Zimbabwe — Veld fires will break out during the hot dry season, regardless of bans on setting rural fires away from homesteads and regardless of almost all precautions.
Besides deliberate fires getting out of control, it only needs a broken bottle in a field, a bolt of lightning in one of the first storms, a careless cigarette end, sparks from a legal fire of resinous wood, or an unattended cooking fire, and the dry grass will ignite.
In most cases, in most parts of Zimbabwe, that little fire will spread and spread and tens of thousands of hectares of pasture can be destroyed.
Already travellers can see great swathes of blackened earth and it is only mid-September, with almost two months to go until heavy rains start falling and the fire danger passes.
The Minister of Environment and Tourism, Cde Francis Nhema, has taken steps to minimise the danger, banning anyone setting a fire outside homes and businesses, but more is needed.
Before land reform, vast destructive fires were rare in the communal lands, because these were so grossly overcrowded and denuded of vegetation that a major fire died out quickly.
In the old commercial areas there had been in place, for several decades, a system of enforced fireguards, which minimised destruction and made it easier to fight fires, and enforced mutual co-operation to ensure that fires were fought and put out.
Land reform has both eased overcrowding in the communal areas and has made it imperative that a new system is put in place in the vast resettlement zone to ensure fires are both limited and fought.
The first requirement is to ensure that all farmers put fireguards around their holding and between their fields. Several new farmers, those that are making a success of the land reform, have already done this.
They do not want to see the effort and investment they have placed in their farms over the last few years going up in smoke.
But many others – either because they do not know that they should, because they do not know how or because they do not care – have done nothing. Often these are the farmers who have done so little with their land that a fire will cause them few heartaches, because there is so little to destroy. Unfortunately, it can cause serious destruction on the better tended farms of their neighbours.
With tens of thousands of farms it is almost impossible for any Government agency to ensure that best practice is followed on every piece of land, or at least that the minimum work is done to protect the land and so protect neighbours. Arex officers can obviously offer advice, but they cannot supervise the work that is needed.
We suggest that the best part of old Intensive Conservation Area committees is reintroduced.
Legislation already exists to have these formed and make membership compulsory, although the new reality on the ground will probably require some amendments to the legislation.
But the essential concept, that each group of farmers has legal power to ensure that all in the group do the minimum to protect their land from fire and erosion can be once again used.
Government agencies would only have to come in when a community of farmers reported those members who refuse to follow guidelines.
The second concept, common in communal lands as well as in the old ICAs, was the rule that everyone near a fire had to drop what they were doing and hurry to the fire and join in the battle to put it out.
If the ICA committees or something similar are put in place in the resettled areas, then a committee member would obviously take charge of the fire fighting, performing the same function that a village head or headman would perform in the communal areas whenever a community is called to fight a fire.
But however, it is done, it is necessary for all who have land, no matter how good or bad a farmer they are, to realise that they have certain minimum responsibilities. And among those responsibilities must be an absolute requirement to put in proper fireguards and to come to the aid of neighbours when fires break out.