Working with fire through traditional burning

In the midst of a national bush fire crisis, Director, Consulting Brendan Ferguson discusses how we could look to Indigenous knowledge to lead the way.

Australians are still coming to terms with the devastating bush fires that continue to burn across the country. As we reflect on what can be done to reduce the risk of further damaging fires, many have pointed to the traditional burning practices successfully employed by our First Nations peoples.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been burning country for thousands of years. They have done so – and continue to do so – for a number of reasons, including the protection of cultural sites, management of biodiversity and hunting. Across Australia, the landscape was meticulously managed through low intensity fires, creating a patchwork, or mosaic effect, that (among other things) prevented large scale wild fires.

As the process of colonisation forced people off their land into towns and missions, the proactive management of country stopped. The landscape has been altered. As traditional owners will often describe, country has become “sick“.

But many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country are reviving cultural burning practices. Much of that burning is carried out by a network of Indigenous rangers employed with the support of funding from the National Indigenous Australians Agency, State and Territory Governments and various non-profit organisations.

At SVA, we’ve had the privilege to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations who are at the forefront of this work.

Aborignal savanna burning projects in Arnhem Land
10-year late season fire frequency maps in Arnhem Land, comparing 1995–2004 with 2008–17 show just how effective Indigenous land management projects have been.  (Contemporary Aboriginal savanna burning projects in Arnhem Land: a regional description and analysis of the fire management aspirations of Traditional Owners)

In 2016, SVA had the opportunity to conduct an analysis of five Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) and associated ranger programs across the country, spending significant time on country with rangers. We learnt that Indigenous land and sea management delivers significant environmental benefits, alongside a wide range of cultural, social and economic benefits. You can read more about this project in the SVA Quarterly article, Healthy country, healthy people.

Savanna burning is a registered offset methodology under the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), described as strategic and planned burning of savanna areas in a high rainfall zone during the early dry season to reduce the risk of late dry season wild fires. Indigenous fire management projects are now registered over 300,000 km2 of northern Australia.

These projects have been an incredible success.

Charles Darwin University researchers estimate that, since traditional burning was reintroduced on a large scale, the area of land destroyed by wildfires across Northern Australia has more than halved, from 26.5m hectares in 2000, to just 11.5m hectares in 2019. Biodiversity has been protected and revitalised. The emergence of the ecosystem services industry has created employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on their country, in very remote communities and homelands.

Our 2016 analysis included the Warddeken IPA in West Arnhem Land, one of the first Indigenous land management projects in Australia to sell carbon offsets on the voluntary market through an offset arrangement with Conoco Phillips.

The Warddeken ranger group participates in the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) Project, which covers 28,000 km2 of country. Since registration in December 2014, the WALFA project has been issued with more than 1.3m Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) under the ERF.

The production of ACCUs generates millions of dollars to support cultural burning by Indigenous rangers, such as those working on the Wardekken IPA. But this revenue remains insufficient to cover the operating costs of ranger groups, who rely on base funding from Indigenous land and sea management programs to manage cultural and natural resources for the benefit of all Australians. ‘Right way’ burning is labour intensive and requires the knowledge and expertise of traditional owners and skilled rangers.

There are further challenges ahead. Rangers across the country report that a changing climate is resulting in fewer opportunities to conduct safe, early season burning. Techniques may need to adapt. But who better to lead that adaptation – and manage the risk of fire across Australia – than those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have managed our country so well until now.

Brendan Ferguson is a Director in the Consulting team at Social Ventures Australia.