Charcoal activities unleash large-scale bush fires

17 June 2021 | Agriculture

Windhoek • [email protected]

Devastating bush fires allegedly sparked by charcoal burning operations have razed around 35 000 hectares of grassland to the ground across seven farms south of Outjo.
The first fire on 22 May destroyed 10 000 hectares, while the second fire on Tuesday this week destroyed an additional 25 000 hectares.
Meanwhile, another fire, also allegedly caused by charcoal burning, devoured 7 500 hectares across two farms situated near Otjiwarongo over the past weekend.
On Tuesday, Gabriel Katjiveva’s entire farm was burnt to the ground, one of the cluster of seven farms affected by the blaze. “The grass is gone. It's an immediate drought again,” he said yesterday.
Katjiveva said he, like most Namibian farmers, experienced a severe drought between 2013 and 2019. Over the past two years, his grazing was able to recover.
Within a day all the grassland was lost to the fire.
He explained that although his livestock has not been harmed, it is unclear where he can turn to for help for grazing and compensation for the losses incurred.

Farmers in the area lay the blame for the fires squarely at the feet of charcoal burning operations in the area, with frustrations mounting due to limited routes for compensation and accountability.
“Before the industry, we rarely had such devastating fires,” Reinhard Wagner, a farmer who helped battle the fires said this week.
He said the risk of fire is so high now that all farms need dedicated firefighting teams. And, unlike “good fires”, these fires not only destroy wildlife, livestock and essential rangeland, but strip the soil to such an extent it promotes erosion, Wagner said. “The damage to environment is immense, including the animals that are burnt.”
Apart from the threat to life, both human and animal, the fires eat up resources, including time, fuel, and hours spent fighting a dangerous wall of flames as day-to-day farming duties are neglected.

Earlier this year, the Namibia Charcoal Association (NCA) issued stringent new regulations, as per the directorate of forestry, directly addressing the scourge of fires caused by charcoal burning.
The document stressed that fires destroy grazing and infrastructure which can lead to millions in losses for farmers. “It is therefore necessary to start early with stricter guidelines for the charcoal industry,” the NCA said.
Failure to adhere to the guidelines could lead to suspension of harvesting permits for charcoal producers.
“Supervision of the kilns is of utmost importance and no kiln can be left unattended while there is an active fire in the kiln,” the NCA stipulated.

Burgert Liebenberg, another farmer, said despite the rules governing charcoal production, the ongoing fires are indicative that the guidelines are not followed or enforced.
He added that the charcoal industry has grown exponentially, creating jobs and addressing bush encroachment, which, while welcome achievements, are overshadowed by the fires caused by charcoal production.
“Most fires here are caused by charcoal. It's not that the industry should be shut down. But they have to ensure there are standards and that regulations are enforced. The land is burning, and nothing happens.”
He said the fires are evidence that the regulations that are in place, are not enforced and often ignored.
Charlie Bodenstein, a farmer who sustained serious damage to his farm from the fire in May, says the charcoal industry needs to get its house in order. “Charcoal has grown as an industry and the industry needs to take responsibility. This cannot continue.”
He said not enough measures are in place currently to prevent widespread bush fires from charcoal activities and to supervise charcoal burning activities.
He added that farmers on whose land charcoal is produced need to step up too.
As of 1 May this year, it is compulsory for charcoal production to conduct cluster burning, where kilns are placed close together in an area cleared 15 metres around the kilns.
Fire-fighting equipment must be kept at the burning stations and charcoal workers have to be provided with basic firefighting training.
When strong winds are reported for the area, no charcoal may be carbonised.

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