By Almami Dampha; January 2001
Kaniman Kamara and Clemens Beck, Forestry Department, PO Box 504, Banjul, The Gambia
There are insufficient data on forest fires in The Gambia because of inadequate staffing at the field level and the unwillingness of the population to expose fire offenders for prosecution. It is clear, however, that most of the countrys forest lands are burnt annually. The resulting losses are huge considering the incalculable amounts of timber and fuelwood destroyed and the low agricultural productivity resulting from soil degradation.
The use of fire is intrinsic in the socio-economic activities of the rural population. Because of the nature of the farming system (small-scale and temporal) and the absence of other appropriate means of land preparation, fire is usually resorted to as a way of preparing fields for crop cultivation. Consequently, a significant number of forest fires result from field clearing, because control over these fires was and is still generally lacking. Other traditional causes of forest fires are hunting, honey collection, herding, fuelwood collection and smoking.
State control over the ownership of forest resources caused the general public to have a laissez-faire attitude towards forest fires, especially in the past, when fire prevention and control were seen as the responsibility of the Forestry Department. Following political independence in 1965, government policies put a lot of emphasis on economic development, mainly through the expansion of agricultural crop production - particularly groundnuts - to generate much-needed foreign exchange. Forest lands were seen as fertile land reserves for agriculture, and the only cheap tool for converting forests to other land uses was fire. Thus forest fires were not seen as detrimental as long as they facilitated farm preparation. Forested land area was relatively large compared with the demand of the population. The situation gradually worsened as the need for more cultivable land increased.
The issue of forest fires has been a major concern for The Gambian Government since the late 1970s. Policy instruments have been put in place to deal with forest fires, and these are starting to bear fruit. Since its creation in 1977, the Forestry Department has been active in forest fire prevention and suppression, including the clearing of firebreaks along managed forest parks and the launching of radio programmes to increase public awareness. Controlled early burning is encouraged around forest parks and community forests.
After nearly two decades of conventional forest management, in 1990 the Department of Forestry piloted the community forestry concept, which has been modified over the years and is now applied countrywide. One of the goals of community forestry is to reinstate public interest in the sustainable use of forest resources by transferring forest ownership from the state to deserving communities. It was hoped that this gesture on the part of the state would engender public participation in the crusade against forest fires.
Seven years after the first transfer of forest ownership to local communities, there was no significant reduction in the frequency of forest fires nationwide. There are a few areas where forest fires are becoming rare and it is encouraging that public awareness about forest fires has increased greatly. Indications are that people are willing to change their attitudes positively and that local forest ownership promotes this. This was confirmed by a nationwide comparative survey of villages with and without involvement in community forestry.
This study shows that there is profound indigenous knowledge about the causes, effects and prevention of fire and makes various recommendations on the local management of fires.