Harare — THE effects of veld fires on the environment may seem temporary but there are long-term impacts on bio-diversity that may be irreversible.
Despite several warnings from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the Meteorological Services Department, many people are still starting destructive fires.
Environmentalists say a multi-sectoral approach is required if the country is to effectively curb veld fires.
Bush fires or uncontrolled blazes are the most widespread ecological disturbances in Zimbabwe and are most pronounced in winter and before the onset of the first rains when the forests would be dry and highly inflammable.
Reports say Zimbabwe lost nearly 11 million hectares of land in 2004 and more than 11 504 947 hectares last year.
Uncontrolled burning leads to a reduction in biodiversity, destruction of flora and fauna, reduction of soil fertility, increased erosion and soil compaction that increases surface run-off, thereby decreasing infiltration. All this reduces water needed to recharge ground water sources.
The clearance of basal cover accelerates soil erosion leading to the siltation of water bodies; this in turn translates to reduced water for livestock and irrigation.
So the effects of veld fires are cumulative and touch the entire biosphere.
Zimbabwe has so far lost a lot of property and wildlife that could have earned the country billions of dollars in foreign currency. The uncontrolled destruction of the biota comes at a time when the country is working towards the improvement of its export earnings.
Important commercial resources have been lost through veld fires. For example Manicaland province alone lost nearly $20 billion ($20 trillion old value) worth of timber to these fires.
These veld fires have also caused substantial damages to wildlife through the reduction of grazing land.
In most cases, people clearing land for the next cropping season usually start veld fires in communal areas. Farmers prefer to burn foliage in the evening but when they leave them untended, the evening breeze fans them to other areas.
In some instances, poachers start fires in order to drive animals in a certain direction. Some farmers, especially those in resettled and communal areas, smoke out bees using grass torches but fail to properly put out the fires.
Others start fires at bus terminuses to warm themselves but often board buses without dousing them and they spread across the grasslands.
Veld fires can also be ignited by burning cigarette stubs carelessly thrown out of moving vehicles by drivers or passengers.
Only in extreme cases are veld fires induced by natural factors like lightning.
Although the Government has put in place a number of strategies to handle incidents of veld fires, there is need to quickly implement the strategies.
In June, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism launched the National Fire Strategy that seeks to curb the upsurge in the number of veld fires that have resulted in massive environmental damage.
The strategy seeks to establish fire-fighting teams, from district to national levels. The teams would be co-ordinated by the Joint Operation Command that includes Government officials and officers from the uniformed forces.
Stakeholders say Government should establish Fire Protection Associations throughout the country to oversee the development and strengthening of Zimbabwe's capability in dealing with cases of fire outbreaks.
Both commercial and communal farmers should also be tasked to form their own committees that would co-ordinate all the fire-fighting strategies in their areas, as well as investigate the causes of veld fires.
The strategy aims to raise awareness among Zimbabweans and it seeks to educate people on the dangers of veld fires and the consequences they might face if fires are left uncontrolled.
This would also mean further strengthening urban fire departments to enable the country to effectively deal with the unexpected fires.
Environmentalists say the lack of a co-ordinated approach to curb environmental abuse was aggravating the situation.
Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers' Association project co-ordinator Mr Shamiso Mtisi said the failure to effectively enforce environmental laws had rendered efforts to control environmental damage ineffective.
He called for the establishment of the Environmental Crimes Court to deal with issues of environment abuse so that crimes against the environment are treated in the same manner as other criminal cases.
The Forest Act of 1996 forbids people from burning, growing or standing vegetation on any land without prior notice to the occupants of all adjourning land and the police.
The Act further stipulates that in the event that one is found guilty in a court of law, the accused should be liable of either a fine or imprisonment.
Environmentalists, however, called for stiffer penalties and custodial terms for people who start fires saying the fines and terms proffered arsonists were too lenient.
In spite of these sentences, both the ecosystem and people's lives and property remain in danger hence the need for more awareness campaigns.
It is only through the introduction of studies in fire management in all sectors of the education system that Zimbabwe could help inculcate a sense of environment management at a tender age.
An increased participation of the education sector in mainstreaming fire management in schools and college curriculums would help develop a sense of responsibility in all citizens.
Plans are already underway to incorporate environmental issues in schools and college curriculums.
All members of the community should ensure that they preserve the environment. It is important that traditional leaders like chiefs and headmen take leading roles in conserving the environment.
Increased participation of the private sector in the management of veld fires countrywide and protecting the forests from fire can only be achieved when adequate funds are made available for efficient and effective management activities.
Recently, the Forestry Company of Zimbabwe injected $5 million ($5 billion old value) towards the development of infrastructure to combat veld fires in Matabeleland North Province, one of the areas that has been severely devastated by uncontrolled fires. The province lost more than 800 000 hectares of gazetted state forests last year alone.
According to statistics, forestry contributes more than three percent of Zimbabwe's gross domestic product.
Not only have fires left trails of destruction, but also in some cases they have been fatal. In October last year seven children were burnt to death in Insiza near Bulawayo.
The kids, who were coming from school, were cornered by a raging blaze and climbed trees but were overwhelmed by the flames and smoke, and plunged to their death in the hellish fire. Another girl from Dzivaresekwa was burnt to death when a bush fire engulfed her, as she was searching for firewood in a nearby bush.
In September of the same year, smoke from a veld fire blocked traffic near the 100-km peg along the Marondera-Mutare Highway causing a three-vehicle pile up accident.
Closely related to these, is the case of 10 families from Kasu village under Chief Tangwena in Nyanga who were left homeless after veld fires encroached on their homesteads.
It is regrettable that a simple act of carelessness like lighting a cigarette can be so destructive to the environment.
Environmentalists say farmers should be encouraged to take leading roles in protecting their farmlands by making sure they construct fireguards around their properties.
Fireguards are belts of bare ground of not less than nine meters that prevent fires from crossing into other areas.
The absence of a clear national policy has also further constrained conservation efforts.
Environmentalists have attributed the increased incidence of uncontrolled fires to lack of environmental awareness and effective law enforcement.
Veld fires are a matter of concern that require effective policies and lasting solutions to prevent and combat them.
Policies need to be clear about individual responsibility and co-ordinated roles of responsibilities.