Impact of the Integrated Forest Fire Management Program on Rural Livelihoods in East Caprivi Region, Namibia

(IFFN No. 25, July 2001)


3. IFFM and local livelihoods

3.1 Introduction

Satellite imaging has shown a significant reduction in the incidence of fire since the initiation of IFFM in 1996 (Trigg 1998, GoN/GoF 1999). The project’s target is “50% reduction in annual burning compared with the 1990s”. IFFM has no system in place for monitoring of vegetation changes on the ground (Trollope and Trollope 1999).

The positive contribution of IFFM in reducing the area burned is particularly ascribed to:

 What these figures mean for the livelihoods for local people will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

3.2 Vulnerability context

Life in East Caprivi is full of uncertainties. Community members interviewed considered damage from wild fires as one of the many risk factors that affect their lives. Other factors beyond their control are unreliable rainfall; drought; attacks from wildlife on crops and livestock; too much or too little flooding; crop pests; animal diseases; fluctuation of meat prices; loss of household members (labour) to HIV/AIDS; political unrest and possibly landmines etc. At the moment of this study, most of East Caprivi suffered from late rains and people expected it to become a drought year. This would imply crop failure, poor pastures, limited water supply and so on. Also many communities visited suffered from problem animals: elephants attacking maize plants, and lions and hyenas their livestock.

In 2.2 an overview was given of how the potential negative and positive effects of fire differ per ecological zone. The risk of wild fires within each zone is strongly related to the prevailing land use system and tenure regime. Traditional extensive systems have built-in strategies to cope with risks such as wild fire and patchy rainfall. Mobility (moving livestock) is one of them (cf. Scoones 1996). Establishing crop fields in different zones is another one. Both strategies are applied in East Caprivi (see 3.3.2.1 and 3.3.2.1). Generally, when land-use systems become more ‘intensive’ (in terms of productivity per ha and/or economic value of individual resources) investing in reducing risk levels becomes economically more justified. Fortunately, when grazing pressure increases the risk of wildfires are automatically reduced as well (decreased fuel load).

Another contextual vulnerability factor is the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has severely hit the Region. Caprivi has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the country (UNDP 1998, Webb and Simon 1995). Although still not openly discussed, people indicated that the effects are felt in the availability of (healthy) labor for crop cultivation. It is in this context that potential costs and benefits of fire control should be placed.

3. 3 Direct and indirect effects of IFFM activities

The IFFM strategy attempts to improve people’s livelihoods through:

The third set of activities includes the provision of knowledge, skills and motivation in order for community members to better control and use fire (e.g. prescribed burning) and enhanced social organization and local regulation to ensure fire control.

Rural households in East Caprivi rely on a combination of economic activities and sources of subsistence and income:

 East Caprivi has a settlement pattern, whereby houses are concentrated together and crop fields are located away from the village on the flood plane and/or higher grounds. Livestock is kept in different areas during the year. A survey among Salambala Conservancy member-communities showed that most villages were utilizing at least 10 different grazing areas during a single year (Mosimane 1996). Wildlife and tourism are expected to be a future source of income for Conservancy members. So far, however, earnings have been disappointing, mainly due to the political instability of the previous two years.

3.3.1 Employment in cutline construction and maintenance

A major observation of the 1999 review team was that community members consider cutline work as the most important benefit from IFFM and this was again confirmed during this second study. This is understandable because cut line work produces cash income in a context where paid work is extremely hard to find.

The work is done during a period of about six months (May to October) and involves usually about 10 people per community. The amount earned depends on the number of kilometers finished by the group. There is a large variation in earnings per person, per community and per year. IFFM has so far worked in 68 communities. Some communities participated every year, others stopped for one or more years and continued again; others stopped after one or more years. The decision to discontinue comes sometimes from the side of the community (contractor, the village chief [induna]or workers), sometimes from the side of IFFM. Most common reasons are arguments between workers and the local contractor; dissatisfaction about pay and toughness of the work; arguments among the workers; poor relationship with IFFM staff.

The average pay is about N$ 200 per month, which is equivalent to the amount paid in ongoing food-for-work schemes in the region. The assumption of these food-for-work programmes and also the IFFM model is that part of the work is done on a voluntary basis (= the communities’s contribution). Additional incentives are provided to the cutline workers in the form of boots and protective clothing (uniforms) . The pay is good compared to what a Zambian herdsboy earns (about N$100), but the cutline workers do not like this comparison. Many of them are young school leavers, who in the past would have the task of cattle herding but now refuse to do this work. Complaints about the level of pay were widespread. In Lubate community for example, the workers referred to the much better pay of the Conservancy game guards (N$ 750). This community is a member of the Mashe Conservancy. The village chief (induna) argued that goal of the cutline work is to conserve the environment (“to protect the lizards and even the trees”) and therefore the responsibility of the government (or institution on its behalf).

There is a fundamental contradiction in perspectives between the IFFM component and the local people. In the IFFM model, the work is considered as partially voluntary (= the community’s contribution) and the pay is therefore relatively low. From the perspective of the cutline workers, the work is just a job and they want to get proper wages. This observation has important implications for the future social and economic sustainability of the firebreaks.

In the livelihoods approach, emphasis is not so much put on the amount earned (quantified benefit), but rather on the strategic importance of the activity:

 3.3.2 Protection against wild fires

In the IFFM model, cutlines are an instrument to prevent wild fires and thus protect the natural resource base of local people. In the following paragraphs, the direct and indirect effects on people’s livelihood activities and strategies will be discussed.

3.3.2.1 Crop fields and crop production

Crop cultivation is the cornerstone of the household economy of the Mafwe and Subiya people. Staple crops are maize, millet and sorghum. Some households earn cash with selling a surplus, but probably more common is that people sell because they need the money or exchange produce for other essentials. They then have to buy food later on in the year. According to Ashley and LeFranchi, the variability in harvest between households and between years is striking, but probably most households in most years cannot produce the cereals they need for the whole year. In livelihood terms, crop production provides:

 The main inputs are labour (particularly women’s labour) and draught power for plowing. Farmers’ strategy is “low-input low-output”. The availability of labour is the most critical factor within the farming system. Labour is becoming increasingly scarce due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. People in several communities said that they noticed that households produced less due to losses in the family.

Many people interviewed initially said that their crops suffer from wild fires in order to underline the importance of further project support for cutline work. From more probing and from interviews with various resource people it must be concluded that the risk of wild fires is usually not very high. In certain areas people could not remember that crops ever burned, while in other areas it happened so rarely, that the problem was really minor compared to all the other risks.

How complex the issue is can be illustrated by the following example. In Labuta, a village south of Kongola in the Kalahari Woodlands zone, fires sometimes come through and cause damage to standing crops. People reported that this had indeed happened in 2000. This village is a large maize producer and maize is an important source of income. The loss of crops results in a loss of means of subsistence plus income. It also implies a waste of women’s labour in a period in which labour is getting scarcer. Some families might have also invested money in hiring workers. Fortunately however, people in this area usually have several fields distributed over a larger area. The result is that they spread the risk of patchy rainfall, pests and also fire. When wild fires strike they usually do not loose all their harvest at once. Also in other communities visited, people used to have several fields, normally in different ecological zones, but also possibly related to inheritance of land. It can be assumed that when crop fields catch fire, the most vulnerable households will suffer most because they have only a small area cultivated to satisfy (part of) their subsistence needs. They do not have the option to participate in the risk spreading strategy.

The Regional Rural Development Planner is responsible for food relief in the Region. He said that there are no cases of food relief being provided to people who lost their crops to fire, only to people who lost their homes and that is usually in (peri) urban areas. When asked if people could apply for assistance for crop loss his answer was vague.

Since cropfields are usually individually owned (ancestral rights) and land use is relatively intensive (productivity per ha) one can assume that the incentives to protect ones own crop field against fire are stronger than for any other use. Cutline subsidy should therefore only be provided in communities where repeated crop loss occurs due to indiscriminate fires from the outsided (e.g. cross boundary; peat fires) Indirect measures to cope with the effects of wild fires should also be looked at: addressing security of tenure; techniques that reduce labor inputs (e.g. access to draught animals; techniques that increase crop productivity; and system for food relief for particularly vulnerable households that loose their crops and have no other means to bridge the loss.

3.3.2.2 Pasture and livestock production

For the Subiya and Mafwe people, livestock keeping is extremely important, not necessarily for food and cash, but for their value for ploughing, transport, building up reserves (to cope with drought; disease etc.). Livestock also has numerous social and cultural functions. Households without livestock have lower crop production, greater dependence on off-farm cash income and generally greater economic insecurity. Negative impacts resulting from fire are one of the risk factors for livestock owners (Ashley and LaFranchi 1997).

Distribution of livestock is increasingly unequal. Probably, most communities have households that do not own any cattle and households with over 200 heads of cattle (cf. Mosimane 1996). There are traditional social mechanisms to distribute the benefits to some extent. The mafisa system for example gives the herdsboy the right to keep some of the calves. This system is eroding for various reasons.

Caprivi’s traditional grazing systems are not well documented. They are complex and dynamic with varying patterns of shifting, usually between the flood plains (winter grazing) and the Mopane and Kalahari woodland areas (summer grazing). It seems that people shift their animals between particular sub-khutas (silalo), one in the flood zone and one on the higher grounds. A silalo consists of a small number of villages. Each silalo has a number of different grazing areas or ‘forests’. These areas have specific names and are usually called after the waterpan in the middle. The critical factor according to resource people and villagers interviewed is the availability of drinking water for the animals. Although stocking rates are believed to be increasing, the current system is still more water than fodder restricted.

3.3.2.3 Harvesting of non-wood products

While livestock is considered a male domain, wild resources are generally more a female domain. The products are particularly important for the poorest categories of women and form an security buffer (cf. Ashley and LaFranci 1997, Mosmane 1996). Several categories of non-wood products can be distinguished.

Veld products

Women and children collect most veldfruits. Most commonly collected are the fruits from the Ximenia americana (blue sourplum); mushrooms; bark of the Berchemia discolor (birdplum) used to dye palm leaves for basketry), various green leafed vegetables, waterlilies and herbs. These products are essential for subsistence (food; nutrition; health), and provide also a limited – but often very important - source of cash income and means for local barter. Strategic advantages are that the products are relatively drought resistant and become available at different times during the year. The variety of products utilized by the Subiya and Mafwe people in East Caprivi is rather limited. The uses of veld products are not very varied, processing methods and marketing not well developed compared to for example the Ovambo Regions. This might be related to their background as fishermen. The Khoi people in West Caprivi on the other hand are using a larger variety of bush products (cf. Ashley and LaFranci 1997, Mosmane 1996).

A major constraint for obtaining more benefits, is the lack of a market outlet. The creation of nature conservation areas and the associated danger of wild animals have reduced bush products in certain areas. The effects of bush fires are difficult to assess, because they have to do with the time that women spent on harvesting, the opportunity costs of that time, the use value of the products, opportunities to sell and so on.

When discussing particular products, people said that blue sour plum and bird plum are not sensitive to wild fires. Mushrooms and green leafed vegetables generally grow during the wet season when there is no fire danger. Some herbs need seasonal fires, but they can also suffer from wild fires. The potential damage depends on the availability of alternative resources and marketing opportunities. The further away the more the demands on women’s time and the lower the return on their labour.

Thatch grass and reeds

Reeds and thatch grasses are traditional building materials in East Caprivi. They are usually harvested by women for their own use, for barter/exchange or for local sale. Recently, the commercial market for thatch grass has improved and also men are now taking part. The market was very good until the security situation deteriorated in 1999. During 2000 the outside market virtually collapsed.

Thatch grass grows in areas adjacent to the floodplains. Wildfires are very destructive, but periodic burns are necessary to achieve optimal productivity (Trollope and Trollope 1999). The two communities that requested assistance with prescribed burning, Ibbu and Isuswe, both wanted to burn thatch grass areas that had not been burned in several years.

Thatch grass resources are considered still plentiful when utilized for subsistence use, but increasing commercial exploitation in certain areas has began to put putting pressure on the resources. There are signs of emerging conflicts between user groups (between neighbouring communities or between women who cut thatch grass and men grazing their livestock in the same area) due to competition. As was explained, people can traditionally go freely to areas within and outside their own silalo to cut thatch grass for their own use, but they have to follow the rules: the nearest by induna announces the moment when cutting can start (somewhere in June or July). The main rule is that the grass must have seeded before cutting can start. This is an illustration of the existing local knowledge and management practices.

With increasing demand and the market value of thatch grass growing, the need to better define access-rights and use conditions is growing as well. When the benefits are assured people will be more likely to invest in the costs of fire management. The benefits from such an investment however, must accrue to those people who carry the costs. Tenure is probably the key issue to be addressed in order to create incentives for fire management.

Palm leaves

The Hyphaene petersana or fan palm is utilized for the production of basketry. This is one of the few income generation options for women. The work can be well combined with other chores. Recently, marketing opportunities have in certain areas improved due to NGO assistance. In some localities in East Caprivi raw material supply problems were already observed in 1994 (Terry et al. 1994). In certain areas elephants cause much damage. Apparently fires are not common in the palm producing areas (Harrison 1995). IFFM has not been working in these areas.

3.3.2.4 Harvesting of wood-products

At the regional level, the short term and long term availability of wood resources for local people is affected by factors such as land clearing for agriculture, excision of forest use areas (National Forest; Conservancy core areas) and also fires. Due to less flooding in recent years Combretum imberbe is expanding - or encroaching depending on your perspective - into the mulapo, seasonally flooded areas. These areas are usually burnt annually to enhance grazing. These burns destroy regeneration or make it grow back into multi-stemmed shrubs (idem) (cf. Harris 1995). IFFM has not been monitoring the effects of fire on vegetation and the effects of the project activities (Trollope and Trollope 1999).

At the local level, trees play an essential role in livelihoods, especially of those people living in or nearby wooded areas. The direct benefits from the collection of firewood and timber, and also from non-wood forest products are:

 Some of the indirect effects and strategic aspects are:

 More details are given in the Salambala report (see Kamminga 2000).

Generally, these activities have a low level of commercialization due to lack of market opportunities. Most sales (or barter) take place within the own community or with communities in the flood plain areas. These relationships have usually also an important social dimension.

Furthermore, the majority of people interviewed did not perceive any problems in the availability of firewood or construction wood, or competition from outsiders (see Kamminga 1999, 2000). To illustrate the low pressure on the resources, the largest town, Katima Mulilo obtains its wood products from within a zone of 5 kilometres (firewood) and 20 kilometres (Mubiza) from town.

It is logical under these circumstances that people showed little concern about fire damage on trees. No difference was found between people spoken to in the Mopane Woodland zone and the Kalahari Woodland zone where wild fires would be more harmful from an ecological point of view (cf. Trollope and Trollope 1999). A survey by the Caprivian Arts and Crafts Centre in 1995 also arrived at the conclusion that most people were not concerned about the availability of wood resources and the effect of wild fires (Harrison 1995). Exceptions were the woodcarvers. They were worried about the effects of repeated fires on the regeneration and growth of their most favourite species, Combretum imberbe and Pterocarpus angolensis. These species are found in the Kalahari Woodland zones and are protected by law. The woodcarvers felt that future supply of raw materials is not assured under the current circumstances of uncontrolled utilization and fires.

Below two illustrations are given, one from the Kalahari Woodland Zone and one from the Mopane woodland zone:

These examples illustrate that rural communities and the IFFM component have different agendas when it comes to fire, cutlines and the protection of trees. From the livelihood point of view, this means that the program does not respond well to the priorities of the local people.

3.3.3 Enhanced fire management by rural communities

In the IFFM model, improving controlled and prescribed burning is the final stage. The cutlines are expected to demonstrate to local people that fire control has advantages and can be done. People might choose to maintain the existing cutlines, make new ones or they might choose another technology or even indirect strategy (e.g. manipulating the fuel load through grazing pressure). In other words, the aim is to provide local people with the knowledge, skills and motivation needed to fully control and apply fire, both at the individual level and the community level. This means promotion of self-help and empowerment.

As yet, strategies, technologies and activities to reach this intervention stage have not yet been well elaborated. So far few communities have expressed interest in receiving a demonstration in the safe application of prescribed burning.

Two communities, Isuswe and Ibbu, have asked permission and assistance to burn their thatch grass areas. In the first community it was a women-group, in the second the induna who contacted IFFM. In both cases, traditional burns had been postponed in order to comply with the IFFM requirements. After the request, IFFM financed the construction of cut lines around the two thatch grass areas and then set the grass inside on fire. In the literature reference is made how external prohibitions on the setting of bush fire can undermine local people’s early-burning strategies, risking greater fire damage by late fires (Leach and Mearns 1996).

In terms of training and preparation, the IFFM team took a specialized course in South Africa on how to assess the grass-sward and how to apply controlled burning. The social aspects of fire management, however, have not received any attention at all. Do different user groups within an area (e.g. small livestock owners; large livestock owners; thatch grass cutters; herb collectors; cultivators etc.) have different fire needs? What are the conflicts in interest and differences in perspectives and how can they be addressed? How are decisions on burning arrived at? What is the role of the traditional leaders in fire management? Clearly, the use of fire cannot be isolated from broader resource use and management issues

3.4 Sustainability aspects

In the previous paragraphs the direct and indirect effects of IFFM on people’s livelihoods were discussed. How sustainable are these effects?

Economic sustainability

IFFM activities have a positive effect on the productivity of the natural resource base, on people’s livelihood security and on opportunities for market participation (cf. Shackleton et al. 2000). The strategy, however, heavily relies on one instrument, subsidization of cutline construction.

The cut line technology is relatively labour intensive. The benefits of making and maintaining cut lines in grazing areas that are characterized by extensive land use, a common property use regime and low level commercialization are low compared to the costs. It is unlikely that communities will construct cutlines on their own initiative, even if there would be strong social cohesion. A choice of alternative, lower-cost technologies has not been offered by IFFM. The chance that cutlines will be maintained without external financial support is slim.

The recent increase in market value of thatch grass (commercialization) has resulted in competition and conflict between user groups from different communities, since access rights are not well defined. Several IFFM communities have placed their firebreaks in a manner that they protect their thatch grass resources and also demarcate them from the neighbouring communities. Cutlines can be utilized as an instrument to strengthen control over resources.

Social sustainability

There is generally a low level of “ownership”. Fire was officially taken out of the hands of the Traditional Authorities during the South African administration. Nature conservation is considered the responsibility of the Government. Caprivians have been living with the risk of fire all their lives. Putting emphasis on fire reduction rather than fire management has also perpetuated the idea that the Government is in charge. The provision of uniforms and boots provides short-term incentives, but creates the impression that cut line work is special work that requires a special outfit. IFFM has also been keeping full control over the tools by taking them back from each community after every season.

Cutline construction is perceived as paid work not as self-help. The activities at community level usually start with the selection of a construction contractor, the drawing up of a contract to build a certain number of kilometres and the recruitment of workers. The program is perceived as an (improved) ‘food for work’ program. In addition, as one of the traditional leaders said: “If you start paying you can’t stop and expect the people to do the work for free”.

The IFFM approach has shown limited appreciation for existing fire management systems and practices. They have never been documented. The role of the traditional leaders is generally undervalued. The IFFM workers act like educators and fire control officers, and they are not afraid of using the law as a stick. Being in charge of the cutline contracts and payments also puts them in a powerful position. The relationship between the IFFM team and community members lacks in many cases mutual trust and understanding. There is no feeling of partnership towards the fire management objectives.

To which extent the program has had a long lasting development impact will have to be assessed at a later stage. Another socio-economic review is foreseen during the second phase of the Namibia Finland Forestry Program, where these issues could be assessed.

3.5 Conclusions

As was mentioned in 1.1, the overall objective of the IFFM component is to reduce the fires in East Caprivi in order to improve the living standards and the environment of the local people. The two main implementation strategies were provision of temporary employment through subsidized cut line work, and protecting people’s subsistence base and income earning opportunities by reducing the incidence of “wild” fires. Later a third strategy was added, increasing the productivity of the natural resource base by introducing enhanced techniques for the application of fire as a management tool.

The first two strategies aim at respectively “livelihood provisioning” and “livelihood protection”. They are applied from a kind of emergency and relief perspective. The third strategy aims more at “livelihood promotion” and has a longer-term development perspective, including elements of empowerment and participation. (Carney et al. 1999).

IFFM has put much emphasis on the first two strategies, which is consistent with the view that fires in East Caprivi are not only a local, but also a Regional, National and even global disaster. Furthermore, the socio-economic situation in East Caprivi is considered to be a crisis as well, particularly the high levels of unemployment among the youth and the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Implementing the third strategy requires a different perspective and also different skills on the part of the implementers. The contribution to the enhancement of local livelihoods would have been larger when fire would have been addressed in a more integrated manner and cutlines would have been offered as one of the options from a whole package of techniques and strategies.

The issue of different costs and benefits of fire management according to tenure zones and (intensity of) land use has not been addressed at all. It is likely that areas or resources under a relatively extensive land-use system and a common property (e.g. silalo) tenure regime will benefit more from a holistic strategy aiming at reducing the possible impact of wildfire (e.g. by influencing grazing pressure; water supply). Areas or resources under more intensive use (e.g. thatch grass; pastures nearby village centre) on the other hand might benefit more from strategies towards the protection and more optimal use of fire (e.g. controlled prescribed burning).

From a livelihoods perspective, there is a need to move away from a blueprint approach focussed on forest fire prevention towards a more people-centred and broader resource management perspective. Only then will both the people and the forest benefit in an optimal and socially and economically sustainable manner. Hopefully the integration of the IFFM component within the new Community Forestry component will offer new opportunities in this respect.


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