Why we must stop burning our forest and bushland

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By Matt Pascall

During the rains every year, Zambia has some of cleanest air in the world. But every year as we enter the dry season, our country’s forests and surrounding bushland are ravaged by fire and thick smoke blackens the sky, causing local people to cough, habitats of hibernating animals to be destroyed, and soils to harden.

These fires are largely sparked by people – mostly deliberately, but sometimes accidentally or in ignorance. The accidental fires are often the result of controlled burning getting out of hand because of the tinder-dry long grassland that has sprung up on degraded and deforested land.

It never used to be this way. In the old days, only headmen were allowed to burn, with the permission of the chief, and under carefully controlled circumstances. Today, indiscriminate burning is out of control and wreaking havoc.

This burning presents a serious threat for a number of reasons:

The obvious issue is the damage it does to Zambia’s forests, particularly the miombo woodland that is vital for maintaining ecological balance and environmental sustainability.

The issue goes deeper than simply losing precious trees. Those trees sustain the wildlife and biodiversity that is a source of livelihood for thousands of people across the country, from farmers to beekeepers, from gatherers of natural resources to hunters, and from thatchers to traditional medicine practitioners.

Businesses and livelihoods are suffering as a result of burning. Burning grasslands and trees is burning Kwacha.

But this damage caused by burning goes even wider than this. The clouds of smoke that engulf our skies between April and September are dangerous to the health of everyone: in rural areas and our towns. Hospitals and clinics are overrun as people report in with cases of coughing, lung disease and other respiratory problems.

Studies have revealed that in developing countries such as this one, forest fires increase the risk of acute respiratory infections, which are a major killer of young children. That is one side effect of the burning, but the real effect is the poverty it is creating. Children miss school, workers are off sick and business people see their trade affected.

People and communities are suffering because of burning.

The problem of burning is not confined to Zambia, however, and countries across Africa are experiencing the same issues. When combined, this adds significantly to the problem of global pollution and speeds up climate change. The common blame goes to greenhouse gas emissions from power stations running on non-renewable resources, and motor vehicles but comparatively, the greenhouse gas emissions from setting Africa alight every year are far higher.

The world is suffering as a result of our burning.

Give the enormous damage caused by burning, why does it happen at all?

The answer is that the people who set light to our countryside believe – often wrongly – that their actions have benefits.

However, they fail to understand how their short-term perceived benefits – a bit of vegetation regrowth; convenience of being able to walk anywhere; potash for crops; killing of pests – are outweighed by the long-term harmful effects of their actions. It is an age-old problem: short-term expediency or carelessness takes precedence over real long-term advantages.

At one level it is understandable. Should we expect a poor cattle farmer to stop burning off ticks so that he can save the planet from global warming?

What about the small burning that gets out of hand and destroys woodland, crops, houses and property?

There are no easy answers.

First Quantum Minerals is a mining company – we are the country’s largest copper producer through our Kansanshi Mine in Solwezi and Sentinel Mine at Kalumbila. We are not farmers or environmentalists, but we do have a very strong sense of how our business fits into the wider community of North-Western Province and Zambia as a whole.

It is also something I care passionately about at a personal level.

We are the country’s largest taxpayer, and we employ over 8,800 people, so our economic impact is not in doubt. But our mines have a finite life – 25 years in the case of Kansanshi and 17-18 years in the case of Sentinel. We do not want to walk away and leave the area to its fate, as has happened elsewhere. We want to leave a tangible positive legacy that will enable communities to continue to prosper as viable economies in their own right.

This goes beyond token “corporate social responsibility”; we have a duty of care to the people and environment of North-Western Province and we must earn our social licence to operate.

This philosophy is deeply engrained in the fabric of the company.

Indeed, all aspects of First Quantum’s strategy are designed to minimise or offset any negative impacts on biodiversity while reinforcing a broader commitment to sustainability in all of its dimensions – environmental, social and economic.

We need solutions to the threats our forests are facing, which should be community-based driven by Traditional Leaders, and suitable policies that seek to safeguard biodiversity. First Quantum is promoting sustainable economic activities such are conservation farming. We are introducing a pilot holistic land management project involving high-density cattle grazing, which we are introducing at both our mine sites. These projects involve the local farmers and their livestock so the benefits can directly impact the local communities.

And probably the single most important thing we can do is encourage people to stop burning. Burning grasslands and trees is burning Kwacha.

Given better management and preservation of our forests, health will improve, livelihoods will prosper, and property and lives will be safer. We would also be contributing substantially to climate change mitigation.

In order to achieve these objectives, there is need for action at policy, institutional and technical levels.

Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase in charcoal production in the communities surrounding our mining operations. However strictly speaking charcoal production is illegal in Zambia. The government needs to take this situation more seriously. In urban areas where the demand for charcoal is greatest, the use of electricity needs to be expanded to all households. In rural areas the communities should be encouraged to burn only wood from tree pruning allowing trees to coppice and to keep growing, or from green charcoal. Tree planting needs to be encouraged.

We will work with organisations such as The Allan Savory Institute, The Grassroots Trust and traditional leaders to introduce Holistic Management to increase the productivity of the cropland soil, to maximise the forage production, to enhance organisational capacity and management of the communities, all by using sustainable agricultural practices.

Zambia’s deforestation rate currently stands at between 250,000 to 300,000 hectares of land per year. This is amongst the highest in the world – it is simply not sustainable. Initiatives show how efforts to preserve forests are bearing fruit and helping villagers make a living while preserving the environment.

Above all, my plea is for people to stop burning our forests and bushland. If you must burn, do it in a controlled manner during the cold season. But a wise farmer will take up conservation farming techniques and discover the benefits of life without smoke and fire ravaging his or her family.

To the authorities, right up to his Excellency the President, and Traditional Leaders, my cry is: help us tip the balance in favour of long-term benefits versus imaginary short-term ‘gains’.

Stop Burning: Be healthier, wealthier and happier. Remember that burning grasslands and trees is burning Kwacha

Ends

Matt Pascall is First Quantum Minerals Director of Operations.

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3 Responses to Why we must stop burning our forest and bushland

  1. This is an important piece of writing aimed at persuading people to change their way and it touches on our health and our environment. No comments s if it doesn’t concern us. We are a country where even doctors are not speaking out on the dangers of pollution from motor vehicles in our cities. If we cannot act in our own interests, why anybody else do? Does the so-called Environmental Management Agency gauge the quality of air we breathe,the same way the water we drink is supposed to meet certain standards?

    Chanchima
    April 8, 2018 at 6:42 pm
    Reply

  2. Very well articulated. We should support such efforts.

    muntungwa
    April 10, 2018 at 2:21 pm
    Reply

  3. I suppose if something as slow-killing as breathing bad air, it gets no one to act. I think only something as fast spreading and fast killing as cholera would enlist the correct response.

    Chanchima
    April 11, 2018 at 6:01 am
    Reply

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