By Busani Bafana
HARARE, June 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Faced with severe drought and tinder-dry forests and fields, Zimbabwe is seeking jail terms to deter the setting of fires that last year scorched over a million hectares of land and property.
Until now, those convicted of setting fires - often to clear land, burn waste, construct fire breaks or force out animals to poach - generally have faced fines or suspended sentences, authorities said.
But after 16 people died in 2,464 grass fires in Zimbabwe last year, and as the country faces continuing drought, that needs to change, they said.
"We are seeking tougher penalties for fire offenders," Steady Kangata, education manager for Zimbabwe's Environmental Management Agency (EMA), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We have engaged the office of the Attorney General to review current fines for offenders so courts can impose mandatory jail terms, because fire offenders get away with suspended sentences and fines. But we lose a lot in a destroyed environment, which has an impact on food security for Zimbabwe," he said.
"We are hopeful higher fines will help curb the problem of fires, even though we will not stop them totally," he said. To bring that about "will take a change in mindset and I cannot say that will happen overnight".
According to EMA, 1.5 million hectares of land were destroyed by fires last year, slightly down from the 1.6 million hectares burned in 2014. But over the last five years, grass and forest fires have resulted in more than 70 deaths and destruction of infrastructure worth more than $1.6 million, the agency noted.
About 90 percent of such fires recorded in Zimbabwe are a result of arson, land clearing, illegal mining, smoking out bees, poaching, burning of waste, firebreak construction or carelessly discarded cigarette butts, according to EMA. Natural causes account for only a small minority of fires.
Those convicted of setting fires currently face fines of between $5 and $5,000, the maximum EMA can impose.
But as Zimbabwe faces longer droughts and more heat waves, grass fires threaten to undermine food security and efforts to protect and replant forests.
"We need to be vigilant and discourage people who start fires willy nilly," Kangata said.
Under the Forestry Act and general environmental policy, Zimbabwe bans the setting of any grass fires between July 1 and October 31 each year, with burning allowed to begin again at the start of the rainy season. The restriction, however, has been widely ignored, officials said.
Last year, grass fires destroyed more than 400 hectares of tree plantation, worth millions of dollars, in the Taka Forest in Chimanimani, 400 km east of Harare.
That comes despite the national Forestry Commission campaigning each year to educate communities living in and around forest areas about the dangers of setting fires.
Some of the highest temperatures seen in 60 years - reaching as high as 43 degrees Celsius in parts of the country last November, according to the Meteorological Services Department - have added to fire risks.
HOW TO CURB FIRES
Burning grassland and savannah areas - known as veld in southern Africa - can help maintain the health of those ecosystems, but unmanaged or too frequent fires lead to land degradation, which affects farming and grazing, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) noted in a 2008 report.
The United National Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says uncontrolled vegetation fires contribute to global warming, air pollution, desertification and loss of biodiversity.
A 2013 study by researchers at Bindura University of Science Education and the University of Zimbabwe suggests that to manage wildfires in Zimbabwe the public, officials, farmers and others need to work together, and the country needs to combine modern techniques such as remote sensing of fires with indigenous knowledge on fire control.
Under the country's National Fire Strategy, Zimbabwe aims to reduce fire incidents by at least 90 percent from the average of more than 2,000 a year over the past five years.
It's a goal Kangata believes is achievable through coordinated action on measures such as construction and maintenance of firebreaks.
But so far statistics are moving in the opposite direction, with Zimbabwe suffering 2,575 fires in 2014.
"Veld fires are destroying our livelihoods," Kangata told Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Zimbabwe has to manage the fires and save the environment and we are convinced we now need the strong hand of the law to help stop those who set off fires for the fun of it."
(Reporting by Busani Bafana; editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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