Zimbabwe–– The first thing most people that come across raging veld fires want to do is safely evade them as soon as they can.
This however, according to the countrys legislation, is a crime.
Travelling from Harare to Bulawayo last weekend, the bus I was in nearly collided with an oncoming truck as the driver attempted to evade a raging fire intruding onto his side of the road.
Through exercising what to me was good defensive driving skills, the driver miraculously managed to manoeuvre us out of the life-threatening situation, after which we continued on our way.
In Zimbabwe, motorists and other passersby evidently consider evading the veld fires and getting as far from them as fast as possible the wisest thing to do. I wonder if they are aware that failing to stop and put out a fire is, according to the countrys laws, a serious offence.
The crime can see one spending a year in jail or optionally paying a fine of US$5 000 (an amount out of reach for many Zimbabweans).
The punitive measures were put in place through the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), in a desperate bid to curb the persistent veld fire challenge in the country.
Veld fires are an annual occurance in Zimbabwe and are normally at their worst between July and October. But having been introduced in 2007, it is imperative to now establish whether the punitive measures have achieved the desired effect.
Veld fire incidences on the decline: EMA
According to EMAs 2011 Fire Report, all provinces with the exception of Matabeleland North and the Midlands recorded a decline in veld fires incidences.
The report says at least 714 000 hectares of land was destroyed in 2011 compared to approximately 1 152 413 destroyed in 2010.
Five deaths were recorded last year compared to the 25 people that were killed in 2010.
EMA credited the decrease mostly to the construction of fireguards for demonstration purposes in 15 districts countrywide. The move to place resource monitors in problem areas to report of fire incidences via cell phones has also been hailed as another reason for the decrease.
Going around the country today however, one would be forgiven for thinking the veld fire problem was actually getting worse. Almost the entire landscape along the Harare-Bulawayo road has been burnt down; I hear its more or less the same thing in other parts of the country.
Most worrying is that catching those that would have started the fires remains a serious challenge. Many feel it is those that would have started the fires in the first place that should be targeted by law.
And as for the law that requires all passersby, regardless of that they would not have started the fire, to stop and help put it out; is it the best arrangement?
Legislation difficult to enforce: Dhliwayo
Mutuso Dhliwayo, executive director for the Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association, believes the law requiring passersby to stop and help put out veld fires is a good provision that was necessitated by the persistent fires.
However, this piece of legislation poses a problem. How do you enforce that as people might argue that they did not have at their disposal the necessary elements to put out a fire? When people do not have the right equipment to put out a fire, they might end up endangering their lives, said Dhliwayo.
Efforts to talk to Steady Kangata, EMA spokesperson, to get a better insight into the piece of legislation proved fruitless as his phone was continually unavailable. So did efforts to talk to police spokespersons as they were said to be attending a workshop.
In the meantime, the countrys vegetation remains in a pitiful state, after years of serious assault by the fires. The thick bushes and the beautiful greenery that used to characterise the countrys highways is nothing but a memory.
The Forestry Commission, Nyaradzo Funeral Services and other entities embarked on a serious re-forestation exercise to save the fast-depleting forests during the 2011-2012 planting season. While their efforts were most worthwhile and notable, they might come to naught as the veld fires continue to ravage the countrys forests.
Besides destroying property, people, livestock, trees, pastures and degrading the land, the fires are also destroying the countrys animal habitat.
The current veld fire prevention measures might require a re-look.