Zimbabwe: Bush fires destroy livelihoods (by Nqobani Ndlovu, for Farm Radio Weekly, in Zimbabwe)

| November 5, 2012

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Since 2000, Mr. Hezekiah Moyo has earned his living growing maize, tomatoes and cabbage, and raising livestock. But all his hard work went up in smoke recently when bush fires swept through his land.

Mr. Moyo farms in Bulilima, in the Matabeleland South province of Zimbabwe. He has been able to feed, clothe and send his four children to school by selling tomatoes and cabbages. But now, pointing to his burnt cabbages and tomatoes, Mr. Moyo laments, “How am I going to survive and take care of my family?”

Not only did the fires destroy his crops, they also razed the remaining pasture lands in the area. Mr. Moyo wonders where his cattle will feed. Livestock are already dying due to lack of grazing land in the area. He says, “The only option I have is to sell some of my cattle to buy stock feed [rather] than watch … them die.”

Many small-scale farmers burn their fields to clear land for planting. Burning is quick, with no need to hire labour or machinery. But it has a number of drawbacks. Bush fires have been raging across Zimbabwe since the onset of summer. Since January 2012, at least 12 people have been killed and nearly 10,000 hectares of pine forest lost.

The Environmental Management Agency (or EMA) blames resettled farmers for starting bush fires to clear farmland. The EMA defines bush fires as: “blazes that get out of control and become wild, and in the process destroy extensive tracts of forest, grasslands, animals, people and their properties.”

Mrs. Amkela Sidange is the EMA officer for Matabeleland South. She says her agency conducts awareness campaigns to prevent bush fires. Last year, 350 fires destroyed over 200,000 hectares. By August of this year, this yearly figure had almost doubled. The EMA is promoting strategies such as fireguards to prevent fires spreading. A fireguard is a one-metre strip cleared of vegetation on both sides of a fence surrounding a farm. Mrs. Sidange says: “We are working with other stakeholders such as the police in educating local communities on the need to protect and conserve our resources through fireguards.” Farmers can ask the EMA for assistance if they want to clear their land by burning.

The Forestry Act provides some regulations on bush fires. Fires may not be set in August, September or October. Any person near a fire must assist in firefighting. People who start fires and those who do not assist in stopping a fire can be prosecuted.

Francis Nhema is the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources. He says that bush fires pose a threat to Zimbabwe. He adds, “The country’s turnaround strategy is rooted in our natural resources, but unfortunately this natural capital is under threat from veld [bush] fires.”

Mr. Nhema lists the long-term effects of bush fires as reduced biodiversity, reduced soil fertility, and increased soil erosion. These can, in turn, lead to less water for livestock, irrigation, fish, wildlife and people. He states, “As a nation, we cannot afford the continued loss of life and valuables resulting from avoidable human error.”

This is little consolation for Mr. Moyo, who says, “I have lost my crop and cannot afford to also lose my cattle. I have to sell some of my beasts.”