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Amazon vs. Africa wildfires: What's true?

Antonio Cascais
August 30, 2019

Forests in the African tropics also catch fire. But, from an ecological point of view, the situations in Africa and South America are very different and cannot always be compared.

Satellitenbild NASA Brände
Image: NASA

In NASA's satellite images, the size of the forest fires in central Africa appears alarmingly large. It looks like a red chain, with fires extending from Angola across Congo and Mozambique to Madagascar, similar to the flames in Brazil's Amazon that have triggered global outcry.

According to several international press reports, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo ranked first in terms of the extent of their current wildfires. On 24 August, a NASA satellite was said to have detected 6902 fires in Angola and 3395 in Congo. In Brazil, 2127 fires were detected during the same period. According to this, Brazil ranked only third according to the current number of fires, wrote the US media company Bloomberg. The story was then picked up by other international media. 

Indeed, smoke is currently rising from many lower-lying ridges in southern Africa. Flames flicker over the savannah's sparse grass. In Angola or Mozambique, this is an annual phenomenon in the dry season. But the annual fires are part of this ecosystem and mean renewal. Within a few weeks, the savannah will turn green again, the trees will bud. New bushes will germinate. By the beginning of October, things are already transformed.

20 years of peace in Mozambique
The African savannah — as seen here in Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park — is regenerated by brush firesImage: Marta Barroso

In Angola after the savannah burns, the savannah lives

It makes no sense to compare completely different phenomena such as the fires in the Amazon region and the many fires in Angola, Angolan Minister of the Environment Paula Francisca Coelho told DW. She explained that the fires in Angola are not real forest fires. "What is currently happening in Angola are small slash-and-burn operations, mostly on arable land. These are traditionally carried out by the rural population to prepare the fields for the next season," said Coelho. She has not heard about any current forest fires.

Is the description of Angola as the country with the most forest fires just fake news? "We should rely on scientific information from competent experts and not on numbers thrown about by some media outlet," said the Angolan minister. A few days ago, Angolan Minister for Information, Joao Melo, stated on Twitter, "Mixing photos of burning grass in our region with massive forest fires in the Amazon is a joke." It is even worse, he wrote, to mix this false information with "cheap politics."

Read more: From destruction to rejuvenation: When forest fires are a good thing

But minister Coelho admits that slash-and-burn farming is also not without problems. The government is doing a lot to tackle this problem, she explained. "We will launch information campaigns and cooperate with the Ministry of Agriculture," she added. It is important to reconcile farmers' interests with environmental protection. After all, people in remote areas have to secure their food.

Wiildfires in Angola, Yambia and Congo
The current fires in Angola are not forest fires, says Environment Minister Paula CoelhoImage: Reuters/NASA/NOAA

Unlike Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who rejected the international aid brought into play by the French president, the Angolan government does not want to renounce cooperation with foreign countries: "We will accept any international aid. We will accept anything that contributes to the improvement of the natural environment in our country."

The global importance of the Congo Basin's ecosystem

The forest in the Congo Basin has been described as the earth's "second green lung" after the Amazon region. Rainforests cover an area of 3.3 million square kilometers across several countries, of which about a third are in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The rest are in Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic. Like the Amazon, the Congo Basin's forests absorb massive amounts of carbon dioxide, making them a key player in the fight against climate change, experts believe.

According to Global Forest Watch Fires, since 1 July there have been nearly one million sources of fire in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But experts interviewed by DW say that here too there are significant differences to Brazil. According to Greenpeace, many of the fires reported in the Congo are located outside the Congo Basin's sensitive rainforest areas.

"The fires are much smaller than those in the Amazon," explained Alphonse Muhindo, an expert in forest management in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nevertheless, forest fires, ignited to open up new cultivation areas, for example, are a major problem for the rainforests in the Congo Basin. Fires get out of control again and again. "We have to get it across to people that this is against the law," he said. Education campaigns are necessary, Muhindo added.

Inhambane, Mozambique — uncontrolled forest fires
Hundreds of thousands of hectares of rainforest burn each year in MozambiqueImage: DW/L. da Conceição

Mozambique's threatened forests

"If you fly over Mozambique at night at this time of year, you can see many clouds of smoke and bright spots made by fires," says Joao Massango of Mozambique's Green Party, PEC-MT. This phenomenon has intensified in recent years as a result of climate change, Massango explained, and is now causing great concern to both environmentalists and the government. "Mozambique is losing around 285,000 hectares of forest to fires annually," Massango said.

The main cause of Mozambique's deforestation is shifting cultivation. Small areas of forest are usually converted into fields by slash-and-burn operations, which are then cultivated intensively for only a few years. When the soil is depleted and crop yields decline, cultivation areas and settlements are relocated and new forest areas are burned. Smaller fallow areas can recover by growing secondary forest over the years. Over larger areas, however, the deprivation of nutrients and erosion causes devastation.

Massango warns that, even now, it would take at least 100 years to restore the forests of northern and central Mozambique to the condition they were in 15 years ago.

Madagascar Landscape — Palmarium Nature Reserve
Madagascar was a densely forested island. Today, rainforests are the exceptionImage: Imago/imagebroker/G. Fischer

Madagascar's call for help

Ninety percent of Madagascar was originally covered by forest. Today, only about 10% of the 53 million hectares remain. Every year, around 120,000 hectares of forest disappear, mostly as a result of slash-and-burn farming. If the destruction continues at this rate, Madagascar will be completely deforested in 40 years, Madagascar's Environment Minister Alexandre Georget said to DW.

Georget is the founder of Madagascar's Green Party, and after the elections in May last year, he is the first Green politician to take over the Environment Ministry. Right now, between July and October, is the worst period of the year for fires, he said.

"Fighting fires is one of our priorities! We are calling on everyone who can help us, especially European countries. We urgently need fire-fighting aircraft, because at the moment, we are unable to react quickly and effectively to fires."

Are the raging African forest fires worse than those in the Amazon? The minister answered, "There is no difference between worse and even worse. When forests burn, the future of the entire planet is at stake. So, all of us in this world must work together to solve this devastating problem."

Kossivi Tiassou contributed to this report.