Fires were everywhere as we drove along 6,000 kilometers through the remote hills of Western Tanzania in order to reach remote national parks typically accessible only by flight. Bush camping, fighting tse tse flies and rationing water along the way, we found healthy national parks, extremely poor road conditions and some of the most unforgettable faces of the African people. The biggest impression, however, was of forest fires. I left Africa with a lasting sensation of heat, the smell of smoke and the concern for Africa’s natural resources.
During our hot and dusty days of driving, we came across miles and miles of forest fires. Some we could see from a distance burning along the ridges of far away hills. Some fires we experienced up close along the roadside searing the truck as we drove through the intense heat. One night while camping on Lake Tanganyika, the fire came down from the surrounding hills toward our tents and was broken only by the tiny dirt road separating us from the inferno. Heat, smoke and ash crackled and spun until the early morning hours just before dawn.
One of our trip leaders was a satellite image expert who guided us through remote areas where road conditions were unknown and roadmaps were unavailable. He told us of images which showed that most of Africa is burning and I am convinced after observing the fires throughout our expedition.
There is a tall dry grass that is everywhere in Africa, the perfect fuel for the most insignificant flame left behind by locals smoking out beehives to collect honey, or perhaps accidentally spilled over from camp and cooking fires. The biggest damage, however, is by people burning out the underbrush in order to hunt the denizens of rats and rabbits for food, or to have access for cutting down the taller trees to sell as firewood or turn into charcoal. Poachers also use fires to drive game into open arenas for capture. These seem to be the only commercial resources for people whose crops are dry from a poor rainy season and their families have no food, having been bypassed by most food-aid due to the poor road conditions in the high plateau areas. Repetitive burning of the soil does not allow the earth time to replenish the necessary nutrients and the land becomes useless and infertile. Hillsides are wasted of trees and rich dirt. The rural people end up eating mostly maize meal and cassava, and go hungry.
There will be very few trees for the next generation to burn, yet there are no alternatives for a viable livelihood. Academics have put forth recommendations to the authorities for seed programs to plant more trees and for irrigation plans to divert water from rivers and streams, but many projects have yet to reach the areas with extensive burning today. In the mean time, Africans go hungry and Africa is burning.