After Amazon's fires, Africa's rainforests are burning too, but for different reasons

The Congo Basin forest is commonly referred to as the "second green lung" of the planet after the Amazon.


In NASA satellite images, forest fires in Central Africa appear to burn alarmingly like a red chain from Gabon to Angola similar to the blazes in Brazil's Amazon that sparked global outcry.

At the G7 summit this week, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted about the central Africa fires and said nations were examining a similar initiative to the one proposed to combat Brazil's blazes.

G7 nations have pledged $20 million on the Amazon, mainly on fire-fighting aircraft.

Macron's concern may be legitimate, but experts say central Africa's rainforest fires are often more seasonal and linked to traditional seasonal farming methods.

After Amazons fires, Africas rainforests are burning too, but for different reasons

The forest fires in Central Africa are caused by farmers to prepare for the farming season. image credit: Flickr/Axel Rovin

No doubt the region is key for the climate: The Congo Basin forest is commonly referred to as the "second green lung" of the planet after the Amazon. The forests cover an area of 3.3 million square kilometres in several countries, including about a third in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the rest in Gabon, Congo, Cameroon and Central Africa.

Just like the Amazon, the forests of the Congo Basin absorb tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in trees and peat marshes — seen by experts as a key way to combat climate change. They are also sanctuaries for endangered species.

But most of the fires shown on the NASA maps of Africa are outside sensitive rainforest areas, analysts say, and drawing comparisons to the Amazon is also complex.

"The question now is to what extent we can compare," said Philippe Verbelen, a Greenpeace forest campaigner working on the Congo Basin. "Fire is quite a regular thing in Africa. It's part of a cycle, people in the dry season set fire to bush rather than to dense, moist rainforest."

Guillaume Lescuyer, a central African expert at the French agricultural research and development centre CIRAD, also said the fires seen in NASA images were mostly burning outside the rain forest.

Angola's government also urged caution, saying swift comparisons to the Amazon may lead to "misinformation of more reckless minds". The fires were usual at the end of the dry season, the Angolan ministry of environment said.

"It happens at this time of the year, in many parts of our country, and fires are caused by farmers with the land in its preparation phase, because of the proximity of the rainy season," it said.

Different risks

Though less publicised than the Amazon, the Congo Basin forests still face dangers.

"The forest burns in Africa but not for the same causes," said Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, an ambassador and climate negotiator for the DR Congo. "In the Amazon, the forest burns mainly because of drought and climate change, but in central Africa, it is mainly due to agricultural techniques."

Many farmers use slash-and-burn farming to clear forest. In DR Congo, only nine percent of the population has access to electricity and many people use wood for cooking and energy.

A bushfire burns in Cape Town's Tokai forest, March 3, 2015. Firefighters are attempting to put out a series of fires fanned by hot conditions and strong winds across the Cape Peninsula. Tuesday was the hottest day the city has recorded in 100 years according to local weather service officials. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT) - GM1EB340DV401

Fires in the African forests are not burning for the same reason as the Amazonian fires. image credit: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi has warned the rainforests are threatened if the country does not improve its hydro-electric capacity. Deforestation is also a risk in Gabon and parts of the DR Congo, as well as damage from mining and oil projects.

Some countries are now implementing stricter environmental policies. Gabon, for example, has declared 13 national parks that makeup 11 percent of its national territory.

DR Congo has declared a moratorium on new industrial logging licences but that has not stopped artisanal cutting, which industrial loggers can exploit.

"We need to protect the forests that are still largely intact and stop degradation," said Greenpeace's Verbelen. "The forests that are still intact remain an important buffer for future climate change."

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