Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Field Burning in South Africa

© Travel Pictures Travel, Image Ref 3104447 –
Aerial View Of Sugar Cane Farms
Near Mtwalume. Kwazulu Natal South Coast. South Africa

by Sparshita Dey 
(with Viva Avasthi)

As suggested by the introduction, this is the second of our field burning case studies of countries/states across the world. Our first report was on Brazil - the world's largest producer of sugarcane. This report will focus on the KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa and whether or not there is a market for the Pyroformer™ there.  

Field Burning in the KwaZulu-Natal Province happens mainly on sugarcane fields in order to maintain a continuous harvest throughout the years so that production and profit is generated consistently. This therefore relies on the removal of plant residue from the soil to allow replanting. Furthermore, the burning is also an important way of warding off snakes, dangerous insects and other pests as well as killing or destroying weeds for healthier growth of the sugarcane plants themselves as they have less competition.

^Source: - “A National Climate Change Strategy for South Africa” 
The above has been taken from the South African National Climate Change Strategy document from September 2004. The highlighted text shows that as part of the strategy, South Africa had highlighted field burning as a key area where greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced in the agricultural sector. This suggests a certain amount of awareness of environmental issues regarding field burning at a government level hinting that the government will be more inclined or interested to fund any projects with the intention of reducing the emissions: like the use of the Pyroformer™. 

<Sugarcane industry in the KwaZulu-Natal Province: 391 km2 of the region is estimated to be under sugarcane cultivation which brings in an annual average direct income of R8 BILLION (currency is Rands – exchange rate currently being R1 = $0.10) or $796,176,000. Field burning seemed to be a common practice amongst farmers to quickly remove unwanted stubble from their fields.  

Legal Actions that have been proposed/taken in the Province to control field burning effects:

  • Any person involved in the act of field burning will have to comply with the National Veld and Forest Fire Act, 1998 (Act No. 101 of 1998)
(1) The purpose of this Act is to prevent and combat veld, forest and mountain fires throughout the Republic.
(2) The Act provides for a variety of institutions, methods and practices for achieving the purpose. "

This act requires the setting up of Fire Protection Associations which are able to control fires and their spread by providing firebreaks, etc and monitoring them. Farmers who wish to burn their fields would therefore have to sign up to one of these Associations so their field burning activity is closely monitored and well controlled.

  • The farmer must apply to the Council for permission to burn their fields. They must obtain written authorisation from the Council in order to continue with their activity. The council may grant permission with conditions

  • The owners of properties and residences in the area surrounding the field must be notified and warned of the burning activity prior to it – this is done with the intention of possibly reducing the health impact on people if they are able to prepare for the activity or temporarily move away. Communication should be written and made to all home owners in the area including within 150m of the field.

  • Application to the council and notifying of home/property owners should both include the following information:
  • The details of the area that is proposed to be burnt
  • The purpose of the burning
  • The date and approximate time of the burning
  • In the event of inappropriate weather, the details of an alternative date of the burning
  • The right of owners within 150 m of the field or area being burnt to lodge a complaint against the activity within 7 days of notification
  • An administrative fee must have been paid to the municipality 

We see that these methods don’t really show much attempt to particularly deter people away from field burning although it may be argued that obviously the council is trying to reduce the impacts on people through notifying them and giving them a say on whether or not they want the activity to take place. The government also seems to be supporting the control of the fires so that disasters don’t occur and the risk of field burning turning into a wild fire is reduced. It may also be noted that the farmer needs to get permission and pay a fee to burn his field which may show again awareness and also careful arrangement of the field burning process. On the other hand, there isn’t much evidence of anything being done to prevent field burning – there isn’t much evidence suggesting that there has been substantial research into alternatives that may attract farmers. Therefore, perhaps the use of the Pyroformer™ may be an attractive prospect for farmers especially as there is obvious interest, particularly at a government level, to reduce air pollution.

The Scope for the Pyroformer™ in the KwaZulu-Natal Province

The Current Harvesting Status
From only secondary research, there is only evidence of two types of harvesting:
-          90% of its crop is burned at harvest by the sugarcane industry
-          10% is harvested using green harvesting
Green Harvesting
Green cane harvesting involves the removal of the leaves and other unwanted parts of the cane and then leaving the trash cuttings from harvesting on the field – the first part of this process is required for the Pyroformer™ to work. This process can be completed mechanically or manually depending on the farmer and addresses several of the problems of field burning:

Problem with Burning
How *GCH addresses the problem
Release of Carbon dioxide due to combustion
Green harvesting doesn’t involve burning of the “trash” so Carbon Dioxide ( a greenhouse gas) is not released
Disruption of power supplies and electricity pylons, etc or fire hazard and smoke disrupting road users/annoying public
No burning so these problems are not caused
Air pollution – smoke and particulates causing health problems. Affecting residential areas and schools, triggering asthma, etc
Again GHC doesn’t involve burning so particulates and smoke does not result so health problems and air pollution is decreased

*GCH - Green Cane Harvesting

The disadvantages of field burning regarding some social and environmental issues are easily rectified by the process of green cane harvesting but there are still drawbacks to just cane harvesting which may have a heavy influence on the decision of farmers.

Disadvantages of GCH
Can the Pyroformer™ address this?
Greater Harvesting Cost – e.g. labour or machinery
 C The farmers can sell their trash at the same rate they pay their labour force at the price of their machinery so they don’t lose money
Increased effort and slower rate of work due to trash blanketing
 C The process of trash blanketing is removed so effort is less and time is saved as well
In wet and cooler regions, the trash blanket
keeps the ground cool which in extreme cases
may even stop the cane from re-growing,
prevents water evaporation, or both and can
Enhance frost damage.
 C The Pyroformer™ uses the trash in order to produce bio-oil, biogas and bio-char so the trash blanket is not left on the field – so in cold regions the Pyroformer™ may prove to be even more beneficial

Comparing the use of the Pyroformer™ to GCH is quite difficult as GCH is required in order for the process of pyrolysis to occur as well. The only difference is that instead of trash blanketing the trash can be processed in a Pyroformer™ to produce more useful products. This also means that disadvantages of GCH like the risk of manually cutting the canes is not reduced or addressed however, we see from the table that economic problems with GCH are solved as well as the increased amount of time needed for trash blanketing. However, potentially significant disadvantages of the Pyroformer™ as opposed to field burning would be that field burning requires less effort (as manual labour and mechanisation is not needed as much) so the process may be faster. We could similarly look at this from a different perspective and point out that the negative health impacts that burning has on people can be easily overcome by the Pyroformer™ - and surely having a healthy environment to live in is more important to people.  This may therefore mean that actually, there is good scope for the Pyroformer™ in the KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa. 


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