Posted by: rumnet | February 4, 2010

Bushfire Impact Negatively on Livelihoods of the Poor

By Alhassan Imoru

Article published in January 2010 edition of The ADVOCATE:

The harmattan season is here again with the people in Northern Ghana and bushfires, which have become annual rituals, have started consuming the little vegetation that is left in this part of the country.

Bushfires continue unabated each passing year in spite of measures put in by the government to stamp out bush burning through legislation and interventions supported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Ghana National Fire Service.

Such interventions include educational campaigns, training of fire volunteers, provision of basic equipment, and the establishment of laws to punish culprits.

Northern Ghana has been identified as a high fire prone area and annually an average of 65% of the vegetation cover is destroyed by bushfires. It is estimated that about GHC30, 000 (or 300 million old cedis) worth of property including human life, food crops and livestock are lost annually to bushfires in Northern Ghana.

As a result of bushfires, Northern Ghana is highly vulnerable to soil degradation and erosion which results in desertification. Records indicate that 35% of the total land area of Ghana is considered to be at risk of desertification.

Incidentally, these areas include the northern part of Ghana, specifically the Upper East Region, which is the most critical area, the Upper West Region, and the eastern part of the Northern Region.

According to Mr Abu Iddrisu, Northern Regional Head of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the migration of Fulani herdsmen has been one major contributory factor to bushfires in Northern Ghana which has brought untold hardship on the population.

He said the Fulani herdsmen set fire to dry grasses on purpose to make it easier for fresh grass to grow as fodder for their cattle to feed on during the dry season, thereby destroying environmental resources including medicinal plants, folder thatch and rafters which the people need for their survival.

Bushfires consume the little vegetation that is left in the Northern Region

The EPA Regional Head was however of the opinion that the issue of the Fulani herdsmen should be handled at the international level since Ghana is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Mr Iddrisu Issahaku of the Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS), called on the District Assemblies to give priority attention to the 200 Fire Volunteer Squads already established throughout the Northern Region, by supporting them with equipment such as Wellington boots and bicycles. This will enable the fire volunteers to fight bushfires effectively at the community level to protect the environment.

He said the District Assemblies should also enforce bye-laws on bushfires without fear or favour by exacting the penalties for such offences to serve as a deterrent to others.

On his part, the Northern Regional Population Officer, Chief Alhassan Amadu, pointed out that the high population grow rate of 2.8 in the Northern Region, impacts negatively on the environment hence the increase in the threat to desertification.

He therefore stressed the need to conscientise the population to recognize that the environment supports man so man in turn should support the environment.

Model Community

All is not lost as far as the management of bushfires in the Northern Region is concerned. The Bowku community which is about 5km from Langbinsi in the West Mamprusi District has chalked success in the management of bushfire in its environs for the past 10 years.

This was attested to during the 2002 Farmers’ Day Awards, when Bowku won the Best Non-burning community award in the Northern Region. It has since become a model community for experience sharing and research.

Burning is done in the community today only by gathering the stakes, which are burnt in patches, to allow for bullock ploughing, while those who plough with tractors do not burn at all.

Non-burning has become a household word in Bowku and efforts are being made to get the neighboring communities to adhere to this environmentally sound practice. To this end, Bowku community is to start a bushfire festival (Tesungku Chou) to commemorate its success story.

Currently, CARE International, the University for Development Studies (UDS), the Presbyterian Agricultural Station in Langbinsi and the Bowku community are undertaking a partnership project known as Bushfire Management and Rural Livelihood in Northern Ghana (BURN) Project.

The project is helping the community members to have a deeper understanding of bushfire management systems, and also exposing them to other community management systems through learning visits. It is intended that these rich experiences would be shared with other communities for sustainability.

Laws and Sanctions

The Bowku community has the following as bushfire regulatory systems practiced in the olden days as well as today. No one is to burn the field before the harvest of millet and thatch.

The chief has to perform certain sacrifices before any portion of the land could be burnt. Also, one needs to inform his/her neighbours to assist him/her to put things in order and create fire belts before burning any part of the land. Before burning is done, one should inform the chief who would in turn inform the other communities, to protect lives and property.

The Traditional Authorities formulate and enforce these laws and the various clan heads are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that their subjects obey these laws.

In the past uncontrolled fires received very little attention, but the severe drought of 1982/83 and the accompanying wild fires was the turning point. The Ministry of Lands, Forestry and Mines has since developed a National Wildfire Management Policy.

The goal of the Policy is to improve on the socio-economic well-being of the citizenry through effective prevention and control of wildfires for the sustainable management of natural resources and restoration of environmental quality.

Although statistical data on incidence and impact of wildfire are inadequate, it is been estimated that the total land area prone to wildfire annually ranges from 30% in the High Forest and Transitional Zones to over 90% in the Dry Northern Savannah Zones.

Addressing the issue of bushfire needs to go beyond regulation and policing to include dialogue and negotiation for the understanding of the points of view of the key actors, and finding ways to maintain people’s livelihoods while managing bushfires.

There is the need to test approaches which recognize traditional local knowledge and allow community management and for the revision of policies to support and take advantage of local systems which work.

Policies must recognize the realities of government capacity for enforcement of regulation and build in regulation that allows for community and traditional authority participation. Only then can policy change have a sustainable and significant impact on the lives of the poor.

It should be recognized that bushfires know-no boundaries and it is only through collaboration among all stakeholders such as the District Assemblies, Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS), traditional Rulers, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Fire Volunteer Squads and the citizenry, that the menace of bushfires can be effectively controlled and managed.

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