Grass fires, firewood, and the fires of revolution

Notes from a visit to West Africa, December 2014 to January 2015. Second in a series of six articles

Koussoukoingou, Benin, January 5: Everywhere we went in the dry northern regions of Ghana, Togo, and Benin, we would see small grass fires burning, out of anyone’s supervision or control. These are not like the Australian or Californian bushfires – they creep and smoulder rather than turn into a raging inferno, and generally burn themselves out after scorching an acre or two. No one makes any attempt to put them out – when water must be carried by hand from miles away, it would be impossible anyway. A few appear to start as roadside rubbish burn-offs.

Grass fire near Koussoukoingou, Benin

Grass fire near Koussoukoingou, Benin. Photo: James Robb

There is a permanent smell of smoke in the air, and tiny fragments of black ash from burnt grass stems float down from the atmosphere everywhere. At this time of the year, almost all the crops have been harvested; the cultivated fields have only dry stalks and stubble of maize and sorghum, and fallow fields, so the fires don’t generally destroy crops. Only the tail end of the cotton crop seems to be still being picked.

New pasture growth where old growth was burned off.  Picture: James Robb

New pasture growth appearing where old growth was burned off. Photo: James Robb

When I asked about these fires, I was usually given the explanation that farmers who herd livestock start such fires, for a good reason: at this time of the year, the available pasture grasses are so dry and lacking in nutrients, the animals starve rather than attempt to eat them. The fires stimulate the grasses to generate new growth that is more palatable to the animals. This was certainly the case – we saw many places where new green shoots had appeared in the blackened soil, where there was little or no new growth among the unburnt dry grasses alongside.

Herders drive their cattle along the roadside strip of pasture, Benin Photo: James Robb

Herders drive their cattle along the roadside strip of pasture, Benin Photo: James Robb

We saw farmers with herds of up to fifty Brahman cattle grazing these scorched areas alongside the road, as well as small herds of goats and sheep. The main limit on the destructiveness of the fires seems to be that they are lit so frequently, there is never a lot to fuel them. These are naturally grasslands dotted with trees and thinly forested areas: to what extent periodic fires are part of the natural ecology of the region, as they are in Australia, it is difficult to guess from superficial observations like these.

Wood from trees killed but not consumed by the grass fires becomes the main source of fuel for cooking   Photo: James Robb

Wood from trees killed but not consumed by the grass fires becomes the main source of fuel for cooking Photo: James Robb

However, the fires clearly cause tremendous environmental damage, because they burn the trees as well as the grass (not to mention other things – along one stretch of road in Ghana we saw stumps of wooden power poles hanging by the wires they were meant to be supporting, where the fires had burned away the bottom part of the pole.) The largest trees cast such a shadow around them that grass doesn’t usually grow near their trunks – these trees therefore generally survive the fires, albeit sometimes with scorched foliage on the edges. Thus it is not unusual to see a healthy five-hundred-year-old Baobab tree apparently untouched in the middle of one of these scorched areas – and obviously it must have survived many similar fires in the past. Palms seem to be able to sprout new leaves even after all the old leaves have been burned. The young trees are hit hard, however. The grasslands are dotted with mimosas and acacias and many other kinds of tree, and the fires take a huge toll on the smaller trees.

Vast quantities of firewood are needed for cooking. Firewood pile, Larabanga village, northern Ghana

Vast quantities of firewood are needed for cooking. Firewood pile, Larabanga village, northern Ghana. Photo: James Robb

The trees killed by the fires, when they are not totally consumed by the fires, then become a ready source of dry wood, which is the main fuel for cooking in this region.

Village boys with a cane rat they trapped after the harvest

Koussoukoingou village boys with a cane rat they caught after the harvest                                           Photo: James Robb

Another explanation is sometimes given for why these fires are started: the time after the crops have been harvested is the main time of year for hunting the small animals that live in the fields, as a supplementary source of meat. Hunters will set fire to a field of stubble in order to force the cane rats (which they called agouti) that live amongst the maize to flee, making it easier to hunt them. We saw a group of young boys following the path of one fire, using hoes and picks to open up the burrows where cane rats had taken refuge from the fire. (The cane rat is not your average rat – it is a big enough animal to be worth hunting – see the photo). The method is also used beyond the croplands – whole hillsides were blackened in the mountains beyond the villages. This is a very ancient and very destructive hunting technique – I find it incredible that it is still in use, as a means of meeting the nutritional needs of human beings, in the twenty-first century. Equally incredible is the fact that firewood is the main fuel for cooking.

Cane rat, after its hair had been burned off in preparation fro eating. Bushmeat such as this is an important part of the diet here.

Cane rat, after its hair had been burned off in preparation fro eating. Bushmeat such as this is an important part of the diet here. Photo: James Robb

In the fifteen years from 1990, the percentage of Benin’s land area that has forest cover declined from 30% to 21%, Togo’s from 12.6% to 7.1%. Deforestation, and the advance of the desert, is a major problem. Clearly, measures to tackle it must be intertwined with a drive to raise the technical level of agriculture – and of cooking! I can think of no better proof of the fact that a fight to modernise the economy and raising the living standards of the majority of the world’s people is not only compatible with, but inseparable from, the fight to defend the natural environment.

Thomas Sankara in 1985

Thomas Sankara in 1985

On this question, as on so many others, Thomas Sankara, leader of the revolution in Burkina Faso in 1983-87, showed the way. “I am merely a humble spokesperson who refuses to watch himself die for having passively watched his natural environment die,” Sankara said. The revolutionary government he led mobilised the producers of Burkina Faso to sink hundreds of wells to bring potable water to millions who had no access previously, to plant ten million trees in a fifteen-month campaign, and to build and distribute fuel-efficient stoves that greatly reduced the consumption of wood, as an interim step while finding other sources of fuel. The cutting and sale of firewood was brought under strict control, overseen by the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. Every happy event, such as weddings, christenings, presentation of awards, and others, was celebrated with tree-planting ceremonies. Steps were taken to end the destructive semi-nomadic practices of cattle-herding, and to keep cattle confined within certain areas. At the same time Sankara campaigned internationally against the imperialist domination of West African economies that kept these countries enslaved by debt and thus perpetuated the environmentally destructive practices. “Imperialism is the pyromaniac setting fire to our forests and savannah,” he said.

The Burkinabè revolution was cut short by a counter-revolutionary coup and the assassination of Sankara in 1987. But with the overthrow in October 2014 of the dictator Blaise Compaoré, the fires of revolution can be kindled once again in the region, without which the colossal problem of deforestation will not be solved.

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