Fire: The permanent threat to natural, commercial forests

Fire: The permanent threat to natural, commercial forests

11 June 2011

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Swaziland — The DPM, Themba Masuku, last week told concerned environmentalists, scientists and other stakeholders how his heart bled when he saw wild fires in Mbabane West, near Mahwalala ravaging the surroundings.
That was during the commemoration of World Environment Day, which was themed Forests: Nature at your service. On the same occasion Minister Macford Sibandze called it the dark cloud over our landscape.

Experts, mostly from the University of Swaziland, expressed the need to take concrete steps in protecting the forest from perpetual damage.
Central to this is the Flora Act of 2001 which only exists on paper and no one has bothered to effect it, including all law enforcing agents.

The destruction caused to the natural forest by the harvesting of firewood was the first stop. The law stipulates what should be done in the event people chop down trees in order to make firewood for commercial purposes.

Driving along all the country’s main public roads, the main feature is piles and piles of firewood from the natural forest, but with no sustainable means to do so.
In terms of the National Forest Policy Identification and study of the underlying causes of deforestation and forest degradation is a world-wide priority and its understanding forms an essential precondition for the introduction of sustainable forest management.
Underlying causes include the following: Rapid population growth and pressure on land; poverty and lack of alternative sources of livelihood; Inequities in land tenure, access and user rights; Lack of influence of stakeholders, in particular women; Substitution of forest and woodland by other systems of production and land use; Over-exploitation of communal forests and rangelands; Inappropriate and uncontrolled burning of forests and rangelands; Lack of value assigned to forests and forest products; Lack of recognition and use of traditional knowledge; Lack of capacity to manage forests; Illegal trade in forest products; Breakdown of traditional leadership and land disputes; Inappropriate government policies; Poor enforcement of laws and regulations.

In 2007, then Prime Minister Absalom Themba Dlamini declared the devastating veld fires a national disaster. This followed raging fires propelled by strong winds, which engulfed the country.
A Cabinet Steering Committee was announced to help coordinate all efforts aimed at circumventing the impending humanitarian crisis. In Mondi Forest plantations in Pigg’s Peak and Endzingeni uncontrollable flames had already destroyed over 80% of the forest and several dozens of homes.

The national policy documents states that although most of the underlying causes of deforestation are recognised, there is lack of application of suitable measures to address the issues.
There is no full and detailed understanding of the complex relationships between the underlying causes. Most of the causes refer to socio-economic conditions and attitudes, and they are related to one single major cause, namely the strong population growth, which takes place without corresponding increase of responsibility, adequate control, enforceable rules and regulations, and conservation of the forests and woodlands.

The policy states that “Remedial measures shall be developed and promoted to mitigate the underlying causes of forest degradation, which requires further identification and study, including analysis of the impact on the status of the forest resources.
The full understanding of the underlying causes and their effects is a critical element in the process of introducing sustainable forest management.”
It also clearly states that the use of fire in Swaziland is recognised as an efficient tool in the management of natural forests and rangelands.

Most of the burning that takes place in the natural woodlands intends to improve grazing conditions. However, there is evidence that uncontrolled and random fires result in destruction of natural forest resources and loss of biodiversity.
There is no full understanding of the effects of the fire regimes occurring in Swaziland. Fires tend to favour certain species to the detriment of others and reduce overall diversity. Uncontrolled fires caused by strained social relations between forest companies and neighbouring communities also affect industrial forestry.
There is an overall lack of control of fire in natural forests, woodlands and rangelands.
The lack of control is excarbated by insufficient understanding of the effects of fire on forest and veld conditions.
Uncontrolled and unwanted fires that have started in one particular type of land may affect other neighbouring land. There are currently no regulations to compel neighbouring land users and landowners, whether on communal or private land, to jointly fight uncontrolled forest and veld fires.

Policy implemented:

Sustainable fire management practices for the different land uses in Swaziland must be developed, implemented and promoted based on national and external research information, including the prevention and fighting of unwanted fires.
Educational programmes, revision of the current Grass Fires Act of 1955, establishment of a National Fire Prevention Body and development of a national fire statistics database should be part of the strategy to achieve an effective management and control system of forest and veld fires.

Local Fire Prevention Units should be established in all Chiefdoms and on all private farms. Such bodies should develop fire prevention and fire fighting strategies, in close co-operation with neighbouring land users and the traditional and national authorities. These units should form part of the community Forest Management Committees (see section 2.2.5) and operate as one body to administer, manage, monitor, and co-ordinate all forest and forest fire matters.
(National Forest Policy 2002).

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