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Nigerians experiment with wildfire prevention methods

July 06, 2023
topic:Sustainable Agriculture
tags:#wildlife, #biodiversity, #wildfire, #agricultur
by:Ekpali Saint
Francis Onabe still remembers the event of 22 March, 2020 vividly.  That day, bush fire set by a farmer escalated and spread to his farmland, destroying all his crops in Olum, his community in Nigeria’s southeastern Cross River State.

Olum is one of the 16 communities that surround the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary - a habitat to endangered species including the Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti), drills (Mandrillus leucophaeus) and a variety of trees and birds.

But this sanctuary is often threatened by fires set by farmers during the dry season. Typically, farmers in Olum burn their farm brushes as preparation for the next farming season, believing that setting fire to brushes before planting crops will help them get a bumper harvest. But in most cases, these fires often spread and destroy crops, biodiversity and ecosystems in the area. 

For Onabe, the last wildfire incident was “an everlasting regret. It destroyed all my crops [including] plantain, banana and cocoyam.” He added that he lost crops worth millions of Naira (Nigerian currency) following the incident. 

Spreading wildfires is a global concern. Each year, fires affect an estimated four million square kilometres - nearly five times the size of Nigeria - of earth’s land, according to the European Space Agency. As per the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, at least 470 wildfire disasters have been reported globally since 1911, causing at least $120 billion in damages and affecting more than 17 million people. 

These result from human activities like farming and animal hunting, as well as naturally occurring fires, Samuel Odunlami, a senior lecturer at University of Port Harcourt’s department of forestry and wildlife management, said. 

Odunlami explained that wildfires erupt naturally when lightning strikes and ignites dry trees and plants during the dry season. He added, “fire occurs more when humidity - amount and quantity of water in the moving air - is low.”

As climate change worsens, wildfires are becoming more frequent and severe due to warmer temperatures causing dry vegetation to act as fuel. With climate change continuing to bring higher temperatures, the risk of dangerous wildfires is expected to increase further.

Africa accounts for 70 percent of the world’s burned area. Nigeria alone lost 2.61 kilohectares (kha) of tree cover from fires from 2001 to 2021, according to data from Global Forest Watch, an online platform that provides data and tools for monitoring forests.

Cross River lost 493 hectares (ha) of tree cover to fires during this period, with 2020 experiencing the most significant loss of 223ha.

Preventing wildfire

Although the majority of wildfires in Nigeria are caused by human activities, the Small Mammal Conservation Organisation (SMACON) is taking action to prevent such incidents in Cross River State, which holds a significant portion of Nigeria's remaining rainforest, as part of their commitment to protecting small mammals and their habitat through evidence-based conservation.

The NGO was co-founded in 2016 by Iroro Tanshi, who currently directs the organisation’s research program, and Benneth Obitte, who directs the conservation program. 

Inieke Udokang, SMACON’s community engagement and research manager, said wildfires don’t affect crops alone, but also biodiversity in the forest, threatening endangered species like the short-tailed roundleaf bat, which the nonprofit conserves. 

“[The reason] we prevent fires in Cross River State forests is to protect and restore the habitats of most plants and animals in the forest. When this fire occurs, it doesn’t just destroy plants and animals, but also decimates hundreds of farms,” Udokang told FairPlanet. “We [prevent wildfires] not just to protect the habitats, but by trying to protect our bat species and local livelihoods; we are also trying to protect the forest and protect every animal and plant life that is in that forest.” 

In August 2021, SMACON conducted sociological surveys in five communities, including Olum, which are linked to the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary. The surveys, which involved focus group discussions and interviews with local communities, were aimed at identifying the drivers of wildfires in the forest before SMACON's intervention.

SMACON's findings revealed that farmers burning farm brushes for the next farming season were the primary cause of wildfires in the area. In response, SMACON initiated a conservation action plan that included the installation of weather stations in all five communities in January 2022 to provide them with vital weather data.

Each day, data from the weather stations are used to model the early warning fire system. SMACON then communicates results from the system to communities through a colour-coded signpost mounted at strategic locations. SMACON has trained community members and farmers on how to interpret the different colours on the signpost.

“These indications are mostly to show them the right time to burn their farm brushes,” said Udokang, explaining that “The idea of us communicating wildfire risk like what we have in the signpost is deployed often in [countries like] the US and Australia, where they have wildfires as huge problem. We adopted some of their ideas in addition to the research we have conducted.”

In order to prevent fires from spreading, SMACON has employed teams of 10 forest guardians from each of the five communities, resulting in 50 forest guardians in total. These guardians regularly patrol farmlands, particularly on high-risk days, to mitigate the risk of wildfires.

In addition to their training, the forest guardians were provided with equipment to carry during their patrols in farmlands, as well as a stipend."[Forest guardians] are equipped with fire-fighting gear and have successfully managed over 35 fire incidents in the last five seasons," Udokang said. 

“To us, [SMACON’s] intervention is more important than the money [because] we have not had any case of wildfire in our forest since last year,” Donatus Ofre, coordinator of the forest guardians in Olum community, told FairPlanet. 

 He further explained that prior to SMACON's intervention, farmers would often destroy their own crops by hand after planting them. However, the organization helped to change their perception by demonstrating that it is possible to achieve a good yield without resorting to burning.

For Onabe, SMACON’s intervention has solved the interconnected problems linked to wildfire events. Besides the destruction of crops and forests, Onabe said wildfire events often result in conflicts between his and the neighbouring Buancho community over who is responsible for the spread of fire to the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary.

“Since last year, no one has complained of any damage. We are very impressed with the conservation group,” Onabe said. 

Despite this, Udokang stated that a major challenge is getting every member of the community to strictly adhere to the warning signposts, as some still continue to set fire in their farmlands. “If [farmers] do not get the intervention of forest guardians, it means the fire will escalate, because sometimes these people set fire in their farmlands and go home.”

To address this, Udokang said SMACON worked with community leaders to promote wildfire laws. "In each of these communities,  we sat down, had meetings and deliberated on laws. They have laws. We then helped them to develop these laws, typed them out and we talked to them on how to enforce these laws,” Udokang explained.

Although aimed at one goal, the laws are unique to each community. In Olum, for instance, the law imposed a penalty on anyone setting fire without consulting the forest guardians. 

“If you set fire without consulting the forest guardians, you will pay N20, 000 [€39.46]. If you set fire and it escalates, you will pay N50, 000 [€98.65] to the community,” Onabe said. “If you set fire and it escalates and destroys things, the community will collect N100, 000 [€197.31] from you and you negotiate with the person whose crops were destroyed.” 

He added that the money the community collects is usually used for development purposes. “We used money collected last year to fix our bridge,” Onabe, chairman of all traditional rulers in Olum, said.

A policy gap

Odunlami emphasized the importance of policy formulation and implementation in preventing wildfires. Additionally, in farming communities like Olum, Odunlami suggested that the government should engage with locals regularly and provide education on matters related to wildfires.

“There are really no serious efforts by the government in terms of policy formulation to control wildfires,” Odunlami said, adding that “There is a need for awareness creation particularly in the areas that often experience wildfire. People in the rural areas should be properly informed about the issue of wildfire, [and] there should be deliberate policy formulation and implementation to control wildfire.” 

“There is a need for regular engagement between government officials and the people especially during the dry season,” he further stated. “But this can only take place when the government sees it as a priority otherwise nothing will happen.” 

Regardless, Udokang said that SMACON is still dedicated to research and conservation. “We are addressing a perennial problem and what we are doing is crucial that saves wild places for biodiversity in Nigeria’s last remaining primary forest. So this is a crucial work that has implications for biodiversity, climate, and people.” 

With funding support from the Whitley Fund for Nature, the Wildlife Conservation Network, Future for Nature and The Rufford Foundation, SMACON has continued to protect endangered species and prevent wildfire events in Cross River State.

As part of its conservation efforts, Udokang said SMACON partnered with the park authorities, including the Cross River State Forestry Commission and National Park. “We also partner with other NGOs. For example, we collaborated with WCS [Wildlife Conservation Society] to help prevent wildfires elsewhere on the Obudu plateau,” she added.

In the meantime, Onabe is recovering from the 2020 wildlife event and is feeling confident about resuming farming activities. He believes that SMACON’s intervention is timely. “We welcome the development [and] hope to keep it up, [because] it is to our benefit.”

Article written by:
Ekpali Saint
Forest Guardians from the Boje community.
Forest Guardians from the Boje community.
Training of the newly employed FG.
Training of the newly employed FG.
Training farmers on the interpretation of color coded signpost.
Training farmers on the interpretation of color coded signpost.