14 September 2007

Terra dos Fumos

Fires are a significant disturbance in the coastal savanna landscape where I am conducting my research. Fire helps create and maintain savanna. Early European maps, dating from the 1500s, label the region as Terra dos Fumos - Land of Smokes. In my own experience, a column of smoke on the horizon is a daily occurrence. While a few fires might develop from lightning strikes, most are set by human hands deliberately or not.

In the final week of August in Madladlane, a large fire raged along the eastern side of the Rio Futi. No one stepped in to claim responsibility. The community has a fire ban. This fire could have been set by a cigarette butt, uncontrolled charcoal production, or children playing at fire building. It cleared grass and brush and revealed historic agricultural fields. I also discovered an old veterinary station for cattle while surveying the burned area.

Typically, farmers make raised beds to grow sweet potatoes in wetland machambas (fields). Serendipitously, I just had an interview where my informant talked about the machambas planted on the reserve side of the Rio Futi before the war. For Madladlane and Gala, in the far south of Mozambique, before the war means before 1986. So the sweet potato machambas are at least 21 years old. There are eucalyptus saplings growing in these plots. They were still alive - nothing seems to be able to really kill this alien species unfortunately.

Kindu - Phoenix reclinata - used to make sura, a palm wine.

Conono - Terminalia sericea - a useful tree for construction and medicine.

Many wild trees used for fruits, medicines, and beverage production survived the fire. Some of them quite large - older than 21 years and having old fire scars. This made me wonder about why people would deliberately set fires. I've had a few discussions with farmers about burning brush and savanna areas. I hope to pursue the topic in specialist and oral history interviews, as well as take measurements in the area that recently burned to see what grows back over the next 6 months.

New machamba next to the burned area. Farmers will likely expand into this newly cleared area.

Possible reasons for deliberate fire disturbance include:
1. clearing land for crops and homes
2. adding nutrients to the soil
3. discouraging wildlife - hippos, elephants, and bush pigs in particular. I did see some vervet monkeys in the burned areas looking for fruit
4. encouraging the growth of particular plants

Reserve staff were upset by the fires. I think because they were worried about the fire spreading into the reserve and because it is the middle of the dry (windy) season. Mozambique has no big Forest Fire crews like the US. When a fire starts, it burns until it runs out of fuel or comes up against a fire break like a road, river, or handmade break. This last shot was taken at 9pm. There were 2 guards on duty with shovels. The fire eventually died out on its own.

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