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“I use fire as a tool to get rid of weeds and to prepare the land for planting season,” says Kwasi Asare, a 54-year-old farmer from Kotaa, a forest community near the Tain II Forest Reserve in western Ghana.
For farmers like Asare, fire has always been used as a way of preparing for a new season of cultivation, as well as by cattle rangers to stimulate the growth of fresh grass and by bushmeat hunters to chase wildlife into open land.
But – as has been seen in the headline-making fires in Brazil and elsewhere – while rainfall patterns and soil moisture levels have in the past kept burns controllable and safe, drier conditions from global warming and development’s toll on ecosystems now increasingly lead to fires getting out of hand. And in Ghana, a country that has lost 16 percent of its tree cover since 2000, including 151,000 hectares in 2018 alone, it’s a tool with potential for peril when used without precautions. Use of fire is a tradition here, but it must be updated to reflect the times.
“One of the main causes of degradation in the Tain II Forest Reserve is fire, ahead of farming, hunting or free roaming cattle,” says Ernest Obeng Adu, a program coordinator of Form Ghana. “But the fire doesn’t usually come from within the reserve. It comes from the communities around the Forest Reserve.”
New and improved
Despite fire being a longstanding practice in Ghanaian agriculture, it went through a period of being taboo, in part due to past bylaws that outlawed burning during dry seasons. However, as Form recognized, there was a tinge of irony to this bid to keep burns from spiraling out of control: it stripped farmers of their own control, leaving them without an economically feasible way to clear their lands.
As such, Form worked to reverse these bylaws while retooling fire-use and control methods to fit the new soil and climate conditions. “You cannot tell farmers to stop using fire because it’s part of their way of life, but you can help them use it responsibly,” says Adu.
Form Ghana is a forest plantation management company that, in partnership with the Ghanaian government and traditional landowners, restores degraded forest reserves through plantation development and natural forest restoration. “Where there is potential for regeneration, that area is allowed to regenerate,” Adu explains. “But the areas that are completely degraded and turned into grassland, we plant with teak and indigenous tree species.”
Teak is a valuable hardwood, and Form Ghana’s commercial plantations will ultimately help fund the partnership’s ambitious Forest Landscape Restoration Programme, which aims to restore various landscapes in Ghana, including Tain II, by training and empowering local communities to safely manage and earn livings from their lands. This is best done by supporting and strengthening the community’s existing practices rather than overhauling them, and so during the 2018–19 fire season, Form Ghana launched the Community Fire Management Project with three communities in the area, including Kotaa.
The pilot project permitted controlled burns during the fire season, but only under the supervision of local community fire volunteers, retrained by Form Ghana. The project also introduced the Fire Danger Index – Egya Kɔkɔbɔ in Twi, the local language – a tool used worldwide, but here adapted to the Ghanaian environment, to guide the process of safe and controlled use of fire.
“Farmers need to burn their farms as it is a cheap way of weeding,” says Kofi Mensah, the local fire officer for Kotaa’s community fire squad. He’s been volunteering on fire efforts here for 20 years. “Fire is a tool for us, but we must manage it well. The project helps us with strengthening the rules and regulations during fire season.”
The project also recompenses the volunteers for their time, an important step forward for the squad members who all are also farmers. “Now we can hire labor to work on our farm,” Mensah explains, “so that members of the squad can leave their farms to spend time on fire management during the dry season.
“Before the Community Fire Management Project, there were a lot of fires from uncontrolled activities,” he continues. “These fires were too big for us. We could not manage them, and they did a lot of damage.”
Now the volunteers help farmers make fire breaks – barriers in the land that serve to stop flames’ progression – so that the blaze cannot spread beyond farmland and into the Forest Reserve.
According to the pilot evaluation, the number of wildfires has gone down dramatically. “We reduced uncontrolled fire outbreaks drastically last year, by about 79 percent compared to the previous year,” says Rosa Diemont, the coordinator of the Community Fire Management Project. Every uncontrolled fire could result in catastrophic destruction of forest, so this is a significant advance for the conservation of the reserve.
The project has shown promising results so far, and Form Ghana wants to expand. “One of the key successes of this program is that leaders of all levels and all institutions are present and pledge their support,” says Diemont. “The traditional leaders, the chiefs, are now working with the fire service, because they see it has a benefit for their people.”
Next fire season, the project will welcome another three communities neighboring the Tain II reserve. This allows farmers like Asare to use cheap and effective burning techniques while, thanks to the support from the trained fire squads, having more peace of mind.
“The volunteer fire squad is active again so, when something happens, I can count on assistance,” says Asare. “Kotaa community has had much less uncontrolled fire than last year because of the project.”
No longer facing the risk of uncontrolled fires, Asare can invest in planting more valuable permanent cash crops. In turn, the higher profits help reduce the economic pressure to convert forest into farmland. Ultimately this helps conserve Ghana’s forests and preserve them as carbon sinks.
“In previous years, my farm was always under threat of fires made by herdsmen, but because of the project, I now dare to plant fruit trees,” says Asare. “I have planted cashew trees this year – they are now this high!” he adds, pointing proudly to his knee.
As for the future, “I want to plant more fruit trees, like avocado,” he says. “I want my children to go to college.”
This project received funding from DOB Ecology and UKAID’s Partnerships for Forests programme.