Wed, Aug 28, 2019 - Page 6 News List

African forest fires join spotlight after G7 outcry


In NASA satellite images, forest fires in central Africa appear to burn alarmingly like a red chain from Gabon to Angola, similar to the blazes in Brazil’s Amazon that have sparked global outcry.

At the G7 summit this week, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted about the central Africa fires and said that nations were examining a similar initiative to the one proposed to combat Brazil’s blazes.

G7 nations have pledged US$20 million on the Amazon, mainly on firefighting aircraft.

Macron’s concern might be legitimate, but experts have said that central Africa’s rainforest fires are often more seasonal and linked to traditional seasonal farming methods.

No doubt the region is key for the climate: The Congo Basin forest is commonly referred to as the “second green lung” of the planet after the Amazon rainforest.

The forests cover an area of 3.3 million square kilometers in several countries, including about a third in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) and the rest in Gabon, Cameroon and Central Africa.

Just like the Amazon, the forests of the Congo Basin absorb tonnes of carbon dioxide in trees and peat marshes — seen by experts as a key way to combat climate change.

They are also sanctuaries for endangered species, but most of the fires shown on the NASA maps of Africa are outside sensitive rainforest areas, analysts have said, and drawing comparisons to the Amazon is also complex.

“The question now is to what extent we can compare,” said Philippe Verbelen, a Greenpeace forest campaigner working on the Congo Basin.

“Fire is quite a regular thing in Africa. It’s part of a cycle. People in the dry season set fire to bush rather than to dense, moist rainforest,” Verbelen said.

Guillaume Lescuyer, a central African expert at the French agricultural research and development center CIRAD, also said that the fires seen in NASA images were mostly burning outside the rain forest.

The Angolan government also urged caution, saying that swift comparisons to the Amazon might lead to “misinformation of more reckless minds.”

The fires were usual at the end of the dry season, the Angolan Ministry of Environment said.

“It happens at this time of the year, in many parts of our country, and fires are caused by farmers with the land in its preparation phase, because of the proximity of the rainy season,” it said.

Although less publicized than the Amazon, the Congo Basin forests still face dangers.

“The forest burns in Africa, but not for the same causes,” said Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, an ambassador and climate negotiator for the DR Congo.

“In the Amazon, the forest burns mainly because of drought and climate change, but in central Africa, it is mainly due to agricultural techniques,” he said.

Many farmers use slash-and-burn farming to clear forest. In the DR Congo, only 9 percent of the population has access to electricity and many people use wood for cooking and energy.

Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi has said that the rainforests would be threatened if the country does not add to its hydro-electric capacity.

Deforestation is also a risk in Gabon and parts of the DR Congo, as well as damage from mining and oil projects.

Some countries are now implementing stricter environmental policies. Gabon, for example, has declared 13 national parks that make up 11 percent of its national territory.

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