Arid Lands Newsletter (link)No. 55, May/June 2004
Fire Ecology II

Community-based fire management in the Miombo woodlands: A case study from Bukombe District, Shinyanga,Tanzania

by Edwin Nssoko

"From the beginning, the fire management plan has incorporated [local] traditions; this has been crucial to local support of and involvement with the plan... ."

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Bukombe District lies in the western apex of Shinyanga region, Tanzania, between longitudes 31-32° east and latitudes 3-3.30° south. The district covers an area of 10,482 km2 (4,047 mi2); of this, 6,133 km2 (2,368 mi2) is estimated to be public land while 4,349 km2 (1,679 mi2) is forest reserves. Administratively the district is divided into the Masumbwe, Siloka and Mbogwe divisions; the population is about 396,423 people, predominantly from the closely related Sukuma and Sumbwa ethnic groups.

The district is forested with Miombo woodlands, dominated by economically important leguminous tree and shrub species including Acacia, Brachystegia, Albizia, Commiphora and Dalbergia. Topographically, the district is characterized by flat, gently undulating plains interspersed with ridges and hill blocks. The general altitude varies from 1000 m (3,280 ft) to 1500 m (4,921 ft). Soils are mainly clayish but vary tremendously from hilltop to valley bottoms (Kileo et al. 1995).

The climate is sub-humid, with annual rainfall in the district varying from about 600 mm (23.6 in) to 1200 mm (47.2 in), with a mean of 900 mm (35.4 in). The rainy season begins in November and ends in April-May, with a short dry spell between January and February. Annual temperatures vary from 15° C (59° F) minimum to 30° C (86° F) maximum (HASHI 2000).

Before the 1920s, the region was extensively forested. Large areas were cleared during colonial times to eradicate tsetse flies, which threaten livestock, and weaver birds (Quellea quellea), which often threaten crops. Increased cotton production, carried out through extensive cropping of the land, also led to clearing large areas of forests. This deforestation caused land degradation problems whose effects are still persisting.

To help address these problems, a conference on "Environmental Conservation through Tree Growing" was held near Shinyanga in 1984. Among the participants was then-late president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere. As the follow-up of that conference, a project to improve and protect the environment of Shinyanga from further degradation was initiated in 1986. It was named Hifadhi Ardhi Shinyanga (or HASHI), Kiswahili for "Shinyanga Soil Conservation Project." From the start, the success of the HASHI Project has depended on the involvement and participation of the local population (Dery et al. 1999).

Implementation of a fire management program in Bukombe District

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Concern about the environmental impact of forest fires in Bukombe District has been growing in the last two decades. Most fires are caused by human activities, often as a result of age-old traditional attitudes and socio-economic activities. Slash-and-burn is still the dominant farming practice. Also, traditional nomads often set the vegetation on fire to initiate pasture regeneration for their cattle and these fires get out of hand. In addition, the widespread destruction of the ecosystem in Bukombe forced farmers to look for other livelihoods outside of agriculture (Nssoko 2002). In most areas, many people quit farming in the years after the woodlands were cut down, due to the subsequent land degradation and dwindling soil nutrients; they are now generally relying on illegal logging and charcoal production for their livelihoods.

In addressing this problem, the HASHI project could not work independently due to inadequate funds and staff resources to protect the forests as well as empowering the communities for sustainable utilization of resources. The project has thus used a range of strategies to empower villagers to protect the forest from fires. Various forms of education, including video, Participatory Rural Appraisal, theatre, newsletters, and general meetings, were used to raise awareness of the problem in villages such as Ushirombo, Nampalahala and Nampangwe, where the risks of fire are high. The goal was to encourage villagers to become more actively involved in fire management in the surrounding forests. As a result of these strategies the villagers reached a consensus to establish village environmental committees. Members of these village committees are chosen by election, one from each sub-village within the village in question.

Another important step was to formulate by-laws and village working plans for protection during the fire season. Although the Miombo forest boundaries are not rigidly demarcated, ownership rights are well respected and protected through local community by-laws, which are enforced by the local scouts called "sungusungu" or "wasalama," with heavy penalties to offenders. These scouts work in patrols; the frequency of patrolling varies depending on fuel load, topography and weather. Since a large number of youth in rural areas are jobless, the system has created opportunities for them to earn income especially when a person is caught and found guilty of committing an offence such as arson. The penalty charged is partly allocated to the village and the rest is distributed to the patrol crew. This has provided more incentive for people to become involved in safeguarding the forest. Local communities also establish fire breaks to help prevent fire from spreading when it does occur.

The initial success of these measures in the villages of Ushirombo, Nampalahala and Nampangwe led to increased community involvement not only in fire management, but also in the protection of forest resources. There is now a consensus at the village level on the importance of mapping and demarcation of the village forest, as a step towards the provision of title deeds to local residents. For example in Lubeho village residents have finished mapping the village forest and efforts are being made by the District council to channel this information to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism for declaration. This is one important step ahead since it will encourage the rest of the villages to address and solve the problem of land tenure.

An important overall goal of the HASHI project is to strengthen community self-organizing. The project aims to re-establish and strengthen existing social organizational capacity within communities in order to increase people's confidence that they can decrease their vulnerability to disaster through their own knowledge and efforts. In terms of fire management, the community members can also provide valuable local knowledge to create better fire plans, and labor to implement these plans.

For example, bee husbandry activities as traditionally practiced can help the community manage fire risks. Farmers or households who invest in beekeeping activities in a particular forest lot or reserve are always alert and aware of the fire hazard. Therefore in the course of protecting their beehives, they automatically help to safeguard the forest as a whole from fire.

Likewise, the rural communities normally set aside some areas for conservation of "ngitili," (a Sukuma term meaning "enclosure.") This is a traditional form of forest management among the Sukuma people, in which an area near a village is closed off at the beginning of the wet season to preserve fodder, and opened during the dry season for grazing cattle when fodder is scarce. As soon as an area has been identified for such an enclosure, the villagers will plough strips around the area for demarcation purposes; these strips of ploughed and bare land can also function as fire lines (Mlenge et al. 2001).

Evolution of the fire management plan

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The management plan was developed after the community became aware of the connection between fires and resource depletion, and the need for community collective commitment in solving these problems. Since then the community, in collaboration with HASHI project, has collectively worked to develop a plan that will optimize protection and sustainable management of resources. The identification and prioritization of resources that are most affected by fires is done. Further, the management plan has defined the role and responsibility of an individual household or institution to safeguard the forest against fire, hence contributing greatly to the success of local fire control.

Over time, the fire management plan has been changing because of feedback from the communities involved. For example the penalties for arsonists was originally US$ 10, but with time it went to US$ 40. If an offender repeats the offence, then he/she will be taken to the court.

Also when fire occurs everyone in the community is required to participate fully in combating it. Failure to do so will be penalized at a cost not less than that of 4 goats (one goat = US$ 7). Normally according to Sukuma traditions, these goats are contributed to a group of elders in a community; the elders may have the goats slaughtered and prepared for food if they are holding a meeting to pursue big decisions, or they may decide to sell some of the goats for money to help in fire fighting activities.

There have also been changes in the management plan pertaining to fire line widths. The time of creating fire lines has changed as communities have learned when their establishment is most effective (generally, from May to July, before the grasses become completely dry). Each sub-village is given a certain length of fire line to create; this makes it easer for the village as a whole to coordinate efforts and to accomplish the assignment.

The original fire management plan focused only on involving men, but with time the local women have also been incorporated into fire prevention and suppression activities. This not only allows women more participation in matters that affect them, but also increases manpower to make fire management more effective. In addition to combating fire, some women prepare foods and supply water to those who are fighting the fire. If a fire is out of control, students (16-18 years old) may be involved as well, through consultation with their headmaster or teachers.

Locally important socio-economic activities such as logging, charcoal making, hunting and collection of honey have also been incorporated into the new management plan. Such activities will now require a permit; this will help to reduce fire risks in at least two ways. First, it limits the number of of people who are operating in the forest at any given time. Second, if fire occurs, it is easier to identify those people who were in the forest at the time; this will enhance the chances of identifying the one who caused the fire. Normally the villagers seek these permits from the village environmental committee; the committee will meet regularly as required to discuss the applications. The permits are given to those who are considered trustworthy, and are free of charge.

The HASHI project has so far proven innovative in its approach to improving land use in Shinyanga through local participation. The project puts great emphasis on indigenous knowledge and builds on what the local people already know. Through the project's work for example, about 350,000 hectares have been recovered and livelihood of the local communities improved. As a result of its success, HASHI is one of the 27 projects along the Equatorial belt that won the Equator Initiative award from United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) during the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in South Africa in 2002.The Award is offered in recognition of outstanding achievements of the project towards conservation of biodiversity and reduction of poverty.

Lessons learned

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The local communities in Bukombe District have their own management and forest fire management systems that complement local ecology and traditions. From the beginning, the fire management plan has incorporated these traditions; this has been crucial to local support of and involvement with the plan, and to the plan's ultimate success in managing fires. For example, the traditional Sukuma practice of ngitili has enhanced the protection of many hectares from fire. Village governments and institutions are establishing new communal ngitili on degraded areas with the objective of regaining ecological integrity and intensifying the supply of multiple forest products and services to enhance human well being. This practice should continue to be encouraged.

The creation of local ownership has been a key to the success of the fire management plan. Increased security of land tenure provides villagers with a strong incentive to manage the forest against encroachment, illegal harvesting and fires.

It is now becoming evident that the prevailing Tanzania forest policy, established in 1998, has greatly contributed to community participation in forest management and utilization of forest resources and is an important strategy to reduce the incidences of forest fires. The 1998 policy is in contrast to the previous forest policy where the Government used to be custodian of such forests while local communities were barred from using the forest resources. Such alienation induced local communities to be detached and indifferent to their environment. In contrast, the Bukombe fire management plan now in place empowers the villagers, as do regular meetings between interest groups/stakeholders to discuss and formulate alternative strategies of fire management.

The major handicap to Miombo forest fire management is the lack of forest fire records which should highlight the location of the incident, time and day of occurrence, causes of the fire, and financial losses incurred. These data would provide a foundation for the design and prioritization of future wildfire management activities in the District. The establishment of policies and procedures for fire occurrence documentation at sub-village, village, wards, district and national levels will help villagers in the planning process, as well as in sourcing funds, infrastructure and training human resources that will contribute to combating fire.

Locally, there is need for establishing a training center in Shinyanga that will try to change age-old traditional attitudes that tend to promote fires, and that will provide villagers with skills and legal instruments to support fire management.

Finally, there is a need to establish an effective and functional National Fire Policy in Tanzania to further enhance sustainable wildland and forest fire disaster control and risk reduction, both in Bukombe District and throughout the nation (Madoffe 1999).


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Dery, B.R, R. Otsyina and C. Ng'atigwa. 1999. Indigenous knowledge of medicinal trees and setting priorities for their domestication in Shinyanga Region, Tanzania. Nairobi: International Centre for Agricultural Research.

HASHI. Bukombe District Monthly Reports (In-house reports, HASHI Project, Shinyanga, Tanzania, 2000).

Kileo, G.J, C.S. Mmbando and A.B. Temu. 1995. Shinyanga regional Profile. Dar es Salaam: Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

Madoffe, S. Forest Protection: A compendium for Sokoine University of Agriculture-Morogoro, Tanzania. (In-house report, Sokoine University of Agriculture, Morogoro, Tanzania, 1999).

Mlenge, W.C, B. Kaale and E. Barrow. Ngitili-as Sukuma Method to restore wood and grass lands in Shinyanga-Tanzania. (Unpublished manuscript, HASHI, Shinyanga, Tanzania, 2001).

Nssoko, E. 2002. Fire in Miombo woodlands: A case of Bukombe District, Shinyanga-Tanzania. Presented at Communities in flames: An international conference on community involvement in fire management, 25-28 July 2001, Balikpapan, Indonesia. Online:


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Author information

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Mr. Edwin Nssoko is Head of Fire Protection for the HASHI Project, Shinyanga. He can be reached for comment at

Additional web resources

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VirtualExhibit Project Showcase: HASHI

Traditional Land Management System in Shinyanga

Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration: Shinyanga, Tanzania (pdf file, 140K)

Two Tanzanian Projects Awarded for International Excellence in Eradicating Poverty (article about the 2002 Equator Prize award)


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