This is the fourth post in Fire Stories, a 12 part series of pieces edited by Mica Jorgensen and written by environmental historians and their disciplinary neighbours about encountering fire in the archives and on the land.
This text1 reflects on narratives and knowledge about fire in southeast Guinea-Bissau drawing from ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2010-2011 and 2019-2022 in the Boe sector.2 We identify sociocultural transformations in the use and management of fire locally, and we reflect on the construction of a particular discourse in nature conservation and on the ways in which that discourse fails to recognize local fire knowledge. Below, we describe two related situations we observed during our work in the Boe. First, an outside NGO promoting fire management practices similar to those already in place ignored the existing knowledge of local people. Second, the NGO took credit for a supposed decrease in large fires on the basis of their fire management project, again overlooking local transformations in the use of fire arising from the increased importance that cashew orchards gained in local livelihoods in the intervening years.
Most of Boe’s inhabitants identify as farmers (labradur, in Guinean Kriol). These farmers depend largely on the cultivation of rice, peanuts, maize, cassava, and yams for sustenance, and from the sale of cashew nuts for income. Since the 1990s, cashew production has increased by 435%3 in Guinea-Bissau, becoming the primary source of income for many farmers. The development of cashew production in the isolated Boe sector was relatively delayed compared to the rest of the country, but has followed the same trajectory.
Cashew trees became an important subject in these landscapes and their emergent prevalence brought major social changes, including in the ways fire is used.
In Guinea-Bissau, fire is often present in social life and has been a key element in shifting agriculture, hunting and pastoralism.4 Fire-dependent shifting agriculture requires intimate knowledge of the landscape. When a forested plot is cut and burnt, the intensity of the fire and the resulting types of ashes affect future harvests. Farmers use ponds and rivers as fire barriers and leave strips of uncut forest bordering future cropland to serve as fire breaks, since “grown forests do not burn easily” (I ka fasil pa matu sukuru kema). Maintaining these fire breaks is key to preventing fires from reaching the savanna during the late dry season and spreading.
The savannas are also subject to longstanding fire management practices, which are carried out during the rainy season. In 2011, while walking from croplands back to a village, together with farmers and their families, a wake of burning land trailed behind. Children were following the margins of the pathways, hunting crickets to snack on while lighting small fires with bundles of smouldering straw. These small fires did not spread at that time of the year.
Farmers recognized that these rainy season fires protected villages and assets from future large fires, yielded new roofing material, and encouraged the growth of new grass for cattle and wild ungulates. In addition it seemed to us that they also served as moments of fire management education for the youth. We drew from these experiences that the use and management of fire are central to this landscape and its biodiversity.
Nonetheless, a few years ago, the fire management discourse of an international conservation-minded NGO has largely ignored the deep-rooted knowledge of these rural societies, as well as the interwoven networks of people, fire and biodiversity that we have had the chance to document. For example, this NGO working in the Boe reported:
Our bush fires combat program focused in 2015 on explaining the local population the advantage of early fires that help to prevent that the excessive heat of uncontrolled late fires will destroy forests.5
In 2012, an early fires program encouraged people to create fire brigades whose work included environmental education and the promotion of early controlled fires. Early controlled fires, the NGO described, consisted of burning the savanna between October and December (corresponding to the late rainy season described above) and were accompanied by the creation of fire breaks in the event of larger fires resulting from burning for shifting agriculture that takes place in May. On the local radio, the NGO also insisted on the importance of creating fire breaks (often unspecified) while burning agricultural plots.
In a 2017 report, the NGO claims that there was a reduction in the number of fire events from 17 uncontrolled fires in 2016 to four uncontrolled fires in 2017. This decrease is presented as an outcome of the NGO’s fire management program.
If, in fact, there was a decrease in the number of uncontrolled fires, it is important to understand what is considered an “uncontrolled” fire locally and the reasons for the decrease. Comparing our experiences in the Boe with the written accounts by the NGO, we realized that local fire knowledge and practices were absent from the NGO report and narratives. The local knowledge system based on social (and mainly oral) interactions was overshadowed in the NGO’s written account. The absence of consideration of local knowledge in the reports and the claims of success by the NGO contribute to well-known narratives that portray the inability of the commons to manage their own resources. Given this, it is important to monitor uncontrolled fires in the Boe and to acknowledge strategies that have worked so far, but it is equally important to monitor narratives that dispossess people of their own knowledge.
Beyond ignoring the existing knowledge and practices of the people of the Boe, the narratives by this NGO do not consider the benefits of fire to biodiversity and local livelihoods, nor do they reflect on how land use, particularly in the aftermath of cashew expansion, is influencing the ways in which people relate with fire. The cashew orchards, we argue, is the major source of transformation in the uses of fire.
Unlike old-growth forests, cashew orchards burn easily, a critical concern for farmers. Although fire is very much a central element of the landscape of the Boe, it is increasingly a threat to the livelihoods of local inhabitants. Farmers burn their agricultural plots carefully, ensuring fires do not damage their neighbour’s orchards or their own. When a fire spreads from a farmer’s land to a neighbour’s cashew orchard, social tensions arise. The injured farmer will demand compensation, potentially bankrupting the fire starter. Farmers with sufficient family labour to draw on often open preventive fire breaks by clearing the vegetation around their orchards. We are convinced that in this context, the importance that cashew nut exports have acquired has had implications on the ways in which people deal with fire, on the meanings attributed to fire and to the increasing control exerted over fire use. Finally, fire management practices are well known by farmers in Guinea-Bissau, as are the costs and benefits of the ongoing disengagement from fire-centred modes of life.
Even if the NGO is aiming to teach what is already known by farmers, farmers do not seem bothered by the fire program as, ultimately, it might not change much. A farmer described his understanding to the NGO concerns as such:
Faye’s [head of the NGO, fake name] forest is not here, Faye’s orchard is not here, your orchard is not here, your animals are not here, you or Faye do not have anything here that can burn down. But, if there is a small fire here and now, I am the one who gets anxious because I have my orchard here, the forest where I plan to have my crops next year, or my son’s, or my uncle’s, or a grandparent’s. Well, so, now you tell me: ‘Be careful with the fire, it is capable of ruining the forest or damaging people’s orchard’. Does that tire me or help me? I know you mean to help me, that is alright.6
To some extent, the farmer’s fire practices overlap with nature conservation’s goals. We argue, however, that the reasons for recent changes in community fire practices are related to safeguarding cashew income, and ultimately food. Therefore, the successful evaluation that nature conservationists report of their projects is overrated, to say the least, and credit must be given to the well-informed knowledge of fire of the Boe farmers.
- Thanks are due to Liam Carney for proofreading this text and to farmers and NGO staff who agreed to participate in this research and shared their experiences, knowledge and lives with us. Gonçalo Salvaterra has a individual grant PD/BD/137428/2018andCOVID/BD/152536/2022 funded by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (Portugal). Joana Sousa has a individual grant CEECIND/04424/2017 Funded by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (Portugal). JS is a member of FIREUSES project (PTDC/HAR-HIS/4425/2021).
- This sector includes an area that was designated as Boe National Park in 2017.
- Total production of cashew nut in 2020 was 160,630 tons (FAOSTAT, https://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QCL/visualize, accessed 27/07/2022)
- T. Montenegro, “Fogo manso, fogo bravo,” Sintidus, 4, 7–21; M.P. Temudo, D. Oom, & J.M. Pereira, “Bio-cultural fire regions of Guinea-Bissau: Analysis combining social research and satellite remote sensing,” Applied Geography, 118 (2021), 102203.
- NGO report, 2015, 20, original text, 20. The name of the NGO has been redacted to maintain anonymity.
- Gonçalo Salvaterra and Joana Sousa, interview with a Boa farmer, Boa Sector, 28 June, 2019 (translation by the authors). In depth interviews were conducted with local staff and leadership at the NGO in addition to local people. Interviews were accompanied by an analysis of documents including reports, newsletters, and pamphlets.