Environmentalists have urged the government to establish competent environmental courts to comprehensively prosecute those who ignite veld fires.
Veld fires are now common in Zimbabwe, resulting in the loss of lives, property, wildlife, and domestic animals.
Last week, on October 10, 2022, ten men ranging from 20 to 50 years died while attempting to put out a veld fire in Esigodini’s Rodrose Farm in Matabeleland South.
Activists urged the country to act swiftly and forcefully to combat environmental crimes such as veld fires.
The Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights (MIHR), which promotes environmental awareness, dubbed last week’s incident as the ‘10-10-10 Veld Fire Disaster,’ saying it was unfortunate the ten died while defending their environment.
“We pass our sincere condolences to the affected families and wish a speedy recovery to those who sustained injuries. MIHR also takes this time to reiterate the call for urgent and decisive action to be taken,” said MIHR Coordinator, Khumbulani Maphosa in an interview with CITE.
“We specifically recommend that the country needs to consider setting up a competent environmental court that shall be responsible for trying environmental criminals like those who start veld fires.”
Maphosa stated that environmental courts were required since the ‘10-10-10 Veld Fire Disaster’ demonstrated “beyond doubt” the seriousness of environmental crimes to biodiversity loss and human life.
He also said harsher sanctions for environmental crimes such as veld fires and pollution are required in Zimbabwe.
“Stiffer and more exorbitant fines and lengthy jail sentences will act as a deterrent for wanton environmental criminality,” Maphosa said, noting the government needs to set up mechanisms to support local community environmental defenders who risk their lives and limb protecting the environment.
“Specifically, this mechanism should cater for those who get injured, and the families of those who die during environmental defence duty. This mechanism can be set up from the Environmental Fund which is provided to in Section 48 to 54 of the Environmental Management Act.”
The Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Tourism, and Hospitality Industry is now working on modifying the Environmental Management Act to address the prosecution of veld fire perpetrators, as well as establishing the National Environmental Action Plan.
MIHR believes that such a system for supporting local environmental defenders should be incorporated into the policies under consideration.
“Veld fires are one of the major serious environmental hazards that affect Zimbabwe to-date. It is estimated that each year Zimbabwe loses an average of 900 000 hectares of land and millions worth of property to veld fires. The major causes of these veld fires include land clearance, illegal miners, open burning of waste, poaching and sheer criminality,” Maphosa said.
“The Environment Management Agency (EMA) has been instrumental in educating citizens about veld fires and encouraging local citizen agency. The unfortunate ‘10-10-10 veld fire disaster’ is an indication of the effectiveness of the EMA efforts as these beloved environmental champions died volunteering to defend their local environment.”
A traditional leader, Chief Abel Chundu of Hurungwe said there are a lot of veld fires taking place as laws were not punitive enough for culprits.
“There are a lot of people who are dying and some are dying trying to put out fires,” he said, highlighting that in their traditional courts, they thoroughly dealt with such cases “but we are not seeing justice happening in the Magistrates’ courts”
Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Monica Mutsvangwa, claimed Cabinet has spent much time discussing veld fire effects and what might be done to solve the situation.
She stated that farmers around the country had lost a large number of fields, some of which were planted with wheat.
“As a country, we are proud of the wheat production and we are looking forward to having a good harvest but because of such fires, it is painful that people who perpetrate this arson are people who do so for very petty reasons like those who will be hunting for mice,” she said.
The minister said the Environmental Management Act would have to be looked into and that during the amending process, parliamentarians must make sure the law is restrictive.
“We need to ascertain whether the law is punitive enough so that when people have participated in arson, then they will be deterred by heavy sentences,” said Mutsvangwa.
“I am going to engage the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, (Ziyambi) Ziyambi so that the Act should be looked at. Even the Attorney General should look at the law and the law will be brought to Parliament so that it is reviewed or amended.”