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The Land Chief’s embers: ethnobotany of Batéké fire regimes, savanna vegetation and resource use in Gabon

Walters, G.M.; (2010) The Land Chief’s embers: ethnobotany of Batéké fire regimes, savanna vegetation and resource use in Gabon. Doctoral thesis, UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

Anthropogenic fire regimes and society are linked: social change modifies fire application which then impacts ecosystems. In the past 40 years, savanna burning has changed markedly around the world as policies, laws, and cultures change. This thesis explores the links between fire regime and culture by analysing the decline of the fire-based Bateke land chief’s authority in Gabon. Unlike other parts of sub-Saharan Africa where colonial anti-fire policies have been strict and punitive, fire policy in Gabon has been lax. As such, today’s savanna fires are neither suppressed nor managed, and their value to the local economy and national conservation is not yet fully recognised. This thesis addresses the changing role of the Bateke as savanna keepers, the effects of their fire regimes on their savanna ecosystem, and the contribution of fire to biodiversity and present day fire-foraging. The effects of the fire regime on the ecosystem are explored through plant collection, participant observation, surveys, interviews, and finally vegetation plots analysing the impacts of different fire treatments. The land chief’s authority was part of a magico-religious system where land fertility was guaranteed by conducting rituals and proper burning procedures. This system effectively ended in the late 1960s during a tumultuous time in Bateke history, resulting in a change in fire culture and hence fire regime. The fires under the land chief system were regulated, annual, dry season hunting occurrences conducted by the community and part of maintaining land fertility. By contrast, today’s fires are lit by individuals who are no longer under the land chief’s authority. Hence, these fires are unregulated, occurring at all times of the year and often semi-annually. Generally, burning stimulates tree resprouting and clears mature grass. However annual and semi-annual fires have different levels of resprout survival based on resprout size, fire intensity, and patchiness. More frequent fires are less intense, creating patches which serve as micro-sites favouring stem survival. In terms of plant diversity, the savannas maintain a flora that is unique for Gabon, though not rare worldwide. The dry-season seems to be the most important season to burn in order to maintain this diversity. Anthropogenic fire is important for Bateke livelihoods where fire and foraging are related; 80% of survey respondents link fire and food. Today’s foraging traditions make fire important for Bateke livelihoods, despite being less connected to land fertility rituals of the past. Taking a national view, most protected savannas in Gabon are not managed by fire and some managers do not recognise its importance to local livelihoods and culture. The land chief system, though probably not designed to protect resources, may offer lessons of fire control in a cultural context of contemporary management of protected areas.

Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Title:The Land Chief’s embers: ethnobotany of Batéké fire regimes, savanna vegetation and resource use in Gabon
Open access status:An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language:English
UCL classification:UCL > School of Arts and Social Sciences > Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences > Anthropology

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