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Fire and the Environment

Fire is a necessary resource in the daily lives of many African communities. From time immemorial, it has been used for cooking, generating heat in the winter, generating light at night, harvesting honey from wild bees, and for religious/cultural rituals, amongst other things. When used appropriately, fire is a wonderful gift from mother-nature. Similarly, when abused and/or misused, fire can be a curse to the natural environment and human beings alike.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that globally, 350 hectares of wild land are consumed by fire each year, and that 90% of the time such wildfires are a direct consequence of human activity that involve uncontrolled fire usage. The dilemma that confronts policy makers is that on the one hand, it is impossible and even unthinkable to have a blanket prohibition of fire because it is an integral part of human life. On the other hand, the environment needs to be protected from wildfires which are responsible for significant damage to the vegetation, air and water.

In dealing with the problems of wildfires, it is submitted that the very first step that sovereign governments should take is educating its citizens on the responsible use of fire in both domestic and wild settings. Summarily enacting legislation to criminalise certain uses of fire, in a bid to tackle wildfires, is analogous to putting the cart before the horse. The environment is quite complex, its sensitivities are not always obvious, more especially to lay persons.

It is therefore important that people are first educated on certain basic facts about the environment, in particular, how fires can have long lasting negative repercussions on biodiversity and certain types of ecosystems. Further, it should be stressed that an absolutist approach cannot yield the desired result. For instance, fire (when used properly) actually constitutes an important element of a balanced and healthy environment, certain types of wild lands need to be set on fire during dry season so as to enable healthy re-growth when the rainy season comes. The key aim is to instil awareness to acceptable usage of fire before a penal code is enacted in that regard. This will make fire laws easier for all to understand, and not burdensome to observe.

The way in which fire is used in many communities may be founded upon tradition and customs observed over time, and for that reason the subject of bringing change may be a sensitive one. However, it must always be borne in mind that the antiquity of bad practices does not justify the price paid by the environment.

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