Developing participatory forest fire management strategies, with special reference to sub-Saharan Africa

Mike Jurvélius 1


The number and severity of forest fires are increasing in many parts of the world and it is becoming more difficult to predict them. With support from the international community, countries are developing mitigation procedures for wildfires, the majority of which are caused by human activities. A central question, therefore, is how to develop and implement strategies that balance the technical aspects of fire suppression with those related to human causes.

Some countries have put into practice efficient technologies and management systems for fire detection and suppression. Many others have achieved encouraging results through participatory fire management schemes or schemes that incorporate both aspects. The present paper describes ways to develop and implement participatory processes in forest fire prevention, detection and control that both build human capabilities and strengthen relevant institutions. Based on experiences, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the paper also contains a checklist for planning and implementing sound forest fire management programmes. In addition, it underlines the importance of training modules that include information on methods of prescribed burning and on situations in which fire should be excluded.

This paper proposes a checklist of activities and actions in participatory forest fire management. The actions and activities are proposed to adjust and remedy identified problems in existing sustainable forest fire management programmes.

The lack of ensuring participation of stakeholders in forest fire management planning has been increasingly identified over the past decade as being among the reasons for the increase in the number and spread of wildfires. There is growing realization at national and international levels of the need to address this aspect (see for example a number of articles in International Forest Fire News, IFFN2).

The strategy that is outlined below has been thoroughly tested in a number of countries between 1996 and 2002.

The recommended steps to achieve sustainability in the sound management of forest fire are not likely to be achievable in one fire season, but may require several fire seasons for adaptation to local conditions and testing, prior to implementation. It is important to tie proposed fire management measures to the dissemination of information, for example on the effect of wildfires on the availability of non wood forest products (NWFP): local communities who may consider frequent burning of forests and woodlands a common and accustomed event, may not realize the links between fire and availability of needed products, nor acknowledge the social, economic and ecological losses due to fire (IFFN 26).

Fire awareness campaigns will only yield results once those directly concerned are convinced about the advantages of newly introduced techniques, methods and procedures (Virtanen 2000).Even when overall attitudes towards fire and burning have been changed at local level, based on first-hand experiences, some delays will usually take place before actual behavioural change is manifested in local communities. Impacts of awareness raising campaigns will generally take 3-5 years to take effect.

Historically, the use of fire in Southern Africa was controlled by the Traditional Authorities (TA) who restricted the use of fire to certain planned occasions and events, such as hunting. The use of fire by local people required permission from the TA.

However, during colonial times new fire legislation and no-burn policies were introduced, starting from the end of the 17th century. These policies and practices were modelled on those e.g. in Europe. Local practices and, consequently, earlier control mechanisms, were evoked or became invalid.

While the TAs were stripped of authority to control fires, local people soon realized that the colonial officers implementing the fire bans were seldom present due to the remoteness of many areas. Because of lack of supervision, fire was increasingly frequently used by the local population at the beginning of last century. The use of prescribed burning was forgotten and local people started to believe that the indiscriminate use of fire was a part of the inherited traditions. By 1970, almost all forest and woodlands in southern Africa were fully or partially burned every year, due to such indiscriminate and widespread use of fire, coupled with rapid increases in human populations.

Widespread fires in 1995 in the Caprivi region in Namibia triggered the awareness among TAs that something had to be done to curb the burning and fires. Three hundred heads of local cattle had died that year only, due to starvation or by feeding on noxious plants in the absence of available grazing. The TAs developed a common fire initiative which was forwarded to the Government, proposing that action be taken to remedy the situation starting from the end of the rainy season in early 1996.

The fire data initially collected in North-Eastern Namibia in 1996 was similar to the data from the neighbouring countries of Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana: from 50 to 85% of the forests, woodlands and savanna was reported to burn each year.

In meetings with traditional leaders, technical staff discussed possible fire management strategies and steps that should be taken to reverse the trend of increasing, uncontrolled fires, aimed at restoring the situation to one in which the use of fire in the region was practiced in an environmentally sustainable manner.

When collecting data to serve as a basis for a study underpinning the above discussions, it was found that when men were interviewed, the main reason given for burning was because of "traditions", inherited from father to son (Heikkila 1993). When women were asked the same questions, they stated that most wildfires had escaped from controlled agricultural burning, a task that was exclusively carried out by women. Similar interview data was collected in Mozambique in 2001 in meetings with traditional leaders and local farmers associations held in the province of Zambezia.

Based on the above, it was evident that in order to prepare a viable strategy for sustainable fire management in which local people are involved, gender aggregated baseline data was needed.

Although the clearing of new land for shifting cultivation was carried out by men, it was found that spot-burning to kill and remove stumps and trees from clearings was mainly done by women, who also carried out all agricultural burning following the harvesting of crops.

Gender aggregated data from pilot regions shoved that 80% of the number of all fires was lit by women. Thus, it was concluded that the fire awareness programmes should be to a large extent target women, not men as had been previously the case (USDA 1993).

Based on experiences especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, the following activities are proposed for planning and implementing sound forest fire programmes, which give due consideration to both technical issues and stakeholder involvement.

The sections above have dealt with the steps to take to achieve sustainable participatory approaches in forest fire management. These steps need to be complemented by training.

Issues related to training in forest fire management are complex; there is a need to cover both fire inclusion and fire exclusion in curricula and training programmes. Frequently, there is a generalized need to train staff in Government agencies, NGOs and local populations, in various aspects of forest fire management. This will include providing information on efficient methods of prescribed (controlled) burning as well as information on situations in which fire should be excluded.

Staff responsible for forest fire management and local people alike, need to appreciate and understand the role and relationship between the basic components of fire (fuel, heat, oxygen), as well as the principles of fire behaviour. In addition, they need to master, at least in principle the skills of prescribed burning. Such knowledge will form the basis of a more common understanding of local fire ecology, including the role of trees and forests and the requirements of fire for regeneration of forests and trees.

The generalized view that that local people will not understand complex biological and ecological issues such as those mentioned above, has been proven wrong in many instances. Tens of thousands of local people and government staff were trained in forest fire management and related activities in Namibia and in Mozambique in the 1990s and early 2000. Only very few of those who received training were not able to relate the environmental information to their own community or home area. Local people, being dependent on the environment for survival and well-being, are often keen observers and knowledgeable about nature surrounding them. Discussion on the relation between everyday village life and forest fires will help them better to understand both immediate and longer term impacts of forest fires and of the use of fire.

The adverse economic, social and environmental impacts of HIV/AIDS are becoming increasingly evident, and have reached catastrophic dimensions in many regions, notably in sub-Saharan Africa. Countries are facing formidable challenges in attempting to mitigate the impacts. There is an urgent need to help countries in distress to develop and implement multi-sectoral strategies to face the multitude of problems which have emerged. Therefore it is a need to combine HIVV/AIDS education, targeting youth, with the local education in fire management in the countries worst hit by the pandemic. This educational activity will help to lessen the occurrence of wildfires started in connection with agricultural land clearing activities which, over the past years, have increased due to labour shortages and lack of experience by the, often orphaned youth, presently carrying out the task

The key to a success in delivering relevant information to local people in fire awareness campaigns or in training of fire instructors lies in setting the right and relevant learning objectives for the participants (Oriondo 1989).

The outcome of training of Fire Instructors should include enhanced knowledge and know-how, in line with the below:


The step-by-step process to an integrated approach to forest fire management outlined above is among the options which have been applied successfully in savanna forests, woodlands and flood plains in sub-Saharan Africa. It illustrates the complexity of the issue, and underscores the need for capacity building at the local level and for setting and monitoring the achievement of training and learning. In order to achieve sustainability of participatory and integrated forest fire management programmes, the various components reviewed will need to be carefully considered.

The ecological zones in which the pilot approaches in fire management described were developed and implemented, covers an area of 300 million hectares in Southern Africa; the socio-cultural conditions and, to some extent, also the structures of TAs are similar in countries in this area. The applicability of this integrated forest fire management approach could, in principle, cover a much larger area in Africa, such as parts of Burkina Faso, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa. This savanna area covers 20% of the African continent. (Trollope 1998).

Historically, lands in this ecological zone have been affected by fire every 12 years, which makes fire exclusion impossible; the indigenous trees found in this region frequently do not germinate without being exposed to fire, while too frequent fires will destroy any emerging tree seedlings and saplings Further north the fire cycle has been estimated to have been 8 years (Max-Planck 1994). Natural regeneration will not take place with the present rate of 50-85% of the land area burned each year and, when old forest is cleared, no new forest will emerge if fire is not kept out.

It is important to develop or improve the implementation of existing forest fire management strategies in countries in this geographical region. Such strategies should stress the need to fully include the Government, TAs and representatives of the local populations in all stages of the programme, from the planning to the implementation stages. The checklist outlined in section four, may help support action towards participatory and integrated fire management.

There is also a need for awareness rising and training of Government officials and local people alike. The curricula should clearly define objectives and learning targets.

In addition to overall understanding of issues at stake and technical knowledge and skills in forest fire management, the success of participatory and integrated approaches also depend on feelings of "ownership" of the new techniques introduced on the part of all stakeholders. The key to success is the demonstrable and equitable sharing of benefits derived from the forest fire management activities.

Literature cited

Curzon L. 1991. Teaching in Further Education, Oxford, UK. pp. 388

Heikkilä, T. Grönquist, R. Jurvélius, M. 1993. Handbook on Forest Fire Control: A Guide for Trainers FTP/Finland No. 21, Helsinki, Finland. pp. 239

IFFN. 2002. International Forest Fire News; (ECE/FAO/ILO) No 26 January-June 2002. 113 pp.

Max-Planck-Institut für Chemie, Abteilung Biogeochemie. 1994. Feuern in der Umwelt; Ursachen und kologishe Auswirkungen von Vegetationsbränden, Konsquenzen für Atmosphäre und Klima. Freiburg, Germany. 136 pp.

NFFP. 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001. Namibia-Finland Forestry Programme Progress Report on IFFM Component. Windhoek, Namibia

Oriondo L, Dallo-Antonio E. 1989; Evaluating Educational Outcomes. Manila, Philippines. 240 pp.

Le Roux, J. 2000. Mapping Wildfire in North-Eastern Namibia; A Guide to Basic Remote Sensing & GIS Principles and Techniques. National Remote Sensing Centre, Directorate of Forestry, MET, Windhoek, Namibia. 51 pp.

Rowell A. Moore P. 1991. WWF/IUCN. Global Review of Forest Fires, Gland, Switzerland. 64 pp.

Trollope, W. 1998. Effect and Use of Fire in the Savanna Areas of Southern Africa. Department of Livestock & pasture Science, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Fort Hare, Alice, South Africa. 46 pp.

USDA. 1993. Systematic Fire Protection and International Forestry; A Case Study in Botswana, Portland, USA. 21 pp.

Virtanen, K. 2000. An Investigation of Attitudes to Forest Fires. Katima Mulilo, Namibia. 36 pp.

1 Forestry Officer (Forest Fire Management), Forest Resources Development Services, Forest Resources Division, Forestry Department, FAO, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100, Rome Italy. [email protected]

2 "International Forest Fire News (IFFN)", published by the Team of Specialists on Forest Fire of the joint FAO/ECE/ILO Committee on Forest Technology, Management and Training; Timber Section UN-ECE Trade Division and the GFMC (http://www.fire.uni-freiburg.de/iffn/iffn.htm).