Zimbabwe–– THE fire season is upon us. They have actually glorified irresponsible human behaviour by creating and classifying it into a season – the fire season – as if it were something really worth celebrating like the planting season.
That may mean each year, instead of anticipating a pollution-free summer, we are all being encouraged to look forward to this season, and perhaps, participate in the chaos too, where uncontrolled veld and forest fires run amok causing untold environmental and social damage. So, in my bewilderment, sun bathing in this cold winter sometime last week at Dzivaresekwa in Harare, there arose a huge column of black smoke reaching for the intestines of the hazy blue sky.
Since childhood, this once plush green little hill to the east had always gone up in smoke. It was agreed among those of my age in those old days, some 20 years ago, that these were mysterious, starting possibly on their own. The hill, which lies close to the once sacred Dzivaresekwa pool, was an area of similar national importance, so we thought, and therefore, it would be little surprise if the fires ignited of their own, or by some supernatural ancestral power. It was possible. A sign from the ancestors.
After all, this was a “sacred” hill. Wrong. So the fires burned again last week at this “sacred” Dzivaresekwa hill, filling the air with dangerous carbon smoke, destroying vegetation and annihilating small crawling animals from their habitat. This time there was nothing mysterious about the fires.
With time we had long demystified the long-established myth about the origin of the fires. We understood with unmistaken precision that they were sponsored by those among us humans unashamed to extend the damage that has already been done on the western side of the hill through cultivation.
This side of the hill was now virtually “treeless” and constantly up in smoke compared to the eastern part, which we called “kwaMnangagwa”, which was “treefull”, beautifully decorated by several species of indigenous trees.
Animals lived happily in this “kwaMnangagwa” side of the hill, named after Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa who lived and owned a dairy and market gardening plot at the foot of the hill. The “kwaMnangagwa” small forest plantation had survived wanton human exploitation and their fires because people believed it was a protected area, and in a way, it was.
So as the black smoke from the uncontrolled hill fires billowed into the sky, I wondered whether this was the start of the fire season. And if it was, when it would end, if there was an end?
I have now established the Dzivaresekwa fires are only but a small reflection of a countrywide menace proving difficult to contain. Even when veld fires declined 38 percent destroying 714 000 hectares of land in 2011, according to the Environmental Management Agency, these figures are still by far scary and unacceptable. It is granted fire has been used by our forefathers and those before them to clear out and prepare land for agriculture purposes, scare off wild animals among other uses. But fact is as stubborn as well.
Pollution from agriculture, land use and changes in land use including forestry have been some of the biggest drivers in the production of deadly greenhouse gases, which lead to climate change and global warming. Fire does more than just pollute. It results in severe environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and human life. A total of 25 people died from veld fire-related incidents in 2010 while five died last year. People cannot just start wild fires and hope to get away with it. They must not even look forward to the so called fire season.
Forestry Act needs revision
For that reason, and many more, that’s why Forestry Commission deputy general manager, conservation and extension division Mr Abedinigo Marufu believes it is important that the Forestry Act is revised and strengthened with a view of designing stiffer penalties for those that start wild fires or cause deforestation.
“In the next 50 years, if people do not heed our call to stop wanton cutting down (and burning down) of trees without planting new ones, there will be no trees to talk about in the countryside,” Mr Marufu said in an interview last week.
“However, the forest industry itself will survive as stringent measures will need to be put in place to protect commercial plantation areas. The Forestry Act will need to be strengthened with heavier penalties to deter offenders from illegal activities such as causing fires and deforestation.
“Illegal settlements in the forest areas will need to be stopped forthwith as these are a major hazard to the survival of the forest industry. The nation will need to come together and fight the scourge of veld and forest fires which are like cancer to the survival of our forest industry.”
The most punitive sentence meted out to a veld fire offender by a Zimbabwean court amounts to just six months maximum imprisonment. Annually, Zimbabwe is losing about 660 million trees to deforestation and veld fires. And that’s at a conservative figure of 2 000 trees per hectare lost. Yet the country is planting about 10 million trees per annum, which is a tiny fraction of the trees lost. Mr Marufu said in the 2010/2011 “fire season” Zimbabwe lost about 102 000ha in the gazetted forests of Matabeleland North province while losses in 2011/2012 season were currently around 79 000ha. He said this was mainly caused by unscrupulous people either hunting for small game, harvesting honey or unattended fires left at either bus termini or from people warming themselves in the forest. “We have not yet gotten into the hottest time of the year and last season’s figures might be surpassed. We also have settlers who are in the forests who cause the greatest damage,” explained Mr Marufu.
While Zimbabwe is always burning everywhere because of effortless human activity, the drier regions of the country from region four to five are the worst affected due to the dryness of the areas.
Fires are also a common occurrence in resettlement areas. Usually in communal areas there is little to burn due to overgrazing.
Mr Marufu said the Forestry Commission was now working with other stakeholders to educate and train farmers and communities on how to manage fires, to know its uses and dangers and how to control it.
Together with EMA, Agritex, Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Management they have started raising awareness on the importance of preventing veld fires. Projects had also started on the construction of fireguards.
“This is a form of empowering communities who have a lot to lose when a fire passes through their communities. They lose life, grazing land, livestock and property in the event of a fire. They are therefore critical in reducing incidences of fire in terms of its prevention and control when it breaks out,” said Mr Marufu.
A veld fire is one where no one knows who started the fire and is burning uncontrollably. It can go for miles without anyone daring to put it out and causes serious damage to property, human and wildlife.