THE Comptroller and Auditor General, Mildred Chiri, says key state agencies tasked with environmental protection have failed to control veld fires resulting in massive destruction of properties and loss of lives.
In a recent report to Parliament, Chiri said the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) and the Forestry Commission had failed to stop people who started fires for hunting purposes.
She said cases of arson had increased while fires that started from unattended fires at bus stops had also destroyed lives and properties.
Clearing land for cultivation had also resulted in veld fires while some fires had been caused by people throwing cigarette stubs into bushes.
"EMA and the Forestry Commission were failing to control veld fires," Chiri said.
"For example in 2004, 2,8 million hectares were burnt across the country and this rose to over seven million in 2005. National veld fire statistics from 2006 were not available for audit because of poor record keeping," Chiri said.
In the four provinces that the auditor general visited, it was revealed that EMA had failed to adequately enforce fire guard laws. It was also established that the veld fires had become a perennial problem in all provinces, destroying large tracts of land, human life, property, animals and other natural resources.
This had disturbed the fragile ecosystem.
The four provinces that Chiri and her team visited were Manicaland, Masvingo, Mashonaland West and Matabeleland North.
In Nyanga, the auditor general discovered that resettled farmers were not aware that they were required to clear fireguards around their properties.
"I also visited Ziwa monuments which is an archaeological storage site surrounded by resettlements. The area witnessed three veld fires in 2009 resulting in 2 500 hectares being burnt, threatening the survival of the flora and fauna. The natural beauty of the landscape was destroyed on this tourist site," she said.
"The effects of veld fires include forest degradation, reduction in economic value of timber with fire scars, soil erosion, loss of property and lives. It also contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer," she added.
Chiri noted that EMA was reactive rather than proactive in fire management.
She said 80 percent of the country's farmers did not know the standard width of fireguards.
The report said the auditor general had established that the problem of veld fires was rampant in Makonde, Zvimba and Chegutu districts.
Some farmers in Mt Hampden, Christonbank, Kepure, Chidza, Brendants and Britannia expressed ignorance on the existence of EMA and the Forestry Commission.
The auditor-general recommended that EMA should effectively enforce environmental laws to curb veld fires and intensify anti-fire campaigns towards and during the fire season.
The audit was motivated by a public outcry on the degradation of the environment through deforestation in per-urban and resettlement areas, evidenced by the clearance of vast pieces of land by people in peri-urban areas like Cleveland Dam and resettlement areas in Goromonzi and Nyabira where vegetation has been extensively destroyed.
Chiri noted with great concern that annual tree growing targets were rarely met.
In 2009, the Forestry Commission had targeted planting 960 149 but only 268 705 were planted.
"I observed that the Forestry Commission failed to fully implement the Tobacco Wood Energy Programme by tobacco growers in resettlement areas, which was meant to encourage tobacco growers to plant woodlots at their farms for curing tobacco.
"As a result, resettled farmers were cutting down indigenous trees for curing tobacco as they did not have any gum plantations on their farms. The Forestry Commission was not monitoring the activities of the tobacco farmers."
Since the beginning of the land reform programme, there has been pressure on indigenous forests as farmers resorted to firewood as a source of energy for curing tobacco in communal areas and resettlement areas.
A tobacco farmer requires one tonne of firewood to cure one tonne of tobacco.
There is fear that desertification, which has already been taking place in areas like Seke and Chihota communal areas, would be experienced in other areas if the problem is not addressed.
The audit also revealed that due to lack of monitoring, the situation had also led to the massive illegal cutting down of indigenous trees for wood carving, production of ceramics and bricks.
Chiri suggested that the Forestry Commission resuscitate nurseries to allow them to control the quality and quantity of seedlings produced.
"They should also encourage farmers to grow indigenous trees because they face extinction. Forestry Commission and EMA should do routine field or forest inspections, restricting the cutting or removal of indigenous trees as the activities are injurious to the sustainability of forests," she said.
The auditor general also recommended the accreditation of all wood carvers and commercial manufacturers of bricks and ceramics to facilitate the control of cutting down of indigenous trees.
The audit revealed shortcomings in the operations of both Forestry Commission and EMA in curbing deforestation and controlling of veld fires.
"The Forestry Commission transfer of seedling nurseries to schools, communities and individuals to manage them on a commercial basis has impacted negatively on efforts to plant more trees as the targeted group lack the technical knowledge and financial resources to effectively manage the seedling nurseries," Chiri said.
Shortages of forestry extension officers has also contributed to deforestation since some positions have been vacant since 2000 with districts like Zakam, Lupane, Hurungwe and Kariba going for more than two years without forestry officers.
Chiri advised the Forestry Commission to develop appropriate technologies for improved and sustainable management of indigenous and exotic plantation forests.
She said the commission should encourage communities to grow indigenous trees.