Bushfires: The nightmare of rice farmers in Northern Ghana

by Hannah Zemp-Tapang

As Tani washed the dishes after lunch, she prayed silently that the task of rice harvesting which was begun the previous week, would be completed successfully before the bush fires set in. For the past 20 years she and her husband had cultivated rice at Gbiligu, near Nasia in the Northern Region.

The crop is usually harvested between November and December but could go on to January if the work went on slow or the fields under cultivation were too large. In these parts, harvesting is often done manually mainly with the use of sickles or sharp knives, because in addition to scarcity the services of combined harvester machines are much too expensive for the average farmer.

Tani recalled her first experience with bush fire. It was in the late 1990s, on a Sunday afternoon when she suddenly noticed that the bright afternoon sun had darkened. She was wondering whether the clouds were darkening to bring rain in the dry harmmattan month of November, only to look out of the window and notice dark whorls of smoke rising into the sky to mingle with the clouds.

At the same time, as a gust of wind rushed by she heard the thunderous roar of what seemed like a convoy of articulator trucks, which would not have been a surprise as her house was only one kilometre away from the Tamale-Bolgatanga trunk road. With her heart in her mouth, she ran out and looked to the east, towards the direction of the roaring noise. It took a split of a second for her to realise that the noise was that of a raging fire and not big trucks in motion. It was a sound and sight she will never forget.

The fire blazed on, consuming all in its path, birds of prey hovering above with the hope of getting some fleeing insects and rodents to pounce on. She did not know whether to kneel down in prayer or cry, for the entire farm area was engulfed in flames in all directions – west, south and north – with her house in the middle. It was with that experience at hindsight that she begged God to prevent any similar calamity, for bush fires have always been an annual occurrence in that part of the country.

Bush fires have always been the biggest enemy of rice farmers in the north; many farmers have lost their produce to fires on a yearly basis. One wonders whether the fires are started deliberately or that they are accidental. The blame has often been put on hunters who, oblivious of the consequences involved, use fire to smoke out edible rodents and a squirrels thereby causing farmers to several tonnes of rice.

Others attribute bushfire to the old traditional practise which stems from the people’s belief that old grass must be burnt to give way for new ones to sprout. Some also blame Fulani herdsmen who are said to burn the grass with the hope that occasional rains during the dry season or atmospheric moisture would encourage new growth for their animals to feed on. One other dimension to the bushfire phenomenon which is terrible to contemplate, but nonetheless true, is that some wicked individuals deliberately burn the farms of those they do not like.

It is said that in order to burn large hectares of rice belonging to an ‘enemy’, these people get hold of a lizard or mouse, moisten a rag with petrol or kerosene which is tied to the tail of the mouse/lizard. They then light up the rag with matches and release the rodent into the rice field. On a dry, windy harmattan day, the ripe and dry golden rice field will explode and go up in flames so furious that any attempt to even go near is tantamount to a suicide wish. When that happens, no trained fire fighter or fire tender can arrest the damage.

Nyaba Akurgu, Tani’s husband says he learnt over the years to create fire belts around his farm before the bushfire season starts. “I clear the grass around the farm, sometimes I burn it so that when there is a fire from somewhere else it does not get to my rice because that fire stops at where I cleared the bushes.” He, however, complains that even when the rice is protected and safely harvested, the residue which is needed for animals and manure gets burnt. “I think some people do not feel free until the whole place is burnt so we the organic farmers find it difficult to preserve our farm residue”, he added.

Alidu Yakubu who is a part time drummer and cultivates rice says, “When my rice is ready for harvesting I leave everything and gather my family to do the harvesting because we the small farmers cannot afford combine harvesters. We use our hands and we need many of that. Once the grass around the farm is dry, we have to look over our shoulders while we work, any sign of smoke can be a serious threat because the wind carries the fire far”.

Rice farmers in the ‘Overseas’ part of the Northern Region, also suffer the agony of bush fires every year. Madish Abubakar, an organic rice farmer at Kubore and Manager of Gundoo Organic Farms last year lost about seven hectares of rice that was ready for harvesting, while five other farmers also lost all their produce. Explaining how it happened on his farm, Madish said he had gone to a neighbouring community that day and by the time he returned to his farm house in the afternoon, his field was on fire and could not be salvaged.” I have been in this business for long and I usually clear a fire belt around my fields to protect my rice, even before the grass dries but what happened last year, I’m sure, was a deliberate act to destroy my farm. In 2011, I also lost three hectares so I can say that it is a struggle – you beat the fire or it beats you”, he said.

Only last week, while some farmers were still harvesting at Kubore, five of them lost all they had on their fields – both the harvested rice and those that were yet to be harvested.

The Upper East Regional Director of Agriculture, Alhaji Ahmed Misbahu, is hoping that there would be no bush fires this year to mar the rice harvest in the Region. “Harvesting started in November and so far it is going on well; there is a combine harvester at the Fumbisi Valley and the work is going on well so we might be able to finish harvesting by the middle of December before the fires,” he added.

The Fumbisi valley in the Builsa District is a rice farming area in the Upper East Region. A greater percentage of rice in the Region comes from that area and it is welcome news that the farmers have a machine to do the work, unlike previous years when fire used to destroy a lot of the harvest as manual labour was not fast enough to beat the annual fire.

However, organic farming practices that have been introduced to some farmers are producing a good response, albeit very slow. The farmers are being educated on the need to avoid burning their farms so that the residue would decompose and add manure to the soil. Gozire in the Upper West Region and its neighbouring communities adopted this practice in the late 1990s and they are enjoying the benefits in the form of fertile soils and good harvests. Other communities in the Bongo District of the Upper East Region stopped burning the bush on their farms a few years ago and no doubt they are seeing the difference. However, farmers in most parts of northern Region are adamant and cannot be convinced to stop burning the bush. They start setting fire as soon as the grass shows signs of drying, and so with the harmmattan winds the fire is carried onto nearby farms and cause havoc. At the same time, the inhabitants who depend on the thatch to roof their houses lose the grass near their farms and have to go far into the bush in order to get grass.

Recommendations

The Chiefs and elders of every community can play a vital role in stopping bush fires. The Chief of the Bongo Traditional Area, Naba Salifu Alemyarum, together with his elders, have set up bye-laws against burning farms and bushes. Monetary fines and various types of penalties have been prescribed and are being enforced, leading to very good results.

Public address systems and other effective modes of communication such as the FM radio stations could also be used to reach out to the people to educate them on the dangers of bush burning.

Introducing organic farming to the farmers would help them see the need to avoid burning their farms and the grass around. Even though that would be a long term measure, it will no doubt make a lasting impact on the people.

Majority of the people in the three regions of the north are subsistence farmers, and are unable to cultivate only what their families need for the year due to many factors that fall under another topic. Continuous loss of the little they produce will either keep them marking time, or even sliding backwards in these difficult times. Research scientists and all agriculturalists need to pay special attention to these challenges (which are surmountable anyway)so as to help farmers improve their lives.

GNA

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