Zimbabwe: Thousands of Zimbabweans who have witnessed countless veld fires raging in the countryside and did nothing must count themselves lucky.
Few may know that by failing to assist to extinguish fire they were committing an offence that could see them spending a year in jail with hard labour or paying a fine of US$5 000.
These are some of the punitive measures introduced three years ago through the Environmental Management (Environmental Impact Assessments and Ecosystems Protection) Regulations of 2007.
The seemingly tough regulations have been used sparingly since their introduction but the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) seems to be awakening from its slumber after another devastating fire season.
The fire season which starts on July 31 and ends on October 31 has seen close to 10 deaths and the destruction of property worth millions of dollars.
Last week, EMA fined the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) US$500 after a veld fire destroyed Old Bulawayo. The fine was for failing to put fire pre-suppression measures in and around King Lobengula’s last capital resulting in the fire. If NMMZ does not pay the fine within seven days, its directors are liable to prosecution and may face a fine of up to US$5 000 per person and/ or up to a year in prison.
Kingston Chitotombe, an EMA official in Matabeleland South was quoted warning members of the public that it was an offence to ignore a veld fire.
“Even motorists should stop their vehicles and help to fight fires,” he said. Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) executive director, Matuso Dhliwayo said although such legislation was necessary, it was difficult to secure convictions in its present form.
“If someone deliberately causes a fire that causes damage to property, then that constitutes an offence and therefore questions of constitutionality cannot be raised,” Dhliwayo said. “The challenge of proof pertaining to who caused the fire is the problematic aspect. It should be qualified as it is difficult to prove.”
He said one can drive past or ignore a veld fire and still escape conviction by blaming extenuating circumstances. “The instrument highlights aspects such as fire pre-suppression, suppression and post-suppression measures,” he said. “The problem with this legislation is that it is difficult to get a conviction.
“One is able to argue that they passed by the fire because they had no protective equipment or knowledge on how to extinguish a fire hence they feared endangering themselves. “It is a generally progressive provision but it is difficult to get a conviction,” Dhliwayo added.