Zimbabwe — The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) has invoked a clause in the Traditional Leaders Act that empowers chiefs to impose a penalty of up to five head of cattle on people who start veld fires. The action comes as part of efforts to eliminate the scourge of bush fires, which destroyed 950 000 hectares of land last year, and have destroyed about 200 000 hectares in the first two months of the fire season this year. The season start on 31 July and ends on 31 August. In an interview yesterday, EMAs education and publicity officer, Mr Steady Kangata, said the law was not new because it was contained in the Traditional Leaders Act. It has always been there but for some reason, it was not being applied. As part of an all-stakeholders approach to protect the environment, EMA is working with traditional leaders and the police to bring criminals who start fires that cause so much destruction to book, he said. Mr Kangata said the Traditional Leaders Act spells out the protection of the environment as one of the major duties of chiefs. He said EMA, traditional leaders and the police were working in harmony to ensure that offenders were dealt with in a just manner. If a traditional leader imposes the fine of up to five beasts on an offender, the matter is not taken further if the offender pays. Failure to pay may result in EMA fining the person up to US$5 000 or the courts imposing the fine and/or up to one year in jail, he said. Mr Kangata said the agency did not do double fining. If either the police or traditional leaders impose a fine, EMA does not require an additional fine if the offender pays, said Mr Kangata. He urged the police and chiefs to refer serious cases where the damage was huge to the courts for stiffer sentences. Mr Kangata said he was optimistic that the arrangement would reduce the incidence of veld fires. In 2008, during the chiefs conference in Bulawayo, traditional leaders bemoaned the clashes between customary law and statutory law that prevented them from carrying out their duties effectively. Customary law allows us to fine people livestock for various offences, but every time we do that, the police arrest us and our sentences are often reversed. This is demeaning and demoralising, Chief Chiweshe said during a discussion last year. Zimbabwe loses millions of dollars in potential earnings every year from veld fires that destroy commercial woodlands and cause loss of habitat for wildlife that attracts tourists. Delicate ecosystems are also thrown out of balance while livestock lose grazing land exposing citizens to hunger. This year, seven people have been killed in veld fires.