Fires in Africa are more numerous than in the Amazon. Explanations
The forests of the African continent are also burning, raising the legitimate concern of the international community and sadly echoing the fires in the Amazon forest. However, the nature and causes of these fires in Africa are different from the fires currently being experienced in Brazil.
The thesis embraces overheated minds: these days, the forests of Central Africa would burn even faster than the Amazon, and in general indifference, unlike the fires in Brazil that have ignited the speeches of the great powers gathered in France until Monday.
But these are not fires of the same nature and their causes are different. Abundantly relayed, a Nasa satellite map shows in incandescent red the area of fire starts that take the heart of the continent in a scarf, from Gabon to Angola, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. The concern has reached the G7 in Biarritz. “The forest is also burning in sub-Saharan Africa. We are examining the possibility of launching an initiative there similar to the one we have just announced for the Amazon,” tweeted French President Emmanuel Macron. The G7 countries want to urgently release 20 million dollars to send water bombing planes to fight forest fires in South America.
Will Canadairs also soon be flying over the primary forests of Gabon, filling their tanks in the rapids of the Congo River? The French president’s concern is legitimate. The Congo Basin forest is commonly compared to the second green lung of the Planet, after the Amazon. It covers an area of about 2 million km2 in several countries, half of which is in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the rest in neighboring countries (Gabon, Congo, Cameroon and Central African Republic). Like the Amazon, the forests of the Congo River basin absorb tons of CO2 in their trees and peat bogs. They are sanctuaries for endangered species (forest elephants, great apes…).
But be careful. The fires observed in Africa on the Nasa maps “are not in this area (of forest), but rather in Angola, Zambia, etc.,” notes Guillaume Lescuyer, a specialist in Central Africa at the Centre for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD). In a press release, Angola was annoyed by the hasty comparisons with Brazil “which can lead to a dramatization of the situation, and a disinformation of the most imprudent minds”.
These are “ordinary fires” in dry season
These fires are ordinary at the end of the dry season, adds the Angolan Ministry of the Environment: “It happens that at this time of the year, in several regions of our country, there are fires caused by farmers in the phase of preparation of the land, due to the proximity of the rainy season.”
“The forest is burning in Africa but not for the same causes,” details Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, ambassador and climate negotiator for the DRC at the UN climate conferences. In the Amazon, the forest is burning mainly because of drought and climate change. But in Central Africa, it is mainly due to agricultural techniques.
Slash-and-burn agriculture, an age-old practice, is the primary cause of deforestation, and is the opposite of intensive soybean cultivation in Brazil. In the DRC, where only 9% of the population has access to electricity, village communities have only wood to boil the pot. “At the current rate of population growth and energy needs, our forests are threatened with extinction by 2100,” Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi worried last week.
Natural resources whet mercantile appetites
In addition to the risk of fires, deforestation threatens the species (Okoumé from Gabon, Afrormosia from the DRC…) and the exploitation of natural resources (oil and mines). “It is estimated that the forest cover of the DRC has decreased from 67% to 54% of the territory between 2003 and 2018. Deforestation is real,” said Mr. Mpanu Mpanu, the DRC’s “Mr. Climate” at the annual COP meetings. The DRC has made an international commitment to stabilize its forest cover at 63.5% of its territory (2.3 million km2 in total). And we are losing that battle.
Countries have implemented environmental conservation policies. Gabon claims that its 13 national parks preserve 11% of its territory. The DRC has officially declared a moratorium on granting new forest concessions to timber companies. “But the forestry code allows artisanal logging. There are many operators, the Chinese to name but a few, who give money to be able to use the logging permits of village communities,” deplores Mr. Mpanu Mpanu.
“We must protect these forests which are still largely intact, and stop the degradation of the equatorial forest for industrial or demographic reasons,” summarizes the head of Greenpeace campaigns in Central Africa, Philippe Verbelen.