“Fire immediately spreads”: Extreme Wildfires Become New Threat In This African Village

Climate Tracker visited the Olum community in South-South Nigeria to report how extreme wildfires are changing indigenous villages, forcing them to enact a law to control the flames.

For Martins Abang (37) growing up in Olum village, an indigenous town located in Southern Nigeria’s Cross-River State, during the 1980s was a happy upbringing, surrounded by mountains and thick forests. Now, many things have changed.

Almost forty years later, nature in Abang’s community is under threat from wildfires, which have grown stronger and limited the village’s livelihood. In a few decades, the indigenous villagers started experiencing diseases and crop failure as a result. 

The impact of wildfire coming from excessive burning of forest bushes and illegal logging of timber woods is changing the lives of residents including local farmers in the community. Before, fire was slower; but now it expands fast, locals say.

“We have truly been suffering from the fire outbreak. Once a person lights up the withered bushes, the fire immediately spreads and smoke covers the community”, says local farmer Glory Bankg.

The mountains were home to abundant biodiversity —notably chimpanzee colonies—, while residents depend highly on the forest for their food, medicines, business, infrastructural construction and safety from harsh weather conditions. Now, both biodiversity and the local communities are endangered by the increasingly extreme events.

In an effort to control the fires, the indigenous community prohibited agricultural burnings in the area, which tend to spark the fires. However, locals confess this rule is hard to implement, as farmers depend on the burning to plant new crops.

Climate change is set to double the amount of wildfires at a global level by 2100, according to a recent UN Environment report. Additionally, governments and local communities are not adequately prepared for such increase, the report warns. At a global level, Africa accounts for 70% of the world’s burned area.

In particular, indigenous communities like Olum village are already experiencing the biggest disturbances to their traditional way of life, as they have a higher dependency on local natural resources. This is leading to stark impacts in their health and economies, they say.

Village on fire

Located in Eastern Boki local government, Olum plays host to over a thousand of residents with over 70% working as local farmers, according to locals. The village attracts tourists coming to explore the mountains and wildlife. 

Residents told Climate Tracker that the excessive fire outbreak has eaten into several farms, including the forests, affecting the stability of rainfall in the community. Local authorities, however, did not have an official estimate of the affected area. 

Ventilation, during the harsh season, has also become a problem for villagers, as the houses get covered in smoke. At the same time, logging of timber woods is reducing the trees which have served as a shelter for the community in the past.

But other impacts are less evident. For example, when the rain comes, it flushes particles from the burnt bushes into the stream, contaminating their water source, they explain.

“If you have lived in other local communities and you come here, you will know the difference,” Abang said. According to him, diseases, like malaria, typhoid and organ dysfunction,  were rare in the community in the past, but they’ve become more common as forest resources become more scarce. 

Residents told Climate Tracker that while the mountain provides water for them to drink, they harvest agricultural crops for feeding as well as softwoods for construction of houses. However, exploitation and outbreaks have reduced produce from the forest, contaminated the water and exposed the community to heavy sunlight. 

Francis Onade, another resident and a chief in the community,  also added that the outbreak chased a lot of wildlife from the mountains. “We used to have gorillas and monkeys in the forest but now you can not find them because the forest is not conducive for them”, he said. 

Causing the disaster

While wildfires in the forest can sometimes ignite naturally through sun heat or lightning strikes, most of them are caused by human engagement in the forest. This is precisely what happens in the Olum community.

Wildfires are mostly started by farmers who burn down trees to plant new crops in their farms.  Sometimes, these fire outbreaks are also caused by hunters who light up fireplaces to prepare their meals while in the forest, the residents told Climate Tracker.

Although wildfires can happen naturally, climate change is making them larger and more devastating, according to a recent UNEP report. As conditions get warmer and drier, ecosystems tend to favor dry vegetation, which acts as fuel for wildfires.

There are no official estimates about the area affected by wildfires, but the online satellite monitoring platform Global Forest Watch shows an increase in forest fires in the area. An average of 1,500 km2 of forests burned in the period between 2005-2009 in Boki district, where Olum is located. In the period between 2017-2021, the average burned area was 12,380—about eight times bigger.

The effect of wildfire, according to locals, has increased damages on their agricultural crop and farm infrastructures. The spread, simultaneously, affected the crop quantity harvested within the seasons.

“The fire disturbs almost all our natural woods. We are left to manage what we have left. Some shrubs, mushrooms and vegetables that were grown in the forest naturally have reduced because of uncontrolled inferno”, Abang said.

When Climate Tracker contacted the Chairman, Cross River State Forestry Commission, Tony Ndiandeye, he said that while there are laws that prohibit bush burning, there are no funds provided for safeguarding forest from fire due to subnational financial issues. 

He however said the commission usually carries out routine educational programmes, beneficial to the forest-bearing communities against forest burning.

Enacting a law to save the forest

To reduce the effect and combat the crises inflicted on the villagers, the community, through the support of non-governmental organizations, enacted a bye-law in January 2022 to stop all activities of illegal logging in the forest. 

The new bye-law came after a state government ban and threat to take disciplinary actions on illegal loggers, which was considered ineffective by the residents. 

“The law bans all forms of logging in the community for any purpose. Anyone found defaulting would pay a fine. However, those in need of wood for household construction would get permission from the village head before cutting down any”, Onade summarized.

An extension of the law was made, months after, to suspend every burning of bushes in farms and forests. Onade noted that this was to control excessive fire outbreaks despite it being what he described as “a difficult task to uphold”, because farmers in the community burn bushes as preparation for planting season.

“We set up a 10-man team of firefighters who would help be on the lookout for outbreaks in the forest. If you are also coming into the community, you will see a signboard with the inscription wildfire risk.  This was erected by a non-governmental organization providing us with support, education and equipment needed to keep us alert”, Onade explained. 

Glory Bankg, a local farmer in the community, would be sacrificing a lot of her harvest to uphold the bye-law in the community. To her, clearing her farm by burning bushes is a usual process carried out by farmers. However, since the enactment of the law, the harvest has changed for her.

With this law in place, Bankg, who farms cassava, banana, vegetable and cocoyam, has just little stock to sell in the market. “I do not have a harvest for this year because I could not burn the bushes in my farm. I am only left with vegetables to sell till when we are permitted to go into the forest”, she said.

However, Onade mentioned that a rain gauge, managed by some representatives of an anti-deforestation NGO, was mounted close to the forest to study the weather for local farmers. 

According to him, “when the rain is about to fall, we can inform the farmers to burn their bushes, so that the downpour would help control the spread of the fire into the forest.”

Saving the forest

Peter Bette, an environmental activist and the executive director of Biakwan light Green initiative, said there is a need to strengthen the capacity of the community to prevent wildfires. 

Lauding the initiative behind the community bye-law, he emphasized that sanctions must be imposed by the community, through the security operatives, to apprehend defaulters.

Bette stressed that while the government commission has failed in its responsibility to manage the forest resources, the responsibility falls on the community to enact sustainable bye-laws that preserve their natural forest.

The environmental activist called for a local legal system that can prosecute defaulters– as this, according to him, remains the best alternative to combating illegal exploitation in remote areas.

For Abang, considering the educational barriers in the region, the bye-law is helping to caution the impact and restore the forest gradually. However, he hopes that the state government can set up a fire response unit close to the community that can manage outbreaks at any time.

First published by Climate Tracker

Kehinde Ogunyale

Reporting on the data-driven economy, and investigations.

Related post