Zimbabwe –– The scourge of veld fires has continued to cost the country as people continue to lose their lives with property worth thousands of dollars going up in smoke, yet the problem seems not to have attracted the kind of serious response that it requires. Henry Madhiri, an environment activist, said the country is losing a lot of revenue through veld fires. Apart from the forests which are consumed by the fires, sectors such as tourism and agriculture are also affected. Tourism thrives on wild animals and these animals are killed by veld fires and in some cases crops ready for harvest are destroyed, said Madhiri.
Veld fires emanating from newly resettled farmers last year destroyed a total of 1 694,3 hectares of timber in Manicaland.
The statistics released by the Timber Producers Federation (TPF) cited Chimanimani and Nyanga districts as the most affected areas.
The TPF statistics show that between July and November last year, 257 forest fires were reported and destroyed 9 586 hectares of timber which constitutes 12% of Zimbabwes pine forests.
Pine is grown on a 25-year rotation and the area affected by fires was equivalent to what would normally be harvested in a three-year period.
Fires emanating from neighbouring newly resettled areas destroyed a total of 1 694,3 hectares with honey hunting and human negligence contributing to the veld fires.
Environment and Natural Resources Management minister Francis Nhema said it was unfortunate that environmental degradation had weakened the natural resource base on which human activity ultimately depended.
Nhema said the governments restocking programme had been grossly undermined by veld fires which over the past years have been destroying grasslands.
In Zimbabwe veld fires are a single significant threat to national economic recovery plans as they are destroying not only pastures necessary for restocking exercises, but also foreign currency generating plantations.
Last year about 714 000 hectares of land was chewed by veld fires and according to the Meteorological Department.
Food security may be compromised as the past few years have seen fires burning wheat farms and maize fields, among other valuables.
The countrys turn around strategy is rooted in our natural resources, but unfortunately this natural capital is under threat from veld fires hence my plea with all of you to fight this monster, Nhema said. He bemoaned how veld fires have been at the centre of resources and property destruction.
According to the minister at least 1 152 413 ha of land were affected by veld fires countrywide of which 2 907,7 ha were plantation areas.
He also noted that infrastructure worth over $227 214 was gutted down by fires countrywide. As a nation we cannot afford the continued loss of life and valuables resulting from avoidable human error, Nhema said.
Chief Zvimba said uncontrolled fires that led to loss of at least four lives in the province had resulted in the disruption of traditional rituals at sacred places such as Nyakasikana.
There has been a lot of destruction caused by fires and as traditional leaders we are worried when these fires disturb our traditional rites at places such as Nyakasikana and more should be done to achieve zero cases of fires in the country, he said.
Despite the importance of forests and woodlands to the economy, there has been a general increase in uncontrolled fires in the whole country, with Manicaland being one of the worst affected.
Nhema recently said his ministry had this year noted with concern that the country did not have enough livestock feed hence the need for communities to stop veld fires that are destroying grazing land.
He said traditional chiefs will prosecute individuals who start fires that are undermining the countrys ongoing government cattle restocking programme. Systematic ecological and localised environmental degradation is becoming highly prominent as a result of uncontrolled fires.
This lowers the natural resilience of ecosystems to disaster impact and delays recovery. Veld fires also destroy grazing land, he said.
ZERO Regional Environment Organisation acting director Sheppard Zvigadza said the problem of veld fires require collaborative effort and the adoption of necessary fire preventive measures by communities.
A number of fire outbreaks have already been recorded this season alone with one farmer in Mashonaland Central losing a combine harvester, farm equipment and his tonnes of maize crop.
Environmental Management Agency (EMA) director general Mutsa Chasi recently told the Thematic Committee on the Millennium Development Goals that the laxity of the legal system towards environmental crimes undermined their efforts to protect the environment.
Giving oral evidence before the committee, Chasi said whenever reports were made to the police about people violating the EMA Act, the police often did not attend to the reports with the seriousness they deserved.
Environmental crimes are rated lower than other crimes. The problem is that they look harmless. But how do you account for 25 lives lost in fires? It is as much criminal as the one who has killed somebody, Chasi said.
EMA statistics show that 25 lives were lost during the 2010 fire season and Chasi said against that backdrop, it was unfortunate that the law enforcement agencies did not take the matter seriously.
Chasi said when they took Harare City to court a few years back over burst sewer pipes, the city was given an order to repair the pipes, but did not act on the order.
We then approached the High Court with the matter, but they said it was not an urgent issue. But 3 000 people eventually died of cholera. The biggest challenge is how are we going to upscale it (environmental crime) so that it is regarded as the killer that it is. Environmental crime kills, she said.
Chasi said about 34 matters on environmental crime had been brought before the courts, but only one offender was given a custodial sentence. She said among the biggest offenders were gold panners and sand miners whose activities were detrimental to the environment as they polluted water sources.
Eventually all the water sources are going to be full of mercury (used by gold panners). Mercury kills. All our water sources will eventually be polluted, she added.