DAKAR, Senegal — As images of wildfires in South America’s Amazon region draw global attention, another large and potentially devastating series of fires is raging in Central Africa and parts of Southern Africa.
Among the regions at risk is the Congo Basin forest, the second-largest tropical rainforest after the Amazon, mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The region absorbs tons of carbon dioxide, a key in the fight against climate change, and has been called the world’s “second lung,” following the Amazon.
At the Group of Seven summit of political leaders this week, amid a global feud over how to handle the Brazil blazes, President Emmanuel Macron of France published a Twitter message acknowledging the Africa burns and saying he was considering an aid program to help.
Fire experts, however, are cautioning against comparing the situations in Africa and South America too closely. While the fires are racing through environmentally critical rainforests in Brazil and Bolivia, in Central Africa, they are incinerating savanna and scrubbier land, and mostly licking at the edges of the rainforest, said Lauren Williams, a forest expert with Global Forest Watch who is based in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital.
In Central Africa, as in other parts of the world, many of the fires are typical for this time of year. While some ignite naturally in the dry season, others are deliberately set by farmers to clear land and improve crop yields.
In South America the burns spilled into sensitive areas and grew out of control. In Africa, some experts fear the same outcome, and say that Central African governments may be inadequately prepared to fight the blazes.
Irène Wabiwa Betoko, a forest manager with Greenpeace who is based in Kinshasa, said that regional governments are less equipped to fight these burns than their South American counterparts, both technically and financially.
“If it catches the rainforest in the Congo Basin, it will be worse than in South America,” she said in a telephone interview. “We are calling on governments to not be silent. Start acting now to make sure these fires are not getting out of control.”
Data analyzed by Global Forest Watch show that Angola ranks first in the number of fire alerts by province right now, while Brazil ranks second, with Zambia and Congo in third and fourth place.
In Congo, the number of fire alerts in 2019 is running slightly above average, according to Global Forest Watch. But it is still not as high as in some recent years.
A NASA satellite map shows Central Africa as a thick fiery splotch, a rash even denser than the red mass over the Amazon. But experts cautioned that each dot represents a distinct fire in a large geographic region — not one huge conflagration.
Williams, of Global Forest Watch, also cautioned that satellite technology is not perfect, and that satellites sometimes identify fires that are not actually there.
For generations, fires set by farmers were not a major concern. But rising temperatures, decreased rain and industrial practices like logging have made forests increasingly vulnerable to out-of-control blazes. Less rain leaves the land dry and more vulnerable to sparks, while logging thins the forest, making it less dense and less humid, and more vulnerable to fire, said Wabiwa Betoko.
Nations in the G-7 pledged more than $22 million to fight the fires in the Amazon.
On Tuesday, Brazil’s government rejected the offer, extending a fight between Macron and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil over how the fires should be handled.
Bolsonaro has called the French leader’s involvement part of a campaign to treat Brazil “as if we were a colony.”
And Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, took a swipe at Macron by telling Globo, a Brazilian news outlet, that Macron already “has a lot to look after at home and in the French colonies.”
It was possible reference to the Africa fires, although many former French colonies are north of the burning areas.