Namibia Round Table on Fire, Windhoek, 10-11 November 1999

Namibia Round Table on Fire
Windhoek, 10-11 November 1999

(IFFN No. 25, July 2001)

1. Rationale and Introduction

In his opening speech Mr. Tangeni Erkana, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Tourism, laid the foundations of the Namibia Round Table on Fire for the preparation of a national fire policy for the country.
On behalf of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, I warmly welcome the participants to this two-day workshop.
As befits this occasion, I wish to reiterate the mission of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, which is rooted in the philosophy of sustainable management of our natural resources, in a manner that is environmentally sound. In regard to this, all the policies and pieces of legislation in this ministry support this philosophy.
With forest fires as a point of reference, I have noted that the current draft Forest Bill provides for Fire Management Committees in wooded areas and gives the minister powers to declare Fire Seasons and prohibit specific activities in forested lands when current Fire Danger Ratings necessitate it.
In the attempts by the Government of Namibia to adopt the organised and systematic management of fire in land management, we should be motivated by the following facts:

  •  It is estimated that 3-5 million hectares (ha) of forests, bush and grasslands are burned every year in Namibia. Despite this alarming magnitude, no systematic and nationwide fire extension work has been carried out, except in pilot areas such as the Caprivi and more recently the Kavango Regions.

Traditionally, burning is considered a necessary activity before each rainy season to renew grass for grazing purposes and also for the preparation of land for cultivation. Furthermore, no nationally recognized policy on fire management is available.

  • Uncontrolled burning is also resulting in considerable economic losses through damage to valuable and non-timber resources, loss of grazing and consequent increased life stock and wildlife mortality, all of which are to the detriment of the local and national economies.
  • Internationally, the concern is that extensive burning of forests and grasslands is contributing directly to the anthropogenic greenhouse effect and thereby influencing global climate change. It is argued that widespread fires in the wooded areas are reducing the overall phytomass or vegetation, thereby causing a release of radiatively active trace gases and aerosols into the regional and global atmosphere.
  • From the recent case of extensive forest fires in Indonesia, it is now appreciated that gases from such fires cause untold respiratory and other illnesses.
  •  It is also true that, just as the effects of fires on ecosystems are many, the causes are also from a variety of sources, hence the need for wide consultations in formulating a policy are essential and crucial.

Because of the above local and global concerns, the Government of Namibia entered into an agreement with the Government of Finland to implement a project, which was at the beginning, known as the Fire Control Project in Caprivi which started in 1996. This Project was more recently renamed the Integrated Fire Management Project with the realisation that fire is a legitimate land management tool, if carefully timed and used. It is therefore important for Namibia as a nation to distinguish between the legitimate and organised use of fire as opposed to the intentional abuse of fires which often have destructive consequences.

After three years of the implementation of the integrated fire management project in the Caprivi, the evaluation of recent satellite imageries suggest that there has been a steady decrease in the frequency and extent of burning in the region. Despite this pleasing trend, uncontrolled fires are still to be found in the Caprivi, both within the Communal farming areas and in the protected national parks.

It is also a telling point this year, that the commercial harvesting of thatching grass by rural communities, is becoming a major industry in the North Eastern part of Namibia. To sustain the economic benefits of such commercial harvesting, the careful management of fire is required. However, this is but one of the benefits of managing fire.

A major dilemma is that as fires rage through our woodlands and grasslands every dry season, no one clearly takes responsibility, especially if it happens on public and communal lands. To complicate matters further, most of these fires stem from agricultural activities related to cultivation and traditional range practices. In addition, others are started by hunters who often do not stop to consider the wider consequences of the fires when they spread, as they often do. Arsonists who bum for the sheer pleasure of it are a special and unfortunate source.

The various causes and sources of fire therefore demand that its management be an issue of public concern and must involve all sectors of government which are concerned with land management and also education. For this reason, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism has chosen merely to act as a catalyst to provoke debate at a national level on the planned and safe use and if need be, the prevention of fire from specified areas of our region. We invite non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to actively support our efforts in this regard.

The ministry is delighted to note that several Government Ministries and NGOs are in attendance at this workshop. It is also encouraging that experts and policy makers from neighbouring SADC countries are also going to participate in this workshop. I extend a special welcome to them.

Furthermore it is quite encouraging that some consultants who have done some work for us on fire management are going to make presentations. We value your international experience and encourage you to exchange ideas with us and above all, to stimulate our thinking in formulating a well worked-out and researched document on fire management that can be implemented by Namibians.

We recognise that fires also know no international boundaries and often cross our borders with neighbouring countries. It is hence extremely important that a national fire policy considers cross border management issues.

In conclusion, this ministry will be keen to have the workshop consider a number of issues and challenges. These include:

  • the formulation of policies that enable wide community participation in the responsible custodianship of natural resources through the wise use of fire.
  • the need for a common philosophy across government ministries regarding fire use and the sharing of responsibility for its management the development of joint strategies that are accepted and fused
  • with national and international initiatives such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Criteria and Indicators for Sustainable Forest Management
  • the promotion of decentralized systems of fire control to give more responsibility to regional governments, who must be seen to assist the central government in activities such as rangeland management
  • the harmonization of sectoral pieces of legislation to reflect a common philosophy
  •  the possible development of regional or bilateral protocols to deal with cross-border fire issues just as much we are now encouraging the concept of trans-boundary conservation areas in the SADC region.

After saying the above, it is appropriate to the occasion to extend my ministry’s sincere gratitude to the Government of Finland for providing the technical support and the funds to run the Namibia-Finland Forestry Programme, of which the Fire Component is a part.

I wish you the very best in your deliberations and look forward to a milestone policy paper in the not too distant future. I now declare this workshop open and I thank you.


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