Zimbabwe — PLUMES of smoke waft into the deep blue skies transiently blackening the atmosphere in the Summerton Resettlement Area, west of Masvingo.
The intensity of the black smoke gets more pronounced as one draws closer to the huge and explosive bonfire that is sweeping through the plains ravaging everything from grass, trees and even helpless rodents mundanely burrowing into mother earth’s womb for survival.
A small group of newly-resettled small-scale farmers watches helplessly as the rampant veld fire consumes everything in its destructive wake, leaving behind an expansive plain of black soot bereft of any plant and animal life.
On approaching the shores of Heathcourt farm, in the heart of the Summerton small-scale commercial farming area, the hitherto rampaging veld fire begins to lose momentum and a few minutes later swings into slow, but inevitable demise until it is completely doused after failing to negotiate past a simple barricade in the form of a 5 metre-wide fire guard.
Fire guards have increasingly proved to be one of the most effective and reliable remedies to contain the scourge of wild fires that have been on the prowl over the past decade.
The fires have caused irreparable damage to the environment and gravely distorting the ecosystem balance in some areas in Masvingo province and Zimbabwe at large.
Besides destroying vegetation and animal life, some areas that are perennially prone to wild fires have had to content with incessant siltation of rivers nearby as plants and minute creatures that assist in binding the soils together are repeatedly chewed by uncontrolled bonfires leaving the soils exposed to erosion by either wind or rain.
Mrs Anna Mahlekete (43), who specialises in mixed farming at plot 33 under Heathcourt Farm says every year she creates fire guards around her 50-hectare plot and also others that bisect her property.
She said the fire guards have acted as buffers from veld fires that for years have been ravaging surrounding farms.
She adds that fireguards have proved to be an effective tool in combating veld fires that she claims are sparked by hundreds of marauding poachers that roam the Summerton area in search of game meat to satisfy a ready market in Masvingo city nearby.
Mrs Mahlekete says her property has been safe from veld fires ever since she started operations at the farm in 2002 owing to her use of fire guards.
She says the fire guards curb the diabolic ghost of veld fires that consume hundreds of thousands hectares of forests worth millions of dollars in Zimbabwe every year.
“This area of Summerton used to be a haven of veld fires that were started by poachers from Masvingo city who freely roam around in search of game meat and in the process start fires that in some cases destroy forests and grasslands.
“The fire guards have spared this farm from veld fires,” she says with an infectious smile.
Mrs Mahlekete adds that though she does not own a tractor that can be harnessed to make the fire guards around and inside her farm; she managed to devise another way of making fire guards and renewing them every year at the start of the dry season when forests and grasslands are more susceptible to veld fires.
“I use my cattle and a plough to make the fire guards and I have been doing that since 2002 and the results are there for everyone to see.
“My farm has never been affected by uncontrolled fires that have however inflicted serious environmental damage on some of the surrounding properties.
“On average the fire guards that we make are about five metres wide and we have one around the whole farm and several others that bisect the farm,” she says.
Mrs Mahlekete revealed that surrounding farmers in the Summerton small scale commercial farming area are also turning to fire guards as a way of curbing veld fires that had caused massive land degradation in the area through destruction of forests.
“I believe that it is the duty of every person whether a farmer or not to jealously guard the environment from trees, grass, big animals and the small creatures that survive in the soils because once we are able to take care of our environment and our natural resources it means that our lives and those of our children have a future,’ she pointed out.
Mrs Mahlekete even boasts that after veld fires ravaged farms around her plot at Heathcourt, wildlife including grazers such as kudu and eland sought refuge in her plot that she said has managed to maintain its naturalness making it a perfect home for wildlife.
“When I came here there were very few wild animals because I have consistently used fire guards to curb the spread of veld fires a situation that helped me to create a natural wild habitat that is a perfect home not only for big animals such eland, kudu and giraffe but even rodents and other small animals,” she says.
The widespread destruction of forests and grasslands that was effected by veld fires as thousands of indigenous farmers embarked on farming activities in the Summerton small scale commercial farming area at the turn of the millennium, is partly blamed for causing massive land degradation and siltation of such key rivers as Mucheke and the now heavily silted Mushandike near the mining town of Mashava.
Environmental experts argue that poor environmental management practices in areas such Summerton resettlement area, which constitutes part of the catchment areas of both Mucheke and Mushandike Rivers, spawned large scale and unprecedented siltation that is slowly choking the two rivers towards their inevitable death.
Wanton logging of trees and uncontrolled burning of forests and grass coupled with lack of tried and tested fire control measures such as use of fire guards have led to massive siltation of dams such as Mushandike which used not only to provide irrigation water for villagers in the arid Charumbira communal lands but also provided a constant supply of fish for the surrounding communities and wildlife in Mushandike Wildlife sanctuary.
Chairman of Mushandike Farmers’ Trust Mr Partson Matsikidze says Mushandike Dam, which used to provide food security in western parts of Masvingo through supply of irrigation water for thousands of plot holders at Mushandike Irrigation Scheme in Charu-mbira communal lands, was now on the verge of drying up due to massive siltation caused by environmentally unfriendly human activities in the dam’s catchment area.
“It is a complete catastrophe that Mushandike dam is on the verge of drying up yet the dam is the source of irrigation water for close to 1 000 hectares of irrigated crops at that are at Mushandike irrigation scheme at any given time of the year.
“The drying up of the dam will further compromise food security in most parts of Masvingo District and other neighbouring districts such as Chivi that used to rely on the irrigated crops for food.
“However, I must point out that the major reason why Mushandike dam is on the verge of drying up is because of siltation that is caused by increasing population pressure and poor environmental management practises such as starting veld fires that leave the soils exposed and susceptible to erosion,” he says.
Mr Matsikiddze lamented poor environmental management practises in the Mushandike dam catchment area saying practises such as indiscriminate burning of forests and grasslands to prepare land for cultivation required adequate counter measures such use of fire guards to forestall eruption of uncontrolled fires.
However, Environmental Management Agency Masvingo provincial manager Mr Milton Muusha says fire guards had greatly caused the reduction of veld fires that he said had impinged on the environment and natural ecosystem.
Mr Muusha said fire guards had not only contained the surge of veld fires, which had previously destroyed vast swathes of forests and grasslands, in the Summerton resettlement area but throughout Masvingo province.
He said through close co-operation between farmers, villagers and his organisation, the ghost of veld fires was close to being exorcised using the magic of fire guards.
“We are satisfied with the huge drop in incidences of veld fires not only in the Summerton Resettlement area but throughout Masvingo province because most villagers now appreciate the importance of fire spreading preventive measures such as use of fire guards.
“In Summerton resettlement area fire guards have reduced veld fires to almost negligible levels because we have been working with most of the farmers there while the battle is also close to be won in various other parts of the country where use of fire guards to curb veld fires continues to get appreciation,” he said.
Mr Muusha said the widespread acclaim that fire guards were getting amongst most rural communities thanks to various educative campaigns by his organisation, was a harbinger of an impending victory over the scourge of veld fires that every year, destroy valuable natural resources such a forests, grasslands and wild animals in Zimbabwe.
He however noted that the employment of fire guards to prevent the spread of veld fires remained a challenge especially in communities that have a villagised resettlement model compared to self-contained units.
Mr Muusha said in villagised models it would be difficult to completely rely on fire guards to tame veld fires unless there was total unanimity amongst people in that village to deploy fire guards against wild fires while he said it was easy for farmers in self contained units to make fire guards around their individual properties.
With the threat posed by veld fires to the environment still lurking in the horizon fire guards are however increasingly proving to be a perfect weapon to tame them as most farmers in the Summerton resettlement area, west of Masvingo have proved.