Burundi’s natural reserves threatened by wildfires that sweep away savannahs and forests

Burundi’s natural reserves threatened by wildfires that sweep away savannahs and forests

By Espoir Iradukunda

From the end of June to the beginning of September each year, wildfires occur nationwide in Burundi’s wildlife reserves, caused by first farmers who use traditional agricultural methods as well as breeders in search for fresh pasture. The flames last around 16 weeks, according to environmentalists.

“Approximately 1,000 hectares are burnt to ashes nationwide due to bushfires nearby reserves and forests. More than 200 hectares went up in smoke at Rukambasi in the commune of Nyanza-lac,” said Léonidas Nzigiyimpa,  an environmentalist at Conservation et Communauté de Changement-3C, who is also a representative and former director of the Burundi Environment Protection Authority (OBPE).

The technique of methodologically burning areas of land is a traditional method used by breeders to create fresh grass for animals to breed, or to remove existing vegetation to allow farmers to replant. However, these fires can also have destructive consequences on the ecosystem. In Burundi, bushfires are also prohibited within the boundaries of the protected areas.

“It’s a worrying phenomenon because the devastation caused by these bush fires is extremely numerous and harmful, especially as they are slow-burning fires as opposed to premature ones”, said Nzigiyimpa. 

In July 2023 for example, a wildfire started on Gatsiro hill in Vyanda commune, in Rumong province, southwestern Burundi. According to local authorities, the reserve caught fire when the wind swept into an area of burning grass. A local farmer was arrested for allegedly starting the fire, said Bayaga Larisson, the chief of Gatsiro locality.

“The prosecutor will carry out and shed light whether [the farmer] started it willingly or not,” Larisson said.

A country-wide problem

The extent of the wildfires depends on the region, according to the general director of OBPE, Jean Berchmans Hatungimana. In 2017 and 2018, nationwide, between 700 and 900 hectares were burnt in total. In 2019, about 800 hectares were decimated nationwide, he said. 

However, these estimates conflict with data collected by InfoNile and Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism for the #WildEye Eastern Africa map. According to information reported in local news outlets in Burundi,  there were at least 13 cases of illegal wildfires between 2010 and 2020 that burned up about 8,000 hectares of land, mostly in northern, western and southwestern Burundi.

These included a case in 2020, where around 100 hectares were burned by unidentified criminals in the Rukoko forest in Bubanza province, western Burundi. About 170 hectares of trees were burned later in the same year in Ngozi province in the north of the country.

In Rumonge, southwestern Burundi on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, there were eight cases tracked of fires in Vyanda Forest Nature Reserve and nearby reserves. However, no investigations were conducted to identify or charge perpetrators.

More data is needed to elaborate on the extent of the fires across the country, the environmental experts said.

However, in Kibira National Park, Hatungimana said this phenomenon is starting to disappear, which he thinks shows that local residents are becoming more aware of the problem.

While the fires mainly destroy grasslands, some tree cover is lost as well. According to forest monitoring tool Global Forest Watch (GFW), from 2001 to 2021, Burundi lost 17 hectares of tree cover from fires and 31,800 hectares from all other drivers of loss. 

In addition, according to GFW data, the regions of Bururi, Cibitoke, and Bujumbura saw 55 percent of all tree cover loss between 2001 and 2021. Bururi, which contains Bururi Forest Nature Reserve in southern Burundi, had the most tree cover loss at 7,550 hectares compared to a national average of 1,870 hectares.

Hatungimana, the director of OPBE, said that between July and September, people set fire to most natural reserves in Burundi at least twice. The period refers to summer when the sun hits hard and no one can stop flames. 

According to Hatungimana, bushfires have recently been observed in Bururi and Rukoko forests (western Burundi), as well as in Ruvubu National Park (eastern) and Vyanda Forest Nature Reserve (southern). In these areas, more than 950 hectares are reported to be burnt each year, he said.

Jeanne Bukuru, 32 and a mother of 4, resides at the edge of Kibira forest in northwestern Burundi and said she has been depending on the forest for ages. 

“My small farm is some miles from Kibira; I have been cultivating since I was younger. I farm mainly beans, maize, and cassava,” she said. “At the end of a busy working day, my kids and I ran into the forest to search for firewood. We catch only fallen wood branches.

“Also sometimes, we collect leftovers of charcoal; there are people who illegally tiptoe inside the forest to cut trees for charcoal, which is a very lucrative business.”

For years, Bukuru said she has witnessed people who have been cultivating on the edges of the forest to add to their plots of land. Sometimes this is done by setting wildfires. In addition, it is often done in the sight of authorities, she said.

A family coming from Parc National de la Kibira in Kayanza with firewood.

Eric Manirakiza, a resident of the same locality, said some animal species seem to have disappeared from when he was young.

“For example, there are mammals that run away in summer when wildfires are recorded and they do not come back. Most of the time, bushfires start around 5 p.m. in Kibira; this is the time cattle breeders return home,” he said.

Manirakiza added that when flames are high, they call authorities, but sometimes it takes hours for them to arrive. Sometimes, he said, they come the next day after hectares have been burnt to ashes. 

‘Management fires’

“Early fires commonly named slow-burning are management fires. They occur in April and May when there is still rain to manage the pastures and create fresh grass. In protected areas where there are mammals such as cattle, small and large mammals, that's where these fires are needed because these animals need pasture,” said the environmentalist and former director of OBPE, Nzigiyimpa.

However, we need to fight fiercely against late fires that occur in June, July, August, September and early October, which are highly destructive, Nzigiyimpa said. 

“In the summer, the grass is already hot; the biomass is dry and when there are fires, they devastate everything, destroy everything. All the flora and fauna is washed due to the flames,” he said.

On August 1 in Rukoko, northwestern Burundi, police and soldiers alongside the local community quashed the bushfires that were raging the perimeter of Rukoko not far from the national road 5. According to the police, around five hectares of land had been ravaged by fires.

“In the dry season, it's good to know that it's prudent to guard fire carefully to avoid any risk relating to bushfires... Dry grass can catch fire even from a small cigarette butt left somewhere, without taking into account the danger that this act can cause to the environment,” issued the police in a statement.

Early fires are less violent and are called management tools for the natural ecosystems of protected areas, Nzigiyimba said. They are used to monitor and control the forest canopy. Nzigiyimba said that this was done in the past in the Ruvubu park aiming at creating pastures for the buffalo that live in these protected areas. 

But experts stress that it is necessary to burn with very precise objectives to create pastures. Otherwise, the fires can destroy ecosystems.

First, there is the loss of biodiversity, reported by Claver Sibomana, Lecturer and Researcher at the National University of Burundi in the faculty of Science.  Soil is denuded, which accentuates or leads to erosion. Then there is the loss of carbon sinks. Trees build up their stocks. Forests are also water towers. With their disappearance, you stop water infiltration, Sibomana said.

“Almost all the protected areas in Burundi are water reservoirs. When you light late fires, the vegetation cover is erased. As a result, during the rainy season, the water is no longer retained and does not infiltrate into the shallows,” he said.

“The other consequence is that when greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), are released back into the atmosphere, you are contributing to the worsening of the harmful effects of climate change,” added Sibomana. 

Nzigidahera Bénoît, an environmental consultant who conducted research on vulnerability and adaptation to climate change in Burundi, said that early fires carried out while it is still the wet season, between April and May, do not cause much damage. 

“First firebreaks are opened. These are paths that we build and clean up. They vary in width from 3 to 6 meters. The taller the grass, the wider the firebreaks have to be. When there are bushfires, the flames won't jump these spaces. This is an ancient technique, even used around artificial woodland,” he said.

Advanced techniques, mostly practiced by specialists, also include setting fire to a 100-meter strip and extinguishing it over a certain length. If criminals set a fire and the flames reach this strip, the fire will stop. It's a way of putting out fire with fire and getting ahead of accidental fires, Nzigidahera said.

“Other, more sophisticated techniques use new information and communication technologies for surveillance. With remote sensing and satellites, fires can be monitored from a distance, from an office or a base. Unfortunately, Burundi does not have this technology,” he concluded.

Widespread impunity

Burundi’s Forestry Code, established in 1984 and amended in 2016, prevents the destruction of forests by bushfires. In the old law, when someone was caught burning a woodland area of 1 hectare, the fine was BIF 10,000 (USD $3.50). But in the amended law, there are fines of up to BIF 2 million and prison sentences of up to 5 years for such crimes. 

Sadly, the enforcement of these laws remains problematic. Nzigiyimpa testifies that he has seen cases of people who were apprehended for burning a nature reserve who were quickly released.

Experts, advocates, and scientists converge on the lack of proper resources to protect various reserves.

“The officers in charge of protecting protected areas are not sufficiently equipped. They are barefoot. They can't intervene quickly. They have no means of transport or communication. They don't have any fire extinguishing equipment, even though there is appropriate equipment for this kind of activity", said Kazungu Pierre, representative of the hub of cooperatives to protect reserves in Bururi.

Added to this is the lack of a bushfire monitoring centre, as is customary in other countries, he said.

For Jean Marie Sabushimike, a lecturer at the National University and an environmentalist, new information and communication technologies are now being used to help combat bushfires through monitoring and prevention. 

“Sadly in Burundi, there is no technology that allows us to detect fires at any time using satellite images to monitor the whole country. When we talk about the size and recurrence of these bushfires, we see that the figures do not reflect reality,” Sabushimike said.

Protected area agents do not have the means to go to the scene of the fire to record the exact data, and very few forestry officers have a GPS (Global Positioning System).

"There are no environmental police.” The legal representative of 3C, Nzigiyimpa, said that at one point an environmental police force was set up, but was later abolished. “The OBPE uses on-the-ground trained forest guards and eco-guards. They are not organized as they are in other countries,” he said.

“In other countries," he points out, "the water and forestry services are called paramilitaries or corps habillés. Compared to our forest wardens, these are people who are better equipped, who have paramilitary training to meet the challenges of protecting biodiversity in terms of flora and fauna.”

“In our country, these are people who are not equipped and who work like other civil servants. Environmental crimes that occur in these areas can be committed at any time, and they don't have the means to deal with them. In terms of numbers, there are fewer of them, and in terms of quality, they don't have enough skills.”

They are also not sufficiently motivated due to very low salaries, Nzigiyimpa said. According to him, improving the living conditions of the local population is very important in conservation activities, because one of the causes of the destruction of natural resources is poverty.

For him, "lighting bushfires means making communities suffer.” Indeed, he said, agriculture and livestock farming are badly affected. He also mentioned desertification, the direct consequences of which are the destruction of biodiversity and famine.

The solution, according to Ambassador Albert Mbonerane, former Burundian Minister for the Environment and current President of "Ceinture Verte,” a local environmental protection organisation, is to apply the law and punish offenders effectively.

“To deal with them, the ministry of environmental protection must provide substantial resources (men, vehicles, aircraft, helicopters) to support the local fire brigade. The system must then be complemented by preventive measures and surveillance of the mountain ranges, as well as increased vigilance on the part of the forces of law and order,” Mbonerane said.

Sensitisation of communities

The environmentalist and lecturer, Jean Marie Sabushimike, said that protected areas preserve biodiversity, preserve ecosystem services, and promote tourism and ecotourism. Ecotourism is centred on the discovery of ecosystems and involves the active participation of local populations and tourists in safeguarding biodiversity - in short, ensuring protected areas are there for the people.

In some reserves such as Vyanda in southern Burundi, local residents have been sensitized to protect the reserves, mainly Twa ethnic groups who belong to cooperatives monitored by Conservation et Communauté de Changement-3C. 

Marthe Nyinawabo, one of the beneficiaries, said that now she knows how to coexist with animals and respond in the case of emergencies, for example when fires erupt. 

“Now, I am aware that I have to cohabitate with chimpanzees. Even my kids know that it is forbidden to bully them,” she said. “Again, we have been restricted to approach when there is fire; it might be fatal. Rather, we were asked to run to authorities or forest guards.”

IMG 3836
Marthe Nyinawabo, who has been capacitated to alert when bushfires break out in Vyanda, Rumonge province.

However, though the community members are tasked with reporting fires to authorities, they said they have not been able to catch any suspects. By the time the fires have spread, the suspects have already traveled far away.

In Ruvubu reserve in the east of Burundi, residents are investing in income-generating activities, for example producing briquettes for energy instead of charcoal. 

“I have a traditional oven. I use leftovers of maize corn to cook instead of woodfire and charcoal,” said Georgette Manariyo.

Manariyo added that since the forest conservation initiative began, she has never struggled again to find school fees for her two children. 

“I can sustain my family needs while also protecting the forest,” she added. 

This story was supported by InfoNile, in collaboration with the Oxpeckers #WildEye Eastern Africa project, with funding from Earth Journalism Network's Biodiversity Media Initiative project. Photo Credit Arthur Bizimana.

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