Zimbabwe — 2010 has seen close to one million hectares of land destroyed by veld fires – an annual scourge occurring primarily in the dry season between July and October. These fires destroy infrastructure, farmlands, forests, natural habitats and impact heavily on communities, wildlife and the environment as a whole.
Aerial pictures show a blackened landscape as far as the eye can see. Sadly, this seasons fires have also resulted in loss of 15 lives. Poor farming methods, lack of proper fireguards, negligence and arson are among the many causes of these devastating fires. Recently the Matopos National Museum was gutted by a veld fire.
Environment Africa, a local NGO operating in Zimbabwe for the past 20 years says that 2010 has been particularly bad. Barney Mawire, the Country Director of Environment Africa and a forester himself said it was the worst in his experience.
He believes it is not going to be legislation that changes the fire issue, but rather people should take pride in their country, acting responsibly and carrying out proper fire management programmes. Just last week, Environment Africas CEO, Charlene Hewat, was fighting a fire in the Forestry Commission property adjacent to Hwange National Parks which was started by poachers. She says the problem is widespread.
Another contributing factor is that there are now many communities encroaching on parks and other wildlife areas and cutting, clearing and burning for crop plantation in regions 4 & 5. These are very arid dry regions, not suitable for crops. There is an urgent need to look at alternatives to crops, especially maize, in these regions.
In order to combat this ongoing battle, a combination of responsible citizenship, education, training and prosecuting transgressors more aggressively could make a huge difference. In 2009, the Forestry Commission trained 200 farmers in the management and control of veld fires and it is hoping to train a further 400 during 2010.
In the past the Ministry of Roads used to take care of firebreaks on the side of the main roads in partnership with the land owners. But this is now non-existent.
ZELA (Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association) says the Environmental Management Act has laws in place to prosecute offenders who start veld fires. Perhaps an active public media campaign to make the public aware of these laws and heavy fines and/or imprisonment sentences would make people think twice before starting a fire. For example, in terms of the law, it is an offence to deliberately start a fire between 31 July and 31 October. It is also a citizens responsibility to assist in putting out a fire if it is in their vicinity.