Zimbabwe — It could begin with a cigarette stub, but thedamage could run into billions of dollars in lost revenue.
Zimbabwe is experiencing the most devastating veld firesrecorded in recent history, with vast grasslands and timber plantations beingdevoured.
The effects of veld fires on the environment may seemtemporary, but experts warn of long-term ramifications on bio-diversity, damagethey say may be irreversible.
Forestry industry experts describe the scale of damage inthe past four years as alarming.
“The damage caused by fire in these last four yearsis greater than that in the previous 30 years added together,” said JosephKanyekanye, managing director of the Forestry Company of Zimbabwe (FCZ).
The worst fire damage was recorded in 2005 when a total of7 827 hectares of national forest was destroyed and 10.8 percent of standingpine timber lost.
Two of the country’s largest mills have lost 15 to 20percent of their forest resources, resulting in a
drop in local sales and exports, and a corresponding dropin foreign currency earnings.
As a result, companies in the timber, paper and relatedindustries have had to retrench scores of workers, swelling the ranks of theunemployed in Zimbabwe.
In 2006, a total of 1 552 hectares of plantation forestwas lost to fire, affecting output greatly, FCZ says.
Environment Minister Francis Nhema says the loss offorests is intolerable in view of the fact that timber can only be harvestedafter 25 years.
“Water catchments will be destroyed without trees.Our tourism industry cannot flourish without trees and forests that provide anatural habitat for our wildlife and provide beautiful scenery,” Nhema saidlast week at the launching of a fire awareness campaign in the Midlands.
The depletion of woodlands is directly linked toZimbabwe’s political and economic crisis.
Experts blame resettled farmers for the destruction ofvast areas of woodland, at a time when power cuts and the high cost of energyhave resulted in an increased demand for firewood in urban areas.
Not only have the fires left a trail of economicdestruction, but in some cases, they have been fatal.
In October 2005, six pupils from Debshan Primary Schoolwere burnt to death in Insiza near Bulawayo.
The children were enveloped by a raging blaze on their wayfrom school.
They climbed up trees to escape the inferno, but wereoverwhelmed by the flames and smoke and plunged to their deaths.
A new farmer who had been clearing a field started thefire. Debshan Ranches, owned by Anglo American, could not contain the fire, evenwith four bowser-hauling tractors and a seven-tonne bowser.
Overall, 72 000 hectares of farmland and 20 000 hectaresof grazing land were destroyed.
Environmentalists also blame poachers for starting firesto drive game into traps, and travellers at remote bus stops who light fires towarm themselves.
A burning cigarette stub, carelessly tossed out of amoving vehicle is another deadly igniter of veld fires.
Statistics show that forestry accounts for over threepercent of Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product.
According to Kanyekanye, the Forests Act tends to favourthe beneficiaries of the land reform programme at the expense of plantations.
A number of corrective measures have been suggested tocurb the destruction of forests, such as reviewing the Forest Act or introducingnew fire prevention and management legislation.
There is also pressure to implement a Plantations Policy,which would clarify how timber plantations can be protected in relation to landreforms.