Farmers angry over army fires

Farmers angry over army fires

18 October 2010

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South Africa —  The defence force will not stop training with live ammunition at the SA Army Combat Training Centre at Lohatlha, in the Northern Cape, despite several complaints from neighbouring farmers that runaway wildfires caused by the training exercises are ruining them financially.

The defence force says it explained to farmers at recent meetings that meeting their request not to train with live ammunition between September and November would delay the army’s training programme.

According to farmers in the area, the army did assure them at these meetings that they would be extra careful during wildfire season.

However, farmers say there was artillery fire last week and shortly afterwards, a fire was blazing.

Millions in damages

At the same time, apparently, army personnel were burning firebreaks, which they also failed to contain, causing a fire to reach farmers’ land.

The farmers say burning firebreaks at this time of year borders on insanity, since the veld is at its driest and the wind at its most unpredictable.

Last year, grazing on 10 farms was burnt during Operation Golfinho, an international exercise in which soldiers from various countries participated.

The farmers involved are claiming millions of rands in damages from the defence force.

Johan van Rensburg, chief executive of Agri Northern Cape, says the farmers and the defence force regularly lock horns over the fires. Representatives from both sides have met on a few occasions, and formed a fire committee.

He believes solutions can be found if all parties are willing to co-operate.

“We have asked the army whether they can wait until after the high-risk period (September to November) to start the live exercises, but this does not fit in with the army’s schedule,” Van Rensburg said.

“It was said at the meeting that the army would provide water points along the most dangerous parts of the border between the centre and commercial farms.

“The army also promised that it is making a renewed effort with the training of special fire teams, while it will see to its own firebreaks in future, rather than leaving it in the hands of a private contractor.”

Firebreaks not ready

According to Van Rensburg, the firebreaks are still not ready. In September, 4 000ha burnt down after an exercise, and “the farmers are really angry now”.

Van Rensburg said the farmers wanted to take immediate action to obtain an urgent interdict to halt the defence force training.

Another meeting was held to soothe the hot tempers. Apparently it will cost the army about R700 000 per year to maintain its firebreaks, and there seem to be problems in allocating these funds.

“The situation has deteriorated at an increasing rate over the past few years. However, I do believe we’ll be able to reach a compromise,” said Van Rensburg.

According to the army, they are not considering any settlements for farmers’ lost grazing at this time.

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