20 September 2005

Zimbabwe: Uncontrolled Fires Destroy $700bn Forests

Harare — FORESTS with trees worth more than $700 billion have been destroyed by uncontrolled fires in Chimanimani and other areas countrywide over the past three weeks.

In addition, intermittent fire outbreaks are threatening the lives of at least 1 000 wildebeests in Rhodes Nyanga National Park where a vast swathe of grazing land has been destroyed.

The park - in which is found Zimbabwe's largest population of wildebeests, the large-headed ox-like antelopes with horns and a long, tufted tail - is now virtually bare of vegetation following the raging fires, leaving the animals with little pastures.

The veld fires - which have destroyed extensive tracts of forest, grassland, wildlife and other natural resources - have also resulted in the injury and, in some cases, death of people caught up in the blazes and the destruction of their property, also estimated at billions of dollars, countrywide.

This comes at a time when the Ministry of Environment and Tourism has come up with a strategic plan to effectively deal with wild fires whose intensity and devastation has caused heavy loss of property and wildlife running into millions of dollars.

Environment and Tourism Ministry acting secretary Dr Alfred Ncube said an approach involving local communities, which had proved workable before, was the effective solution to prevent the haphazard lighting and spread of wild fires.

"There is urgent need for us to strengthen the concept," he said in reference to the past practice in which it was the responsibility of members of the communities to guard against uncontrolled igniting of fires and extinguishing whenever they broke out.

Dr Ncube was speaking during an oral evidence session before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Mines, Environment and Tourism last week.

The marshalling and mobilisation of the entire community in anti-fire measures worked as a strong deterrent to people who would cause fires for hunting purposes or otherwise. In some cases, whole forests have been burnt down by hunters lighting fires to smoke and ferret edible wild animals and herbivorous rodents like mice out of their lairs and holes.

Dr Ncube said communities should be educated on the concept, which had so far proved the only effective way in reducing fires, thus saving "our precious environment".

He said chiefs and legislators should be exemplary in educating the community in the prevention of wild fires in order to conserve the country's fauna and flora.

Forestry Company of Zimbabwe (FCZ) chief executive officer Mr Joseph Kanyekanye last week pointed out that presently there were no enforceable measures in place to prevent veld fires.

Mr Kanyekanye was contributing to a discussion during a workshop for heads of parastatals and senior Government officials held in Harare last Thursday.

"There is nothing which is being done to stop the uncontrollable fires," he said.

The fires have so far destroyed about 1 623 hectares of timber owned by Border Timbers and 200 hectares of timber belonging to the FCZ.

To put the extent of the loss into perspective, timber is one of the country's leading foreign currency earners and the hectares burnt down in the last three weeks far surpass the hectarage destroyed in the whole of 2004.

Illegal gold panners and illegal settlers in the Chimanimani area have been blamed for causing the fires.

The fires have also destroyed coffee plantations worth billions of dollars belonging to the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority.

"We have to go back to our roots and come up with technical support and an effective system to prevent fires should be in place," Dr Ncube said.

He also urged the legislators to promote the clearance of land for fireguards on farms, which go a long way in preventing the spread of bush fires.

As a deterrent measure to would-be unauthorised fire starters, Dr Ncube called on the Ministry of the Environment and Tourism to impose more severe and stiffer penalties than is currently the situation.

The FCZ has also been holding awareness campaigns in both the print and electronic media to educate the nation about the danger and damage of bush fires.

Wild fires are those blazes that get out of control and devastate extensive tracts of forest, grassland, wildlife and other natural resources as well as injure and kill people and destroy their properties.

The blazes are normally caused by human-caused factors, among them the smoking-out of bees for honey, the lighting of fires at roadsides by resting motorists, careless throwing of burning cigarette stubs and the burning of vegetation by hunters to flush out game.

Today -- where their were dense forests, lush green vegetation and an array of interlocking savanna grassland valleys where wild animals used to roam wild and free -- an extensive portion of the countryside has been reduced to black soot.

Night after night, wildebeests and other game in Nyanga National Park and elsewhere are seen stampeding from one valley to another as they escape from the raging fires.

Recently property worth billions of dollars and wildlife was destroyed by raging veld fires which engulfed Woodened Conservancy in Lower Gweru.

The fire razed 7 000 hectares, about three-quarters of the whole conservancy.

Nine chalets that were under renovation were destroyed in the blaze that also burnt down a farmhouse at the council-run conservancy.

The cause of the fire has not yet been established.

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