Every year, from the end of June to the starting to September, wildfires occur in Burundi. Farmers and breeders who use traditional agricultural methods are responsible for such wildfires in Burundi’s national reserves. In search for fresh pastures, fire that lasts around 16 weeks is lit – say environmentalists.
“Approximately 1,000 hectares are burnt to ashes nationwide due to bushfires nearby reserves and forests. More than 200 hectares went up in smoke at Rukambasi in the commune of Nyanza-lac,” says Léonidas Nzigiyimpa, an environmentalist at Conservation et Communauté de Changement-3C. Nzigiyimpa is also a representative and former director of the Burundi Environment Protection Authority (OBPE).
Methodologically burning areas is a traditional method used by local breeders and farmers to create a fresh grass pasture. It also allows farmers to clear existing vegetation and weeds for replantation.
Despite useful agricultural purposes, these fires have destructive consequences on ecosystem. Burundi has prohibited bushfires with boundaries of protected areas.
Nzigiyimpa expressed concerns, stating that it was a worrying phenomenon. He explained that the devastation caused by these bush fires was extremely high and harmful, especially as they were slow-burning fires as opposed to premature ones.
For instance, in July 2023, a wildfire ignited on Gatsiro hill within the Vyanda commune, situated in the southwestern region of Burundi, known as Rumong province. According to reports from local officials, the reserve became engulfed in flames due to the wind carrying the fire into an area with burning grass. Bayaga Larisson, the head of Gatsiro locality, mentioned that a local farmer was arrested for allegedly starting the fire.
“The prosecutor will carry out and shed light whether the farmer started it willingly or not,” Larisson said.
According to Jean Berchmans Hatungimana, the General Director of OBPE (Organization for the Protection of the Environment), the scale of the wildfires varies depending on the region. He noted that in 2017 and 2018, the total area affected by wildfires across the country ranged from 700 to 900 hectares. Furthermore, in 2019, approximately 800 hectares were destroyed nationwide, as per his statement.
Local news outlets in Burundi reported at least 13 cases of illegal wildfires. These incidents occurred between 2010 and 2020. They resulted in the destruction of approximately 8,000 hectares of land. Most of the affected areas were in the northern, western, and southwestern regions of Burundi.
Attempts to Stop Wildfires in Burundi
The Forestry Code of Burundi, which was originally enacted in 1984 and later revised in 2016, serves as a safeguard against forest damage caused by bushfires. Under the previous legislation, individuals caught burning a one-hectare woodland faced a fine of BIF 10,000 (equivalent to USD $3.50). However, the updated law imposes more severe penalties, including fines of up to BIF 2 million and the possibility of imprisonment for up to 5 years for such offenses.
Regrettably, the implementation of these regulations continues to pose challenges. Nzigiyimpa has witnessed instances where individuals detained for setting fire to a nature reserve were promptly released.
In spite of attempts to stop such wildfires- authorities lack resources to completely do so.
Agents responsible for protected areas lack the necessary resources to reach the fire site and accurately document the data. Additionally, only a limited number of forestry officers possess GPS (Global Positioning System) devices, despite the need for everyone to have access to them.
Nzigiyimpa believes- instead of just imposing strict laws, the government should rather work on to improve local’s living standards and develop agricultural technologies. According to him, improving the living conditions of the local population is very important in conservation activities. Because one of the main causes of the destruction of natural resources is poverty.
Experts, advocates, and scientists share a common concern regarding the insufficient allocation of resources for safeguarding various reserves.