Screen shot from a video about the African fires by 2nacheki - Africa is watching
19 Nov 2019

The African wildfires and the fires burning in the Amazon are not necessarily comparable - but both rainforest regions are important carbon traps


Data and satellite images from NASA has lately given rise to speculations that the wildfire situation in Africa is even more urgent than that of the Amazon fires. However, as a recent CNN-article points out, many of the fires in Africa are allegedly prescribed burns to make way for agricultural land.

The video above from African interest group 2nacheki.tv - Africa is watching is one of the sources on the internet making claims that more attention needs to be paid to the fires burning in Africa, who they claim have been burning for decades and which should be cause for even more alarm than the more recent wildfires in the Amazon:


Screen shot from the video "Africa is burning"."More Fires Now Burning in Angola, DR Congo Than Amazon! ... Brazil is actually only 3rd in the world in wildfires over the last 48 hours, according to MODIS satellite data analyzed by Weather Source. Weather Source has recorded 6,902 fires in Angola over the past 48 hours, compared to 3,395 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and 2,127 in Brazil",  the group claimed on August 25 on their YouTube landing page. (also see the video above)

However, comparing the two sets of fires could be like "comparing apples to oranges", according to an August 27 article on CNN:

"Looking at the data from NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management Map (FIRMS),  we can indeed see a large swatch of fires going across Angola, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The alarming area of these fires has left many wondering why so much attention is being paid to the Amazon, while on the surface it appears Africa is alight with even more wildfires".

Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who has led the charge for international relief and solutions for the Amazon wildfire and has pledged aid from France, said on Twitter that he would consider starting a similar initiative for sub-Saharan Africa.

"However, there are several things to consider when comparing the two situations", the CNN article claims.


"More fires don't mean more dire"

    Satellite data like that from FIRMS doesn't give the cause or type of fire, which means things like controlled burns or brush fires appear the same to the eye as forest fires. Correspondents at CNN's bureau in Lagos, Nigeria, have been told that many of the fires in central Africa around Angola and the Congo are the result of controlled fires by farmers, and preliminary data shows the number or acreage of the fires may currently actually be a bit below normal levels.

    An image NASA released of the agricultural fires in Angola and West Africa in 2015 seemed, at first glance, alarming: Thousands of red dots were spread across the continent, a situation that looked like an emergency. However, NASA concluded "the location, widespread nature, and number of fires suggest that these fires were deliberately set to manage land."


    "African trees even better at trapping carbon than the Amazonian"

    Well, intentional slash burning or not, some claim that the African trees are just as important on a global climate scale as the Amazonas.

    The website "The Conversation - Academic Rigour, Journalistic Flair," claims in a 2017 article that the African rainforests trap even more CO2 per square kilometer than the Amazonian forests:

    "...our results also ... show....that African rainforests are unique: For example, they store more carbon than those in the Amazon. On average, a hectare of African rainforest stores 183 tonnes of carbon compared to 140 tonnes in the same area of Amazonian rainforest - but do so with 170 fewer trees per hectare", 

    The article compares the size of the African rain forests to the Amazonian, showing that the African rainforest is the second largest forested area in the world - about a third in size compared to the Amazonas.

    It is also, according to the website, under threat of exploitation from agriculture:

    "...Around 2 million km² of Africa is covered by tropical rainforests. They are second only in extent to those in Amazonia, which cover around 6 million km². Rainforests are home to vast numbers of species. For example, the world’s tropical rainforests are estimated to be home to at least 40,000 tree species, with up to 6,000 in African forests... the continent’s rainforests are being lost to deforestation at a rate of 0.3% every year. This is slower than in Amazonia (estimated to be 0.5% per year in Brazil) and South East Asia (1% in Indonesia).