HARARE, 29 September 2009 (IRIN) - The increasing incidence of wild fires is eroding food production in Zimbabwe, which remains a food insecure country despite a turnaround in agricultural production.
The Environment Management Agency, a government department, said recently that veld fires were being reported mainly in areas settled by new farmers, the recipients of President Robert Mugabe's fast-track land reform programme, which began in 2000 and has led to more than 4,000 white commercial farms being redistributed to landless blacks.
About 46,000 hectares of arable land has gone up in flames in recent months. Environment Africa (EA), a non-governmental organization promoting environmental management and biodiversity practices, said the capacity to fight wild fires had also been diminished in the past decade as a consequence of the country's economic contraction.
"The ability to put out fires is currently not there, and it will take some time before those charged with safeguarding the environment can respond to fire outbreaks timeously and effectively," EA spokesperson Deliwe Utete told IRIN.
"We are poorly equipped as a country, even though we are aware that there are moves by the meteorological department to source disaster identification and prevention technology." She said the increase in wildfires had been exacerbated by the nature of land redistribution.
"The patterns of ownership that resulted from the fast-track land reform programme make it easy for fires to spread - plots have been carved up to accommodate several farmers on a single plot, and the new occupants no longer prioritize putting up structures that guard against fire outbreaks."
In the first quarter of 2009, nearly seven million Zimbabweans were relying on emergency food aid, but this number is expected to decrease to around 2.8 million by the first quarter of 2010.
The land reform programme that sparked the country's decade of economic shrinkage, as well as dry weather patterns and political instability, are blamed for turning the country from a net food exporter to a donor-dependent state.
The formation of a unity government in February 2009 is gradually turning the country's fortunes around, although analysts believe it will be many years before Zimbabwe recovers.
Utete said the new farmers did not appreciate the importance of firebreaks and the situation was compounded by the absence of environment officers, who used to educate communities about fire management.
Denford Chimbwanda, president of the Grain Cereals Producers Association (GCPA), blamed government and the resettled farmers for not doing enough to prevent the fires.
Government failing to take action
"The government does not seem to be interested in fire prevention any more, and for as long as tough action is not taken against offenders, they will continue to cause veld fires, which are worse this year than in previous years. Even if we receive good rains this year, the amount of food that we should have produced has been reduced before the farming season starts," Chimbwanda told IRIN.
"Our members from across the country have reported losing inputs, food reserves, and draught power [animals used for ploughing] in the fires that have also killed people, while livestock will have nowhere to graze because pastures have been destroyed."
He said it was not possible to quantify the losses, but "Many households will be forced to buy food using scarce resources because of these veld fires."
Vice President Joice Mujuru announced the formation of various committees to combat the rise in veld fires, but told the local media "It [environmental management] is not a priority for most of our people in business, government and society at large."
Innocent Makwiramiti, a former chief executive officer of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, now an economist based in the capital, Harare, was not optimistic about any meaningful response to the veld fires.
"The government is currently broke and it would be difficult to deploy these committees effectively. In any case, the damage is already done, and attention should be put on how best to help those farmers whose preparations have been adversely affected by the veld fires."