Main Cause Of This Fire Is The Rising Demand For

Main Cause Of This Fire Is The Rising Demand For

Land - Hasse

The Reporter (Addis Ababa) March 15, 2000


Addis Ababa - It was only at the end of last week that the forest fire in Ethiopia, having consumed tens of thousands of hectares of forest already, met resistance from the air. A team of experts have arrived from abroad to visit the areas, and                               aerial fire-fighting was begun last weekend.


Gunther Haase, the project coordinator at GTZ, the German technical cooperation agency, led one of the team of experts that visited the Bale area. Along with Michael Calvin, an American expert who is also a member of the visiting experts, Hasse spoke to The Reporter last week on matters related to the forest fire in southern Ethiopia.


Can you give a rough estimate of the magnitude of the fire? And which areas are you concentrating on to extinguish the fire?


Haase: The Ministry of Agriculture called a meeting two days ago [Tuesday] because the magnitude of the fire was enormous and we had to set priorities. Actually, it was the impression of particularly the South African team that there was no way of "extinguishing" the fire. It is even so difficult to use the word "extinguishing" because it is misleading. It is very difficult to extinguish a fire. What we are aiming at is to contain the fires. Still, it is almost impossible to contain all the fires with the resources at hand. Therefore, we, the ministry and the Ethiopian government were requested to dot out priority areas for airborne fire-fighting operations.


To this end, the ministry organized the meeting in which the relevant institutions and stake-holders, resource persons, the Addis Ababa University's Biology Department, the Forest Research Center, the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation and Research, the regional agriculture bureaus, and experts from the ministry participated. We sat together and decided what the priority areas should be.


We dealt with different ecosystems and vegetation types in the area. There are woodlands, heath-lands and forest ecosystems. What we are concerned about is the natural high forest in this area because they are heavily under pressure. By now, 2.5% or less of the country's area is covered by heath-forest formations. So we can almost say every hectare counts; every hectare is essential and every hectare that is burning is a loss.


There is also a chance of losing biodiversity. Since Ethiopia is a center of biodiversity of Africa and of the world, there is a big risk that we are losing global biodiversity. Therefore, of all the different vegetation types, we are focusing on the forest ecosystems. The heath-lands which are on the Afro- Alpine zone are known to be affected by fire at regular intervals. The plants are, to a certain extent, adapted to the fire and can respond to it and recover from fire accidents, like in the case of woodlands. So we don't want to raise any resources on any heath-lands and woodlands.


Our focus is exclusively on the forest ecosystems. This holds true both for airborne and ground operations. So, within the forest areas, the first priority is the [Bale] National Park, which has got heath-land and maybe some woodland. But there are

also high forests within the boundaries of the Park.


These forest fires are definitely of human origin and we have to exclude these fires from their natural high forest in the National Park. This is the highest priority. The second priority is kind of a horse-shoe - a buffer zone - circling south of the National Park. Generally, it includes all the so-called national forest priority areas which are surrounding the park. The national forest priority area includes an area of about 580,000 hectares of the buffer zones. That is not to say we are focusing on these 580,000 hectares. Some of the space is already converted into agricultural land.


The third priority is the remaining high forest areas in Minaangeto forest which mainly stretches to the north of the National Park in Bale zone. In the Borena zone, we mapped out the Bore forest area which is the fourth priority. Adola and Shakisso forest areas are the fifth priority.


But within these areas, there are some roads established by the mining operation of MIDROC, and we have set priorities accordingly, i.e., whatever can be accessed by ground will be taken on by ground forces. This means that we mainly build on

 the mobilized communities, soldiers, students which were dispatched to the area. The strategy there is to strengthen that force through provisional tools. These people are doing a good job there, but appropriate tools are lacking in many instances. Hence, we are in the process of forwarding requests to different donor countries to supply these tools so that these people would have an easier job.


Meanwhile, the areas that are not accessible by road will be related with the fourth or fifth priorities for airborne operations.          


Can you briefly discuss the short- and long-term effects of the forest fire?


 Haase: One of the problems is that we don't have any research conducted on the long-term effects. Speaking of the short-term effects, these forests which have been burned still look fairly well established from the air. But if you go to the ground, you can easily recognize, even as a layman, that the root system of many different species is seriously damaged. In particular, we saw one species called  "aningeria" which is one of the dominant species at the scene area. There has never been a need for these species to adapt to fires by, for example, developing thicker barks. This means that they are very sensitive to fire.


Also, very important parts of the trees are located on the outer surface of the stem. What we reckon, therefore, is that most trees will eventually die or they are physically already dead. Because of the strong structure of the wood, they might be standing for some time, but they will fall soon because the root system is rotten. So I would say the effect is very severe; my guess is that this forest has been burned and has been completely destroyed.


Apart from the causes already announced, have you been able to detect any other causes of the fire?


Haase: From my point of view, the main reason is the rising demand for land. The population is growing. Eighty-five percent of the Ethiopian population is living off agriculture. New families are being formed, and the plots of their fathers are already too small to make a living from. So these young families are in search of new land and they try to occupy the areas which are not yet occupied.


This holds true for the indigenous population in that area. People think there is so much forest land and most people have the perception that the forests have no  value. They cannot see the benefits from them, so they think they would rather convert them into something useful for sustaining their families. This, I think, is the major cause. 


Another factor is negligence. There are honey gatherers who utilize fire as management tools for smoking out bees in order to safely collect the honey. Hence, they sometimes leave without putting off the fire which they had started. They don't really have any interest in destroying the forest. In fact, that is even counter-productive to their activities. For instance, we got a report from the Shakisso Zone that some 2800 beehives have already been destroyed by the fire.


In normal years, fires break out but the forests are not suited to forest fires. But this year, due to the extent of draught, the weather condition is favorable for fire. For example, if you forget to put out a fire and there is a little bit of wind, the fire  will be blown into the forest and can spread into a major uncontrolled wildfire. This was the reason that one group discovered as a cause.  


In the other group, we learned that Shakisso is a mining area under the MIDROC operation and there are plenty of miners on the borders of the forest. These people make camp fires during the day and might keep the fires on so that it would be there in the evening. They don't care much about putting them out. Again, there is strong wind which could take the fire to the neighboring forest easily. Hence, uncontrolled forest fire can erupt from that.


We also heard some rumors that in some cases, the fires were started deliberately. The biggest investment in this country is coffee. To convert forest lands into coffee plantations, these investors are claiming part of the land to establish coffee plantations. In many cases, these applications have been rejected because the areas which they had in mind for establishing coffee plantations were located in protected forest areas. Thus, it is logical for the local administrations to decline such requests or applications. But apparently, some investors might have paid villagers to start the fires in forest lands, and once the forest is destroyed, they could apply again saying, "Okay, you were saying there is a protected forest, but the forest is gone now. So give us the land."


The extended dry season and the failure of the last rainy season was a precondition for the eruption and spreading of the fire to such an extent. The grasslands are probably dry in a normal season. The bushy forests are also very dry. These have increased the load on the forest, and that is the reason why it was so easy for the fires to get out of hand.


Compared with other fire accidents that you might have witnessed before, how serious is the fire in Ethiopia?


Calvin: First of all, the United States is a big place. There are different types of vegetation but the part we are talking about is the area in the west of the United States - the western forest. There, the trees themselves are combustible, unlike here in Ethiopia where the trees are not combustible.


You cannot stop all the fires in the western United States all the time and you cannot control all the fires. This depends on the type of ecosystem. The ecosystem here is not adapted to fire whereas in the United States a lot of trees, big pine trees, cannot stand fire and they burn easily. So it is hard to compare.


But on the other hand, almost every country in the world has some types of vegetation fires. For example, in western United States most forest fires occur every 20 years or 200 years. Looking at the map, [the forest fire in Ethiopia] occurs every century or so. This is a very rare term.


 Haase: Some countries are very much equipped in fire-fighting, but they still cannot help it. They have up to 30 huge water pumps, especially-equipped helicopters, and a massive crew of specialists trained in fire-fighting. Yet, they still have more than a million hectares burned every year.


Can you make a rough assessment of the damage already caused?


Haase: That's another difficult question because there was no time to make a systematic survey of the fires. It was also difficult in some instances to take pictures not only of the fires, but also of the burned areas from the air. The whole extent of the damage will be visible from the air in maybe 2 or 3 months' time, after the standing trees have collapsed. But what we reckon is that, as at March 3, some 26,000 hectares have been burned in Bale zone, while in all the burning areas, some 50,000 hectares have been burned. Some 20 or 30 more hectares might have been burned after that.


How much effort and money will be required to put out this fire?


Haase: In general terms, controlling the fire again means controlling it in all the areas, which we are not even aiming at right now. That's because the resources which we realistically can mobilize or the funds which we can solicit realistically do not allow us to aim at something like that.


The first impression among South Africans, when we got there in Goba on Sunday, was that it would take a thousand specialized fire-fighters to really contain the fire. That gives you an idea about the magnitude. The only thing we could do was to prioritize which areas were the most crucial for the country as well as for the global community, and then try to avoid as much damage as possible. But it is very difficult to make an exact assessment in figures; that needs a lot of resources.


What can be done to prevent such disasters in the future? What is the preparedness that you recommend?


Haase: The ministry is very much concerned. Obviously, everyone is aware that this fire might not be a single incident. All are aware of the climatic change, and how much the global community should be ready for fire accidents which will become more frequent in the next decades.


Therefore, the ministry has already adopted the idea of starting from here and now.  The priority is on extra fire-fighting, trying to contain the fire, the damage from the actual incident. But everyone is really keen on launching a program not only to combat the symptoms here, but also the symptoms in other woody areas. I think they have already agreed and planned to launch a program on integrated fire management - in order to establish local capacities for future fire incidents, to try to dot out priority areas (because we want to control the fire on a national scale), to identify ecosystems fire and to employ fire-fighting, fire management and early-warning systems in the country. It is also necessary to identify those ecosystems where fires are useful.


It will be a big mistake if we consider this just as an incident and go back to our daily business. We have to get ready for similar situations in the coming years, and the vice-minister of agriculture sounds committed.


Why has international assistance to our government's appeal been so slow?


Haase: In all countries, there is always a certain mechanism to be adhered to and it is not that a country can just call on Germany, the United States or Canada for help. You are familiar with your system here and you also have a bureaucratic system in other countries of the world. Many countries have disaster prevention funds. It requires an assessment of the damage and if you just go through their officially reported data on the damage to a forest area in Ethiopia, it has increased significantly since last week. Two weeks ago, the official data reported was only 1300 hectares. If you compare this with the millions of hectares which are burning in other countries in the first place, it does not sound very significant.


The other reason is that the spread of the fire has probably increased a lot over the last one-and-a-half weeks. Reliable assessment data were not available, either. The first step before resorting to other means or funds is, of course, to make an                               assessment. That is why the South Africans are very responsive. They sent a team of three people for assessment of the extent of the damage and also of other situations.


Besides, the global focus right now is on Mozambique. You have to consider that, in Mozambique, it is the people who are drowning, but in Ethiopia, it is forest which is burning. And even in Mozambique, it took quite some time to send assistance.                               So there are always limitations to the responses expected.


Regarding the damages caused, do you think the destruction of the forests would result in aridity and shortage of rain in coming years?


Haase: I think we would need some research on that as well. What is known is that in extended areas of tropical rain-forest, there is the so-called inner water cycle. It will certainly have a local impact on the availability of water for local people in that particular area.


In the Amazon basin, the loss of trees has been proved scientifically to result in a reduction in local rainfall. The water vaporates from a certain area and come down in the form of rain, but this was interrupted because there are no trees anymore

 from where there could be evaporation. But I think it would require meteorological research to see if this holds true for these areas [in Ethiopia.]