How First Australians’ Ancient Knowledge can Help us Survive the Bushfires of the Future

January 13, 2020

Indigenous people have been managing fire in Australia for 65,000 years. It’s time to ask us how it’s done.

The debate about climate change in Australia is, among other things, a tragedy of massive proportions – and a distraction from the reality that we have one planet that is, without doubt, changing a lot faster than we ever anticipated.

Many of those commenting on the current bushfire crisis in Australia argue about fuel reduction, hazard reduction, use of aerial incendiaries, drip torches, ancient Indigenous techniques and western forms of fire management.

But to me, these fires suggest we urgently need a new dialogue and paradigm for living in a rapidly changing world.

Having 45 years’ experience working with Indigenous people across northern Australia and internationally on the management and development of our country, I am reminded that Indigenous people and our knowledge have a significant contribution to make to Australia’s future – if we wish to live sustainably on this continent.

We have to adapt or become extinct, and 65,000 years of living here suggests a good place to start.

Over the decades, I’ve witnessed many conversations centred on how this great land is managed, or in many parts, mismanaged.

Much of northern Australia is owned and managed by Indigenous people, now in many parts by carefully and skilfully organised Indigenous ranger groups. Fire is, and always has been, part of the interwoven matrix of the relationships between people and the physical and spiritual world. The smell of smoke is expected to be in the air for half the year.

Behind this is a worldview where the land and sea and everything within it are to be respected and cared for, which is where our popular slogan of “caring for country” came from.

We don’t see fire as a bad phenomenon, but it surely can be if it isn’t respected and used properly.

If you were to observe global emissions from fires over the past 10 years, many occur each year in northern, western and central Australia, where Indigenous people have regained their authority to “reignite” their country. It’s where western scientists have come to understand that fire is ecologically inevitable and necessary. Having Indigenous landowners burn it will lessen the large conflagrations that consume all in their path, the sort of fires we have sadly seen in recent weeks in south-east Australia (fires that I estimate to have burned considerably less territory than burns in northern Australia annually).

Orthodox views about Australia’s environment and its management no longer work and rapid adaptation is required – using lessons learnt by First Australians. No longer do the seasons of summer, autumn, winter and spring align with the calendar as they did a decade ago, nor do the wet and dry seasons of northern Australia.

The seasons in Australia should be defined by changes that occur in our environment, the prevailing winds and astronomy, as Indigenous people did.

Currently, responses to managing fire are largely built around events in the calendar. By contrast, Indigenous knowledge and management is responsive to the changes in the country, regardless of the month; changes that in many places signal actions needing to be taken.

For example, on Wardaman country west of Katherine in the Northern Territory, it’s now coming into Yijilg, when the heavy rainfall arrives after a long build-up, with lighter rains during the season Ngarruwun (heat and build-up storms). The descriptions of the seasons are triggered by events occurring in the landscape and weather, not by the date.

As fire is such a big part of our lives, that too is informed by the biota and weather. In western Arnhem Land, dryer cool air, combined with morning fog and flowering of the Woolybutt (Eucalyptus miniata) signal Yekke season. This is the time to light small “cool” fires to create a mosaic throughout the landscape that breaks up the country, reducing large hot fires later in the year.

This allows people to walk through country, and provides refuge for animals. The way Indigenous seasons are defined and the way our actions respond to changes in country allow for management that is locally relevant and involves a spiritual element, as well as physical and mental. Being able to walk through country is a significant indicator.

Indicator species for fire would be apparent for southern Australia, even within these modified landscapes. These indicators need to be reinvigorated and brought back into knowledge through the active participation and guidance of Indigenous people.

Animals adapt to fire and some get involved. Karrakayn, the brown falcon, gets actively involved in fire by picking up embers and moving them around to spread the fire so that it can hunt, just like Indigenous people. I wonder how many of the millions of animals killed in the current bushfires have ever seen or interacted with fire, making it almost impossible for them to respond to bushfires.

People need to see and understand that an unburnt country is not “wilderness” and how country should be – but country desperately calling for fire to rejuvenate it and restore the balance of risks. Not uncontrolled damaging fires, but fires that are understood, planned, patchy and regular – the fires of 1788 are informative.

Indigenous Australians have been the guardians of their territories for a very, very long time – there is clear evidence suggesting a period of occupation of at least 65,000 years. It’s time the nation adopted an approach that embraced the knowledge, wisdoms and traditions of the people who had lived here sustainably for millennia.

There is a need to shift the way we collectively act and think in Australia, as well as in other parts of the world.

We require economies to have responsive mechanisms to deal with the way the world is changing – less rainfall in parts, longer fire seasons, rising sea levels and less freshwater runoff – but we have to live with our environment, not against it.

Savanna burning, local capacity, authority and control – hard-earned lessons from the north can provide immense opportunity in the south, aligning policy with employment and enterprise to bring benefit to Indigenous, local and regional communities, and shift the way lands are used and the economy works. There are profound opportunities right now.

Is yearly burning so incomprehensible? Cool, patchy burns that reduce fuel and prevent the likelihood of large-scale burning. The cost would be offset by the benefits to country, people and the global community. We cannot afford to lose more lives, jeopardise our health, lose our wildlife and spend billions repairing the avoidable loss of productivity and life.

Indigenous people comprise 3% of the population but have unmatched and untapped capital to bring to any future discussions and actions relating to the future of living in Australia.

The time for action is now. We simply cannot let our kids’ future go up in smoke.

Teaser photo credit:  In northern Australia, traditional owners’ deep knowledge of country allows them to use fire to manage the land. Photograph: Helen Davidson/The Guardian

Joe Morrison

Joe Morrison is the managing director of Six Seasons, has Dagoman and Torres Strait ancestry and has worked in northern Australia with Indigenous people, governments, NGOs and international organisations leading Indigenous management and development of the region.

Tags: environmental effects of climate change, indigenous knowledge, wildfires