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By Kate Cranney 25 February 2020 9 min read

A low intensity savanna fire burning late in the afternoon.

Fire has influenced the way Australian Indigenous people live on, with and through their land for millennia.

Over this time, Indigenous Australians have skilfully used fire to adaptively manage their local environments. Many of Australia’s Indigenous elders are aware of this significance, and this has underpinned their advocacy to sustain, rejuvenate and support ‘Indigenous cultural burning’ as a more holistic and Indigenous approach to fire knowledge and associated fire-management practices.

Indigenous cultural burns will be considered in two separate inquiries in federal parliament: one into bushfire responses, and one into vegetation management.

"We must learn from the Indigenous Australians and their ancient practices and how to improve our resilience to these threats. They know more about this than we ever could, and they stand ready to work closely with us," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last month.

Indigenous fire knowledge and landscape burning

Fire has a profound influence on Australian landscapes.

The physical impact of fire is obvious – it leaves a blackened landscape for good or ill.

For Indigenous people this material significance is complemented by a cultural and symbolic significance that is passed on from generation to generation.

From this perspective, knowledge about landscape burning is not only about where, when and how to burn; it’s also about ensuring that those who light fires are acting under the appropriate authority of the people of that country.

Cultural burning involves manipulating cool season fire to create a mosaic of patches across the landscape. Indigenous fire practitioners and ecologists have emphasised that burning practices need to be carefully tailored to the specific features of the ecosystem they are intended to protect.

For Indigenous fire practitioners, the practice of landscape burning is complemented by a cultural and symbolic significance that needs to underpin contemporary bushfire management partnerships.

'Our law, our knowledge, our people underpin these partnerships so we can learn together to manage fire today … Partnerships with scientists, business, government part of looking after our country, looking after our children, looking after our law.' As Senior Arnhem Land custodian, Otto Champion, explained[Link will open in a new window].

Indigenous and ranger groups have initiated a diverse array of Indigenous cultural burning activities and partnerships across Australia. This includes fire management partnership with government and non-government partners. In some cases, these partnerships cover large remote areas. In other cases, Indigenous cultural burning has been recently re-introduced back to the landscape for the first time in many years. Indigenous landscape burning partnerships have also been established to reduce the frequency of high-intensity wildfires and thereby lower greenhouse gas emissions, conserve important species and habitats, and protect assets from bushfire risk.

Importantly, these fire management activities and partnerships are embedded in a range of on-ground, cultural and other non-fire related activities that enable Indigenous people to care for country.

With all this in mind, how can Australia support Indigenous cultural burning knowledge and practices in future fire management?

We're working with the Ngadju people to support their management of Western Australia's Great Western Woodlands. This picture shows a fire training day Buldania Rocks. (Image: Suzanne Prober, CSIRO)

Indigenous cultural burning to create a fire resilient landscape

Indigenous and ranger groups have initiated and engaged in a diverse array of Indigenous cultural burning activities and partnerships across Australia, including work with CSIRO. We’re working with Indigenous fire experts to design landscape burning partnerships, projects and activities.

Below, we step out three ways we’ve supported effective cross-cultural partnerships to manage Australia’s landscape through fire.

1. Caring for Country through fire

Indigenous communities are applying, adapting and rejuvenating Indigenous fire knowledge and landscape-burning regimes in regions across Australia. Through a range of land-management activities and partnerships, this has produced a diversity of Indigenous fire-management enterprises. Each of these combine and adapt the material, cultural, ecological and economic significance of fire for Indigenous people in different ways.

The case study below is just one of the many projects where we’ve integrated Indigenous understandings of country with western science to develop burning regimes that can sustain important cultural and natural values of our diverse environments. Others include the wetland burning work in Kakadu, burning for the Great Western Woodlands in Western Australia, the fire and biodiversity monitoring program within the Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area, the magpie geese partnership in Kakadu, the Tiwi Carbon Study,  and fire management in Cape York, in Queensland.

Case study: Burning for the endangered Byron Bay orchid (Byron Bay, New South Wales)

The clay heath habitat in Byron Bay needs appropriate landscape burning to thrive. (Image: Cathy Robinson)

There's a unique yellow orchid growing outside of Byron Bay in New South Wales. It's growing in Arakwal National Park, and area jointly managed by the Bundjalung people of Byron Bay (Arakwal).

The Byron Bay orchid and the heath are significant for Arkawal people. But the flower and its clay heath habitat are in trouble: they're both listed as Endangered under New South Wales environmental law. The heath is threatened by wildfires, weeds, feral animals, urban development and being trampled by the thousands of people who visit this tourist hot spot. The clay heath needs fire to survive: many of the plants in Arakwal National Park are obligate seeders that require fire to stimulate seed release, new growth and complete their life cycle.

CSIRO worked with Traditional Owners and Park managers at Arakwal National Park. Researchers Cathy Robinson and Josie Carwardine co-developed guidelines on effective cross-cultural conservation planning for significant species, such as the orchid and heath.

These guidelines adapted current International Union for Conservation of Nature-endorsed species conservation planning and showed how these could be applied to co-manage an endangered species and its surrounding values. This included developing cross-cultural decision-support science to enable Arakwal joint managers to undertake a cultural burn to restore the health of clay heaths which had not been burnt for over 30 years. This effort was supported by the NESP threatened species hub and included the development of a seasonal planning calendar to guide and evaluate actions. This has attracted great interest from Indigenous co-managers around the world.

2. Protocols for non-Indigenous partners to support Indigenous landscape burning

The need for protocols for non-Indigenous partners to support collaboration with Indigenous fire management groups is a key theme that has emerged from CSIRO's work.

Supported by the Northern NESP hub, CSIRO scientists have worked with Indigenous leaders and fire management groups to set out six protocols to guide non-indigenous partners in their support for Indigenous landscape burning activities. These protocols aim to ensure that non-Indigenous partners share knowledge appropriately. The protocols also guide the design of collaborative partnerships, so that benefits are negotiated and so that Indigenous knowledge holders are empowered.

These six key protocols for Indigenous fire management partnerships were developed in partnership with Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaborators:

  1. Recognising traditional and legal rights and interests. Indigenous fire management projects and enterprise can be rekindled predominantly on the lands for which the project owners have some customary responsibility and often other legal rights.
  2. Recognise Indigenous knowledge. Fire management partnerships must recognise and support Indigenous fire knowledge and fire management as part of local Indigenous governance systems.
  3. Learning and sharing knowledge. Pursue the best methods for learning, sharing and passing on fire knowledge. Although other tools are needed to manage large areas, walking the country together is the best way to learn about Indigenous fire knowledge
  4. Foster place-based partnerships. Place-based partnership approaches are needed to design and deliver Indigenous fire management programs across Australia.
  5. Work within governance arrangements. Partnerships that are established to support Indigenous fire knowledge and management activities need to work within contemporary institutional and governance arrangements.
  6. Ensure benefits to local Indigenous communities. Indigenous fire management programs and partnerships can and should deliver environmental, social, cultural and economic benefits for local Indigenous communities.

We're working with the Ngadju people to help empower their efforts to re-engage in the management of Western Australia's Great Western Woodlands. (Image: CSIRO)

3. Accounting for the multiple benefits of Indigenous landscape burning

Indigenous fire management practices can provide win–win outcomes for Indigenous people and the environment.

Understanding what benefits are achieved from these activities and partnerships is important to maximise the multiple (social, cultural and environmental) benefits of appropriate landscape burning.

Indigenous groups have worked with CSIRO scientists to explain how these benefits could include opportunities to:

  • Care for country. Fire provides a fundamental way to re-connect to country, reinvigorate culture and share knowledge, and there are related cultural, health and wellbeing outcomes.
  • Regenerate and protect native species, and to manage invasive weed species via mosaic and patch burning. This has related ecological and environmental outcomes.
  • Fuel reduction to protect important places. These places can include cultural heritage or internationally-significant wetland areas, threatened species and ecological communities, infrastructure such as buildings, powerlines, and neighbouring properties;
  • Meaningful employment, related social and economic benefits and outcomes.
  • Improved decision-making power on traditional estates.

For more information, see our recent report on co-benefits, and the report following the National Indigenous Fire Knowledge Forum.

Case study: Early dry season burning in Northern Australia

CSIRO has also helped understanding of the benefits achieved from early dry-season burning that is used in Northern Australia to reduce the frequency of high-intensity wildfires. This includes our work to help design a method to account for how savanna burning lowers greenhouse gas emissions. This has enabled emissions trading for greenhouse gas (GHG) abatement and provides a financial incentive for intensive fire management that aims to reduce fire frequency, severity, and extent.

With careful and thoughtful engagement, carbon offset schemes can offer important livelihood and land management opportunities, CSIRO scientists have worked with Traditional Owners to show how Indigenous landscape burning practices can manage important cultural and conservation values. Our collaboration with Indigenous groups in southern Australia has considered the multiple outcomes from Indigenous landscape burning activities and partnerships that cover a range of fire management contexts and purposes.

Importantly these fire management activities and partnership are embedded in a range of on-ground, cultural and other non-fire related activities that enable Indigenous people to care for their traditional country.

Tiwi Land Ranger, Leon Puruntatameri, lighting experimental fires as part of the Tiwi Carbon Study. (Image: CSIRO)

A way forward, together

Yet understanding and reconciling Indigenous cultural burning into contemporary land and bushfire management is not always easy.

Traditionally, Indigenous cultural burning was not constricted by bushfire regulations, tenure laws, program goals, or a binary two‐season approach. Indigenous leaders also highlight how misrepresentations of contemporary Indigenous cultural burning can impede on the development of effective and appropriate partnerships.

What Indigenous people continue to assert is that fire is an expression of caring for their country which provides important health outcomes for individuals and communities, and valued employment opportunities.

CSIRO is playing a critical role in building and brokering integration science approaches that build Indigenous and scientific knowledge partnerships. These partnerships support Indigenous burning activities that deliver a range of benefits that, in turn, enable Australia's communities and landscapes to flourish.

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