Zimbabwe — VELD fires are slowly becoming a permanent scourge in Zimbabwe, causing terrible headaches for Government authorities and law enforcement agents. Almost every year in the last five years there has been a massive destruction of vegetation as the veld fires stoked flames that gutted everything in their wake. Human life, too, has been lost to the wild fires that thrive on tinder-dry grass at this time of the year.This year has not been an exception as the veld fires have already started raging, destroying vegetation and homesteads.
Environmentalists say it is just a matter of time before the veld fires claim human life. The veld fires are occurring despite severe laws promulgated by the Government to prevent people from starting fires that destroy vegetation. Yet it is a fact that natural fires, caused by spontaneous combustion, are rare in Zimbabwe and almost every fire is started by humans, most of whom are aware of the consequences.
This has prompted several people to sit up and take note, yet veld fires continue to wreak havoc each year. The impact of the veld fires on the countrys fauna and flora is unbearable.
The education and publicity manager for the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), Mr Steady Kangata, said it will take long to change the attitude of people to veld fires. Yet most of the activities that cause veld fires can be avoided if people are vigilant.
It has to do with attitude, said Mr Kangata. The causes of veld fires can be avoided. For example, improper disposal of ashes leads to the burning of bushes. People should just avoid negligence. We cannot speak of natural causes because they are very rare in this country.
Mr Kangata said it was the duty of every member of the community to safeguard natural resources on which the future and present generations depend. We are urging the community to be very careful in avoiding the occurrences of veld fires, he said. Those who start veld fires are from the community and our mission should be to promote sustainable management of natural resources and protection of the environment with community participation.
Mr Kangata said other causes of bush fire included failure to control lit fire, failure to have fireguards, field clearing, bee smoking, hunting of mice and reckless throwing of cigarette stubs. Some people do not put out fire after lighting it on roadsides while they wait for buses.
The Forestry Company and EMA have always encouraged people who extract honey using fire to seek expert advice on alternative methods that are safe to the environment. But the authorities are facing a tough time on how exactly to deal with those who cause veld fires.
The deputy general manager of the Forestry Company in charge of conservation and extension, Mr Abedinigo Marufu, said magistrates should jail those who start veld fires to ensure that sentences become deterrent.
Most of those found guilty of causing veld fires usually get away with a fine. We have discovered that after all our efforts to educate people on the dangers of bush fires, nothing is changing, said Mr Marufu. We are dealing with hardcore offenders who believe that putting bushes on fire is their way of life. Putting such people in jail is the only possible solution.
Mr Marufu said the increase in veld fires comes at a time the United Nations General Assembly has dedicated this year to celebrate the environment.
He said this was an embarrassment to countries that continue to destroy the environment through veld fires In 2009, EMA recorded 7 409 veld fire incidences, which rose to 9 361 last year.
At least 21 people died last year as a result veld fires. A total of 20 elephants were lost on Debshan Farm in Shangani, Insiza District, to veld fires last year while 60 huts were gutted nationwide. The Old Bulawayo National Monument was also a victim of the veld fires, while plantations worth US$338 500 were razed in Manicaland.
A few months ago, 13 families in Mashonaland West Province were left homeless in the area of Matawutawu in Hurungwe and about 25 hectares of land were destroyed by bush fires. All my three huts have been burnt, Mrs Muchaneta Mataruse of Hurungwe was quoted as saying after the fire subsidised. I was at my aunts place in Chinhoyi when my children told me about the incident over the phone. They said when the hazard happened they were all at church. My husband passed away in 2008 and I do not know how I am going to buy new clothes for my four children.
Mrs Mataruse said that she was facing a hard time for she is an unemployed widow who is HIV positive and struggles to buy anti-retroviral drugs. Mrs Mataruse said that this was not her first time to experience the pain of such a disaster for her grandmother was left homeless from the same incidence last year. Environmentalists are conducting research to find out why Hurungwe District is having a chain of veld fires.
The veld fires have since caught the attention of chiefs, who are empowered to deal with those who cause them. Chief Ngungumbane of Mwenezi said that veld fires were mainly confined to large resettlement areas and were started by illegal gold panners. He said that to overcome the bad habit, punitive measures have to be in place.
People are receiving adequate information from all the responsible authorities such as EMA, Forestry Commission and traditional leaders, but ignorance has led to a lot of destruction, said Chief Ngungumbane. EMA has this year carried out at least 470 fire awareness campaigns nationwide and 172 community-based fire-fighting committees were trained. School debates on fire awareness were also held throughout the country involving 80 schools, with 400 traditional leaders being trained in law enforcement. Environmental sub-committee member from Chinhoyi Mrs Tanatswa Mahonda said that the community should keep an eye on those who start veld fires. She said veld fires usually lead to other peoples misery.
Nothing has happened to those who started veld fires in the past since they were not identified and, who knows, more disaster might still come, she said. EMA officials believe that there is a habit of ignorance among the community in assisting in the stopping of veld fires. The authorities have a huge task in stopping people from starting veld fires. This is mostly because those who start the veld fires do it in secluded areas where they would never be identified. Yet the authorities cannot stand by and watch the veld fires destroy lives, property and the environment. More needs to be done to reduce the incidence of wild fires.