Indigenous fire management across northern Australia
Fire management is a crucial component of the wider management of the Australian landscape, enabling control of the timing, size and intensity of fires, and contributing to environmental management to preferentially encourage or inhibit particular species (see the Biodiversity report). Effective fire management sustains healthy landscapes and, where reductions in carbon emissions contribute to carbon markets, provides important Country-based income streams for Indigenous people (Russell-Smith et al. 2013).
Aboriginal fire practices have been described by researchers as ‘patch mosaic burning’ and early dry-season burning. The application of early dry-season patch burning in several northern Australian contexts (such as Arnhem Land and north Kimberley) has resulted in some beneficial outcomes for biodiversity, by protecting endangered tropical heathlands and habitat for small mammals (Murphy & Duncan 2015, Radford et al. 2015). It has also contributed to the abatement of greenhouse gas emissions. Early dry-season burning underpins prescribed burning to reduce the frequency and spread of high-intensity wildfires, and thereby lower greenhouse gas emissions, in northern Australia (Yates et al. 2008, Russell-Smith et al. 2013). Early dry-season burning in the savannas is also an effective tool to increase carbon sequestration in the debris pools, by ensuring that fires are smaller and less intense than late dry-season fires and consume less organic matter. Currently, southern Australia is not as amenable to the maximisation of carbon storage potential through fire management because of the much lower frequency of fire in the landscape, which limits the ability of fire management to impact on unplanned fire activity. However, fire management will become increasingly important for biodiversity conservation as the climate warms (Bradshaw et al. 2013).
Indigenous people’s own view of their fire management practices emphasises linkages between customary law, economies, social relations, ecology and the application of management activities in response to cues such as seasonal indicators (Bright 1995, Rose 1995, Hill et al. 1999). The description of Indigenous fire as just ‘patch mosaic burning’ ignores these culturally embedded mediating and explanatory factors, meanings and purposes (Bright 1995; Hill et al. 2004, 2008).
One important means by which Indigenous fire knowledge and management can be formally recognised is through conservation agreements. However, recognition under these agreements does not always successfully incorporate fire knowledge, or empower Indigenous holders of fire knowledge and fire managers. This is also evident in carbon abatement programs. Economic benefits to Indigenous people from carbon markets and associated schemes involving ‘payment for ecosystem services’ allow Indigenous landholders and managers to achieve environmental goals. The development of carbon sequestration and abatement projects also generates co-benefits such as reconnection with Country and other cultural benefits (Howe et al. 2014). In practice, however, designing carbon offset programs and policies that achieve both carbon benefits and associated co-benefits has proved challenging; in some cases, separate programs fund biodiversity, social and cultural benefits without carbon abatement occurring (Reed 2011, Gerrard 2012, Robinson et al. 2016b). Efforts have been frustrated both by a lack of understanding about the value to communities and the parameters under which benefits for Indigenous communities can be sought, and by the realisation that there may be fewer opportunities than anticipated to simultaneously realise a full suite of carbon and Indigenous co-benefits (Robinson et al. 2014).
The challenges to the incorporation of Indigenous fire knowledge into contemporary fire management can be cultural, reflecting differences in world views; institutional, reflecting constraints in how the programs are conceptualised; scientific, reflecting the availability of data that support the knowledge; and logistical and operational, reflecting limits to the resources available to complete the work. Ongoing refinements in our understanding of the role that fire plays in driving community, landscape and global processes also mean that there may be a need to refine fire management practices. Sometimes it may not be appropriate to incorporate past Indigenous practices into modern fire management.