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Trusting local knowledge: the case of fire management in a Namibian park
22 September 2020 | Story Glynis Joy Humphrey, Gina Ziervogel and Lindsey Gillson. Read time 10 min.
Fire and humans have a long history in African savannas. Fire management has played a role in maintaining biodiversity and in the livelihoods of rural communities. One example is when rural people in west African savannas in Mali burn a “seasonal mosaic” in the landscape. A combination of unburned, early burned and recently burned vegetation reduces the risk of more dangerous fires late in the season.
This type of burning also protects and increases biodiversity. And it enables rural people to hunt animals, gather plant foods and regenerate grazing for cattle. Understanding this history is useful when managing contemporary fire regimes.
The government now encourages the use of burning for management purposes early in the dry season to prevent the spread of large fires in the late dry season.
The Bwabwata National Park in north-east Namibia has a long and complex history of fire management. The park lies at the centre of southern Africa’s Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. The park is unusual in that people live in it alongside wildlife, unlike many conservation areas where people have been excluded from the landscape. People living in the villages use areas zoned for subsistence in the form of livestock and crops, and sourcing wild resources like edible and medicinal plants. These areas also host community-based tourism projects and trophy hunting enterprises.
Both the Khwe-San (former hunter-gatherers) and Mbukushu (agro-pastoralists) used fire as part of hunting and agropastoral practices in the area for millennia. These traditions were disrupted by colonial occupation because of a belief that they were damaging to the environment..
Managed burns have only recently been reinstated formally in policy. The government now encourages the use of burning for management purposes early in the dry season to prevent the spread of large fires in the late dry season.
We carried out research into how, when, why and where people have used fire in the park. We believed it would help to integrate local ecological knowledge with today’s ecological management practice.
Based on our findings, we argue that understanding this history is crucial to designing effective fire management to maintain biodiversity and support the livelihoods of people who live in the park.
Politics and fire
Fires were banned in Namibia for over a hundred years (1884 to 2005), under colonial policies and in the early years of independence. This was because fire was largely misunderstood by the government. The belief was that the traditional burning practices of the Khwe-San people were unsustainable and damaging, especially for large valuable trees used in the forestry sector for railways, mines and timber production. The banning of local fires disrupted practices central to people’s subsistence, culture and their way of life.
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