As the world pays more attention to the fires burning in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, NASA’s satellite images show a far greater number of fires on the African continent.
NASA has called Africa the “fire continent,” home to at least 70% of the 10,000 fires burning worldwide on an average August day, though the agency says the number of fires is consistent from year to year.
Angola had almost three times more fires than Brazil over a period last week, according to NASA satellite imagery, which indicated around 6,000 fires in Angola, more than 3,000 in Congo and just over 2,000 in Brazil.
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.
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.”
Earth’s ‘second green lung’ in danger as NASA images show fires ravaging Africa
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.
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.
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 make up 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.”