We had to park the car at the entrance to the village and then negotiate a marshy stream to end up on the drier higher ground on which most of the settlement had been established. They were under a huge canopy of trees but the ground below had been cleared by people, goats and chickens. I noticed how black the soil was and realised it was a combination of a rich swampy soil and years of charcoal burning which was the main source of income for the village.
Jan was greeted as an old friend – he’d only been there once but you don’t get many white guys down this cul de sac. I was introduced to people and we asked if we could go and look at what was going on. We walked as near as we could get to the river. It was flowing past some mangroves in the distance. Obviously the tide still reached all the way up here. To our right, a large tributary served as an area to moor their dugout canoes, from which they were heading out into the mangroves to forage for wood. This was being brought up on to the muddy shoreline and chopped into convenient sizes. Close to the stream they were being neatly piled, but further in they were arranged with their ends pointing towards a central spot and steadily built up into a rondavel ready for lighting. I could see the next stage of the process to my right, where river mud had been packed over the pile and the centre set alight. Smoke was now dribbling out of a few holes in this mudpack but inside the wood was steadily cooking to turn it in to valuable charcoal.
At the charcoal village
Mangroves providing the raw material
Piles ready to smoke
Not all the wood was used as charcoal – huge piles of logs and timber poles were stacked up all round the village. In some ways it was very industrious and they obviously had access to an amazing resource. But I did find it jarring that my project was trying to protect the Guinea biome in the north of the country and here there were similar levels of logging and stripping out of slow growing wood to meet the insatiable demand of Greater Freetown for building material and fuel.
The drive back to the camp went through a mixture of woody savanna and open fields and I saw for the first time the dynamics of the shifting agriculture or swidden as it is sometimes known – all aspects were on show en route. We would see the heavily forested river valleys, generally untouched by this form of landuse, and the long stretches of woody savanna; this is fairly thickly wooded land but able to survive the harsh dry season between November and May. It had a lot of herbaceous grasses and other plants that grew vigorously in the wet season – as much as 3m high by the time the rain stopped. This would then seed and dry out and thick scratchy material was left behind as the trees lost their leaves and were reduced to knobbly skeletons. The mixture of leaves and grass became a tinder box as the dry season progressed and natural fires from lightning strikes in particular might ravage through the understory, leaving a black and white scar across the landscape. Most of the trees would survive as would the seeds, rhizomes and bulbs in the soil ready to rejuvenate the grassy layer the next wet season. One or two trees here or there, weak from age or damage, might succumb to the fire and their ashy imprint left on the ground would be all that remains after all their years of life.
Recently cleared area
Crops replace trees
Sometimes a mixture is tried
Many fires are started deliberately. Indeed the first step to shifting agriculture would be the chopping down of many standard trees and lighting the bush. If done correctly it could be controlled within a tight area to be prepared for cultivation, but so often it would spread dangerously into the surrounding shrubs.
The herbaceous layer of these forests are vigorous and if the ground is not tilled and weeded before the dry season, they will grow back more strongly the following year. Along our route back to the camp, there were lots of examples of patches of ground in various stages of clearance. Eventually though people would plough or build mounds of soil, and dryland rice would be cultivated in these patches. The goodness in the soil, however, without further inputs from manure, compost or fertiliser, would dry up quickly and the fields would be abandoned and left to regenerate first into herby fields, then shrubs and given time in to small trees and back to woody savanna. As you went round the countryside you would see this checkerboard of clearance, cultivation, abandonment and natural regeneration, but it would be hard to determine exactly which stage it was at.