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Aboriginal Fire Management as a Means to Uphold Biodiversity

Indigenous communities employ landscape burning to uphold biodiversity and mitigate the impact of extensive bushfires. Acknowledging the valuable insight from Aboriginal practices, the bushfire royal commission established by the Australian Government highlights the possibility of integrating this wisdom into conventional fire management strategies. The commission's defined scope aims to explore how "the time-honoured land and fire management traditions of Indigenous Australians could enhance the nation's ability to withstand natural calamities."

Before 1788, Indigenous cultures throughout Australia adeptly employed controlled fires to manage the bushland actively. This encompassed a strategic approach of regular, purposeful burns that intricately wove together charred and unburned patches on a fine scale. Evolved over millennia, this controlled burning practice curtailed the prevalence of intense bushfires and fostered increased plant and animal sustenance availability. Consequently, this method nurtured wildlife populations and sustained a diverse array of animal and plant species.

Following the arrival of European settlers, Aboriginal communities were displaced from their ancestral lands and thus deprived of their ability to implement fire-based land management. Therefore, the Australian bush has witnessed significant declines in biodiversity, witnessed the encroachment of trees into grasslands, and experienced heightened frequency and severity of devastating bushfires.

Cultural fire management methodologies have endured significant disruption across various regions of Australia, particularly in densely inhabited zones. Yet, in certain areas, such as clan territories within Arnhem Land, unbroken traditions of fire management trace back to the mid-to-late Pleistocene era, spanning some 50,000 years in history. However, not all societies possess the privilege of accessing these continuous accounts of traditional fire practices.

Indigenous communities across the globe, including those in the Western World, historically utilised fire to oversee flammable landscapes. However, the rise of industrialisation, intensive agricultural practices, and colonisation led to the erosion of these techniques. In most instances, insights into these practices are solely attainable through historical documentation.

In Australia, numerous Aboriginal individuals are revitalising cultural customs, often in cooperation with non-indigenous land custodians. They are tapping into preserved communal wisdom concerning historical fire methods, and, on occasion, adopting techniques from different geographical areas.

Burning initiatives can be modified to address the complexities of an ever-evolving global landscape. These adaptations encompass safeguarding valuable resources, addressing emerging concerns like invasive plants, the impacts of climate change, disruptions to forests due to logging and fires, and the presence of non-native animal species.

The intricate process is eloquently detailed in Victor Steffensen's publication, "Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Assist in Preserving Australia." In this book, Steffensen chronicles his personal voyage of self-exploration, being an individual of Aboriginal heritage woven into two distinct cultures. His narrative involves delving into the realm of fire management, undertaken with the profound guidance and mentorship of two revered Aboriginal elders.

Tangible measures, such as explicit affirmative action policies, supported by financial allocations from both state and federal administrations, offer a pragmatic approach to safeguard and advance Aboriginal fire management traditions.

Throughout its history, Australia has consistently contended with bushfires, a consequence of its status as the driest inhabited continent worldwide, exacerbated by elevated temperatures. The indigenous communities, predating European settlement by over 40,000 years, acquired expertise in handling and minimising fire hazards by developing a profound understanding of local ecosystems and executing precise controlled burns. In the face of ongoing challenges, such as droughts, heatwaves, and destructive bushfires, custodians of indigenous fire management are noting an unprecedented surge in interest towards their practices. The impact of these fires has profoundly unsettled the nation

Cultural fire management encompasses the deliberate ignition of fires under controlled circumstances, aimed at benefiting the land by diminishing the likelihood of impending dangers. To illustrate, controlled burns can be employed to manage accumulated leaves, aged grass, and branches on the forest floor, effectively decreasing their capacity to serve as combustible materials for potential uncontrolled fires in the future.

In Western fire methodologies, there is a parallel reliance on hazard-reduction burns, which share the objective of eliminating accumulated debris. However, its holistic foundation distinctly sets cultural burning apart, stemming from the realisation that all elements—plants, animals, insects, humans, and even the weather—are intricately interconnected. While Western practices categorise this as an ecosystem, indigenous Australians refer to it as "kinship," recognising that the interrelationships between species encompass both practical functionality and emotional bonds. Unlike Western hazard burns that lack discrimination, cultural burns are highly targeted: meticulously synchronised with the seasons, animal reproductive cycles, and plant seeding periods.

The tropical savannas situated in northern Australia stand out as some of the most susceptible regions to fires globally. These areas contribute to approximately 70% of the annual fire-affected terrain within Australia. Nevertheless, thanks to proficient fire management endeavours spanning the last two decades, the yearly average expanse consumed by fires has notably diminished—an area exceeding the size of Tasmania. The magnitude of this accomplishment is remarkable, nearly beyond grasp, particularly when juxtaposed with the context of the distressing bushfires experienced in southern Australia during the recent summer season.

The achievements observed in northern Australia stem from continuous and demanding efforts undertaken by a diverse array of landowners and managers. Particularly noteworthy is the fire management carried out by Indigenous community-based ranger teams. This practice has yielded one of Australia's most substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The fundamental tenets of fire management in northern Australia revolve around initiating controlled burns during the initial phase of the dry season, a period conducive to manageable fire control. Additionally, the approach seeks to subdue the ignition of uncontrolled fires as much as possible, particularly those originating from non-human factors like lightning, during the later stages of the dry season.

Incorporating traditional Indigenous fire management practices entails the strategic deployment of "cool" (low-intensity) and sporadic burning early in the dry season. This methodology serves to diminish the accumulation of grass-based fuel. Accordingly, it establishes firebreaks within the landscape, which prove instrumental in curbing the expansion of larger, far more destructive fires as the dry season advances.

Over the past 15 years, satellite surveillance has provided a comprehensive perspective on the extent of transformation. By contrasting the average fire-affected expanse within the tropical savannas during a seven-year span from 2000 (2000-2006) with the subsequent seven years (2013-2019), evident changes become apparent. Notably, since 2013, there has been a considerable expansion in the implementation of active fire management practices.

As stated, implementing a more proactive approach to savanna burning during the past seven years has yielded a noteworthy outcome: a decline in greenhouse gas emissions by over seven million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. This achievement accounts for approximately 10% of the cumulative emission reductions acknowledged by the Australian government via carbon credit units, as endorsed by the Carbon Farming Initiative Act. The act stipulates that a single Australian carbon credit unit is earned for every tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent that a project either sequesters or prevents from being emitted.

Scientific investigations have substantiated the positive impact of traditional fire management, accentuating its role in enhancing biodiversity and fostering a healthier ecosystem. The application of controlled, fragmented burns results in the creation of diverse habitat types, subsequently supplying a greater variety of sustenance for wildlife. Furthermore, this approach can help curtail the detrimental influence of invasive predators, such as cats and foxes. Notable species like the vibrant Gouldian finch, the northern quoll, and the black-flanked rock wallaby reap significant advantages from the resurgence of traditional burning methodologies.

Incorporating traditional fire management practices also contributes to retaining a larger carbon reservoir within woody vegetation. Through the implementation of controlled burns during the initial phases of the dry season, when conditions are cooler and wetter, Indigenous rangers effectively diminish the accumulation of fuel and the severity of fires. This proactive approach further averts extensive wildfires during the later stages of the dry season.

An added benefit arises as Indigenous groups can attribute this reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions to their efforts, thus gaining the ability to generate carbon credits. These credits can subsequently be sold to finance supplementary land management endeavours, creating a cyclical process of environmental stewardship and sustainability.


The intrinsic connection between Indigenous fire management practices and environmental sustainability is increasingly recognised as a critical component in addressing the escalating challenges posed by bushfires and climate change in Australia. The historical efficacy of controlled burns, deeply rooted in Aboriginal wisdom and cultural traditions, has garnered attention from the Australian Government and environmental experts alike. The recent focus on integrating Indigenous fire management into conventional strategies signifies a paradigm shift towards a more holistic and adaptive approach.

With their time-honoured knowledge of the land, Indigenous communities have demonstrated that cultural fire management is not just a tool to prevent bushfires but a comprehensive strategy that harmonises with the intricate web of ecological relationships. The devastating impacts of European colonisation on Indigenous practices, leading to biodiversity declines and heightened bushfire risks, underscore the urgency of revitalising and respecting these ancient traditions.

The success stories from northern Australia, where Indigenous fire management has contributed significantly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, showcase the potential impact of proactive and strategic burning practices. The meticulous synchronisation with seasons, animal reproductive cycles, and plant seeding periods set cultural burning apart, emphasising the interconnectedness of all elements within the ecosystem.

In conclusion, recognising and embracing the wisdom embedded in Indigenous fire management practices is a pivotal step towards creating a more resilient and sustainable future for Australia's diverse ecosystems. As the nation grapples with the escalating threats of bushfires and climate change, integrating traditional knowledge into mainstream conservation efforts offers a promising avenue for fostering ecological health, biodiversity preservation, and community resilience.


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