Zimbabwe — Veld fires have once more caused havoc in some parts of the country, killing not only plants and animals, but also a number of people.
The fires destroyed a historically important national heritage site, Old Bulawayo, the first royal residence of the last Ndebele king, Lobhengula, a few kilometres south of the city of Bulawayo. In the Midlands, raging fires laid waste large tracts of grazing land, killing in one instance, a herdboy who had inadvertently tried to escape the roaring inferno by climbing a tree!
About two months earlier, the police and some stakeholders had launched an anti-veld fires campaign meant to cover every district of Zimbabwe.
At the time of writing this account, the campaign was still on through the media.
That the menacing fires were still occurring in spite of the campaign indicates the inefficiency of the media used.
Although Zimbabwe does not calculate and keep yearly records, we can certainly conclude that colossal sums of money are lost by individual families, companies, schools and State enterprises because of these horrific fires.
It is inevitable that many people have been rendered homeless and businesses have lost irreplaceable assets through these fires, most of which are caused by either human malice or negligence.
We do not have to be dendrologists to realise what a danger these fires are to trees in the forests and farms. Some of the trees are immensely useful as timber for construction or furniture manufacturing.
Quite a few are medicinal. Some, like the mopane, provide fodder for cattle in the dry season when there is no grass.
The destruction of vegetation leads to not only soil erosion but also to desertification. It also has a negative effect on local, regional as well as continental rainfall.
Veld fires wipe out ecological systems, resulting in the destruction of local, regional and continental flora and fauna. The adverse effects of that on human life are incalculable but undoubtedly immense not just in the long but very much in the short term.
Throughout Africa, indeed throughout the world, various types of wild honey, wild fruits, wild medicinal herbs, rubbers and bulbs that used to be plentiful half a century ago, are now virtually extinct because of veld fires.
Tree plantations such as those found in Zimbabwes Manicaland Province have been repeatedly decimated by veld fires, setting back land reclamation programmes by literally scores of years.
What are the major causes of veld fires and what are the possible remedies?
Some veld fires are caused by some mice and wild honey hunters who make fires in the bush to smoke out the rodents or the bees.
These hunters and gatherers sometimes fail or ignore to put out the fires that they would have made before they return to their homes with either their mice or honey.
Some veld fires are caused by smokers who throw burning cigarette stubs into dry, grassy patches along the roads and footpaths. This is done either absent-mindedly or intentionally by the smoker.
Some veld fires are deliberately started by malicious individuals who have an axe to grind against the owner of the land they set alight. Accidental veld fires are caused by householders who may unwittingly throw away ashes that have sparks or embers in them which then set aflame nearby dry vegetation.
A very rare cause of veld fires is lightning that strikes a dry tree in a locality with much dry grass.
Grass fires caused by coal-driven trains lo longer occur in Zimbabwe as the National Railways of Zimbabwe now uses diesel.
In the Hwange Colliery vicinity such as Number One North (Cinderella) veld fires used to be caused by the natural sulphur that would be lit by radiation (by the sun) in September-October.
Measures that can be taken to reduce the incidence of this menace are of two categories preventive and punitive.
The first category (preventive) would require the launch of a well-planned, closely co-ordinated awareness campaign that would involve the active participation of the police force, the municipal and rural councils, schools, churches, all communities as represented by village heads, headmen and chiefs.
MPs, working in very close co-operation with district administrators, should closely monitor their constituencies.
If every district were to create structures ranging from village to ward level, the current occurrence rate of veld fires could be greatly reduced.
Another preventive step could be for the State to enforce regulations for commercial farmers to build standard fireguards right round their farms.
The countrys anti-veld fire laws should be stiffened to make their weight to be more on the custodial sentences rather than on fines.
With villages and wards policing themselves on this matter, the police would find it much easier to apprehend those responsible for this type of vandalism veld fires.
An arm of the State that could also play a constructive role in this issue is the army, a section of which could be responsible for dealing with emergencies such as floods and veld fires.
If the army had been involved to fight various veld fires that have occurred in Zimbabwe, it is most probable that less damage could have been caused thereby.
The armys responsibilities include defending the nation not only from external armed incursions, but also from internal natural and human-initiated disasters.
Meanwhile, while it is obviously necessary for the State to create and put structures in place to deal with this annually recurring menace, it would appear that Zimbabwe and its contiguous neighbours, particularly Botswana and Mozambique, should form joint commissions to monitor the incidence of veld fires as some of them roar across international boundaries.
Such contacts could enhance regional measures to fight desertification much more than attending anti-desertification conferences thousands of kilometres away from home.
Finally, the relevant ministry or ministries should make it mandatory to every chief and headman to hold community meetings at least every two months to discuss particularly land protection and usage in their respective areas.
That could increase people’s awareness of the vital importance of our natural resources, especially land.