about 20 kilometres from the commercial hub of Abidjan.
The National Committee to Defend Forests has undertaken awareness raising activities to change the behaviour of rural communities and develop preventive measures against bush fires. Committees have been set up in villages with the aim of preventing fires, and limiting the reach of those that do get started.
But efforts to curb harmful practices are undermined by the refusal of victims of bush fires to have those who started the blazes penalised.
“In fact, we often find ourselves in situations where we have an intervention by the parents and relatives of the accused with each arrest. Because of their pleas, we are sometimes obliged to free the accused, even if the person is a notorious repeat offender,” said Zio.
Notes Bohui Kouassi: “If we want to preserve what remains and manage to recover what was, we must think about reforestation. Neither repression, nor any other thing, is the solution to the problem.”