Africa is also burning

Climate change, economic issues, poverty and survival are the contributing factors to the thousands of fires that are suffocating central Africa

By Angelo Ferrari

The rain forest of the “dark continent” is the second green lung of the planet and is equally at risk. Climate change is only part of the problem. Without the modernization of agriculture, the practice of “cut and burn” cannot be stopped.

Climate change, economic issues, poverty and survival are the contributing factors to the thousands of fires that are suffocating central Africa. Maybe even more numerous than those that are putting the Amazon at risk. Here in Congo and Angola, the savannas are burning, but also part of the rain forest, the second green lung of the planet.

The practice of burning the savannas, known as “cut and burn,” is not new on the African continent. It is found in most African countries, particularly in the less developed ones. It is a practical measure adopted by peasants and shepherds, widespread and with deep roots. An ancestral land management system, as it were. The Ivory Coast is one example. All of the central, forested area, has been destroyed precisely by this practice in order to create cultivatable lands.


NASA’s NPP Suomi satellite shows thousands of fires in Central Africa on July 11, 2016. The fires are represented by the multitude of red dots.

However, climate change has made this practice even more widespread, precisely because of the loss of cultivatable or fertile lands, or of those usable as pasture. This has unleashed and continues to trigger conflicts in the Sahel over the exploitation of what little land remains.

When climate change hides a social crisis

In some countries, the drought produced by climate change becomes a huge opportunity, a useful narrative, a politically correct storyline, with which to hide the real crises. Kenya is a significant example of this. There is a profound social transformation underway in the country, with rich and powerful urban elites who impact the integrity of the fabric of local communities, which gradually become stripped of their pastoral traditions and practices, communities which are transformed into rural proletariates in service to and in the payroll of powerful locals.

Precisely because of this progressive abandonment of traditions, the drought has found local communities which, for decades, had been able to adapt to cycles of drought, now unprepared. But above all, these communities have ended up in the hands of greedy and super rich politicians, and urban “Tycoons,” who buy up the lands and their herds as investments and, often, as a means of money laundering as a result of corruption.

With shepherds no longer shepherds and the communities no longer a community, the new “rural proletariat” — ever more numerous and poorer, and ever younger — can be, and is, easily recruited for the control and defense of the herds. Well armed youth, who, all of a sudden, can constitute militias for hire, not just in defense of property and herds, but as real, proper militias in the pay of politicians, ready to intervene during elections. The drought and climate change amplify these crises and help provide a fictional emergency narrative.

The backward movement of agriculture

In Central Africa, on the other hand, the lands that are burning constitute a paradigm of lack of development. In most states, the cultivated lands are a small fraction of those available. In the Republic of Congo, just to give an example, only 4% of the cultivatable land is exploited for farming.  And this is a destabilizing factor for African countries. Food security is far from guaranteed. And here, it is not just a question of climate change; rather, it is a question tied to development and the lack of state investment in farming and transformative industry.


For anything to change, subsistence farming in Africa has to become sustainable farming. (Poto: Likezzo Wikimedia Commons.)

For many African countries, farming remains tied to subsistence. The scarcity of means and investments is such that the peasants put their faith in ancestral practices, which once upon a time were sustainable and now risk contributing substantially to the climate disaster. In these areas of the continent, it is not possible to disregard harmonious agricultural and livestock development and environmental sustainability. In these areas, however, it remains more economical for the peasants to burn lands.

Mechanized means are scarce if not absent altogether. When one goes into the fields, in Africa — in the countries that today are the subject for alarm, Congo and Angola — the scene is always this one: in the morning, interminable lines of men and women, and mostly women, leave the villages to go and dig the earth, armed with just one tool: a hoe. The women especially. And you see them with their babies strapped to their backs, stopped over working the soil, under the burning sun. All day and every day. And in the evening, the migration goes in reverse. The tilled land is set alight, the ash making the fields fertile.

It is like this every year before the rainy season. The satellite photo of burning Central Africa is like a punch to the stomach. But soon the dry season will end and make way for the rainy one. We are below the Equator and the seasons are reversed. And so, for those who have no means, the only thing left to do to survive is  to burn.

It is an incomprehensible contradiction that can have only one solution: the development of sustainable agriculture that will free the vast majority of the population from subsistence farming. We are talking about 80 per cent of the population, those who, still, live below the poverty line.

Angelo Ferrari is a professional journalist with the Italian Agency AGI where he is on the Africa desk. He has for many years covered all the problematic areas of Africa, where he has followed the greatest tragedies of the continent: the wars in Rwanda and Somalia, and the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Sierra Leone. 

This article first appeared on  Pressenza and on AGI Overseas, and is republished with kind permission of the author. It is translated from the Italian by Linda Pentz Gunter.

Headline photo, fires in Africa, IUCN.

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