Since the fire crisis last summer, there has been a quantum shift in public awareness of Aboriginal fire management. Now more Aboriginal people understand burning of used landscapes for maintaining biodiversity and suppress a large fire.
Morrison Government bushfire royal commission, who began hearings this week, acknowledged the potential of incorporating Aboriginal knowledge into general fire management.
His reference framework seeks to understand how “Indigenous Australian land and fire management practices can improve Australia’s resilience to natural disasters”.
Incorporating Aboriginal knowledge is very important to overcome future forest fire crises. But it risks perpetuating historical injustice, by taking over Aboriginal knowledge without recognition or compensation. So, while the threat of forest fires requires immediate action, we must also be careful.
Accommodating traditional fire knowledge is a long-standing accompaniment to recent advances in native land rights and ownership. This is an important part of post-colonial Australian business that has not yet been completed.
Before 1788, Aboriginal cultures throughout Australia used fire to manage the bush intentionally and skillfully.
Broadly speaking, this involved many fires, often which created fine-scale mosaics from burning and unburned patches. Developed over thousands of years, such burning makes intense forest fires rare and makes vegetable and animal foods more abundant. This benefits wildlife and maintaining biodiversity animals and plants.
After European settlement, Aboriginal people lost land and the opportunity to manage it with fire. Since then, the Australian bush looks dramatic biodiversity is decreasing, tree invasion grasslands and more often and damaging Forest fires.
In many parts of Australia, especially densely populated areas, the practice of cultural burning has been severely disrupted. But in some areas, such as the clan plantations in Arnhem Land, the tradition of unbroken fire management originated from the mid to late Pleistocene. 50,000 years ago.
Not all countries can make use of the living record of this traditional fire management.
Indigenous peoples throughout the world, including in Western Europe, using fire to manage flammable landscapes. But industrialization, intensive agriculture and colonization caused these practices to disappear.
In most cases, historical records are the only way to study them.
Rise from ash
In Australia, many Aboriginal people reigniting cultural practices, sometimes working with non-customary land manager. They use retained community knowledge about past fire practices – and in some cases, embrace practices from other regions.
Combustion programs can be adapted to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. This includes the need to protect assets, and new threats such as weeds, climate change, forest disturbance from logging and fires, and wild animals.
This process is well described in Victor Steffensen’s latest book Fire Nation: How Indigenous Fire Management Can Help Save Australia. Steffensen described how, as an Aboriginal man born in two cultures, he went on a journey of self-discovery – learning about fire management while being guided and mentored by two Aboriginal elders.
Together, they reintroduce fire to traditional lands in Cape York. These practices have been banned after European-based land tenure and management systems were put in place.
Steffensen extends his experience on cultural renewal and ecological restoration throughout Australia, for this reason it is important to overcome the fire crisis:
The point for me is that we need to work towards all the other divisions of land fire managers […] Expert teams from indigenous and non-indigenous people who work with entire communities, institutions and emergency services to provide effective education strategies into the future. One that is culture based and connects to all benefits for the community.
Make it happen
So how do we realize this ideal? Explicit affirmative action policies, funded by state and federal governments, are practical ways to protect and expand Aboriginal burning culture.
Specifically, these programs must provide a way for Aboriginal people and communities to:
- develop their fire management knowledge and capacity
- maintain and renew traditional cultural practices
- entering mainstream fire management, including in leadership roles
- entering a broad cross-section, and community groups involved in fire management.
This will require rapid development capacity to train and employ Aboriginal firefighting practitioners.
In some cases, where the impact of colonization was most severe, actions needed to support Aboriginal communities to rebuild relations with forested areas, after generations of forced displacement from their countries.
Importantly, this empowerment will enable Aboriginal communities to rebuild their own cultural priorities and practices in caring for the State. If this differs from mainstream Eurocentric values of Australia, we must understand and respect the wisdom of those who have kept this flammable landscape for thousands of years.
Non-native Australians also have to pay for these old-fashioned skills. Funding schemes can include training, and ensure affirmative action programs are implemented and achieve their goals.
Involving Aboriginal people and the community in developing fire management will ensure cultural knowledge is shared based on culturally agreed terms.
People fire, country fire
In many ways, last summer’s fire season was a reminder of Australia’s brutal land acquisition and the continuing consequences for all Australians.
The challenges involved in helping to correct these mistakes, by enabling Aboriginal people to use their fire management practices, are very complex. They reach social justice, funding, legal responsibility, cultural rights, fire management and science.
Basically, we have to admit that Aboriginal people are “fire people” living in “fire countries”. It’s time to embrace this ancient fact.
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