Zimbabwe –– It is most heartening to note that the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Management, Francis Nhema, has launched a national anti-veld fires campaign.
The country is currently in the middle of what we may call the veld-fire season, when entire country-sides usually go up in uncontrollable flames much higher than the tallest tree, producing black, suffocating smoke that billows into the sky as it is carried westwards by the wind as far as the human eye can see.
Bush-fires are started by human hands many a time deliberately for malicious reasons. Some occur accidentally as hunters of mice or wild honey start fires that they are unable to control.
Some of the fires are actually started by irresponsible people some of whom may be mischievous little children who derive a great deal of morbid juvenile pleasure to see nature go up in smoke.
Fire culprits include some elderly people whose minds are far less developed, to say nothing about nature, than their huge bodies. Their pleasure to see the country burn is as morbid as that of some little, naughty children. These fire-bugs rightly belong to prison cells where they cannot find anything to burn.
Veld fires are a menace to the whole world as they destroy lives, accommodation, livelihood and ecology, as they turn both plants and animals (flora and fauna) into ashes and gases.
Zimbabwe is by and large a savannah grassland country, with a few stretches of level, unforested grassy plains (steppes) here and there, plus some thick wooded sub-tropical forests in some regions such as Matabeleland North. It is primarily an agricultural ecological environment in which people live by tilling the soil using either cattle or donkeys or both as draught power.
Some Zimbabweans keep large numbers of goats and sheep. A few own horses. All these animals graze or browse or feed in both ways as is the case with cattle and goats.
Wherever veld fires have occurred, the land is left bereft of both grass and bushes, leaving the animals without anything to feed on. Not only donkeys, cattle, goats and sheep, but also wild creatures suffer because of such fires.
In localities where there are wild fruits such as plumtrees, the veld fires destroy these most valuable trees, rendering local residents most vulnerable to hunger and deficiency diseases.
Some plants have medicinal properties and are used by herbalists as well as ordinary people to treat ailments. Veld fires destroy such plants as well as animals such as hedgehogs, tortoises and iguana which can hardly escape from raging veld fires.
Veld fires negatively affect the soils chemical composition, a development that in turn adversely impacts on the burnt areas agricultural productivity. The ashes of veld fires are carried off by rain water into reservoirs such as dams and natural ponds and pools where they badly affect the reproductive performance of aquatic creatures, particularly fish.
Other animals and human beings that consume that contaminated water are also badly affected by the dissolved ashes. The smoke produced by the veld fires causes untold pollution of the air we and other creatures breathe as it is very heavily laden with a variety of noxious gases including carbon monoxide.
Soot particles produced by veld fires can be blown far and wide from the area actually burnt.
In the early 1990s, soot particles of a bush fire that devastated parts of western Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe landed on a wedding party in Namibia, very badly spoiling the day for all and sundry, especially the immaculately dressed bride and her retinue.
Mozambique is bordered on the east by the Indian Ocean, on the African continents eastern seaboard, Namibia lies on the continents western coast, with the Atlantic Ocean on its west, thousands of kilometres from Mozambique, vast stretches of land apart.
Apart from veld fires polluting the air far and wide, they lay bare the land, leaving it naked and without a grass stump in which a surviving hedgehog can hide, nor a bush on which an exposed sparrow can build a nest, that is if it can find a blade of grass.
To most Zimbabweans such barren and lifeless land is an eye-sore. It is a reflection of an irresponsible, thankless act.
What can and should be done?
While the campaign launched by Minister Nhema is undoubtedly laudable, we should identify its target audiences in their order of priority.
First and foremost, councillors ought to be repeatedly made aware that they are the custodians of their respective wards not only in political but also, if not more so, in ecological terms. They have a big responsibility to organise their constituents to fight against soil erosion, a ground degradation caused by veld fires, among other things.
The second audience is school children who should be viewed as information conduits. The third audience is traditional leaders (chiefs, headmen and kraal heads) whose duties include the husbanding of natural resources the land being the most important. Church congregations should also be regarded as an important audience.
It is misleading to treat the protection of the ecology as a political party matter. It cannot be so simply because land is a non-political national resource whose utilisation and protection are as non-partisan as it is an inalienable natural heritage.
Land, water and air are natural gifts and so is the responsibility to protect them against misuse, which means, in fact, that it is everybodys responsibility to ensure that Zimbabwe is not damaged by wild fires.
The police have a well known duty to apprehend those who start bush fires. Taking Trenance in Bulawayo as an example of areas where bush fires have been occurring regularly in the past couple of years, the author of this article is of the opinion that police do not seem to treat such fires with the seriousness they deserve.
No investigations ever seemed to have been carried out whenever such fires broke out, and the police station is only a stones throw away at Sauerstown from Trenance.