Over tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal peoples developed burn-control strategies to ensure the health and bounty of their landscapes. By setting small fires early in the dry season, the tinderbox effect – a thick accumulation of parched brush and grasses – was reduced. Through much of the twentieth century, many Aboriginal communities were forced from their ancestral lands, leading to a significant reduction of controlled burns. At the same time, the introduction of modern fire suppression methods has reduced the number of natural wildfires. As a result, the fierce dry-season blazes that sweep the savannahs of Northern Australia are increasingly out of control, destroying soil and biodiversity, and emitting tons of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) into the atmosphere each year.
Now, an innovative project led by the North Australia Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) is helping the Indigenous Australians who have regained access to their lands to reinstitute their burn-management strategies. Fighting fire with fire, the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project, known as WALFA, is connecting scientists, Indigenous land managers and carbon markets in an effort to create a culture-based economy.
Without intentional early-season burns to limit their fuel, large savannah fires often rage late into December, producing more than three percent of Australia’s annual GHGs and devastating the plants and animals that cannot withstand such hot fire. Mid-size marsupials, for example, which can escape and find new cover during smaller fires, end up exposed to predators when big blazes abruptly destroy entire habitats. And while plants like the Northern Cypress have seeds that require moderate fire to germinate, the more aggressive flames can destroy those seeds.
With the WALFA project, community-based Indigenous ranger groups combine traditional knowledge and modern technology, coordinating prescribed burns and fire history mapping via satellite, helicopters and hand-held GPS units. Satellite images of fire-scars (also called blackened country) show the progress that WALFA has made in improving the health of the ecosystem. An image of the West Arnhem Plateau from 2004 (figure 1), the year before the project started, shows a preponderance of orange scars from destructive wildfires that swept across the landscape from September through December, late in the dry season. An image of the same territory from 2008 (figure 2) shows few orange scars dotted across a lighter array of green scars, created by early- and mid-dry-season fires occurring from April through August, which were set intentionally to clear out dry brush.
The ability to measure the GHG emissions reductions associated with the WALFA project, against a ten-year baseline of regional wildfire emissions, may allow Aboriginal communities in West Arnhem Land to derive revenue from their fire abatement efforts, through the generation and sale of carbon credits. NAILSMA has developed a detailed business plan for the establishment of fire management and verification systems, which it says could generate hundreds of jobs in remote areas and provide millions of dollars of support annually for community-determined development. The organization hopes that the project will be one of the first recognized by the Australian Federal Carbon Farming Initiative, which aims to help farmers and landholders participate in international carbon markets.
The benefits of this method of caring for country, however, go beyond reducing GHG emissions and the amount of burnt country on the map. The work of fire management provides Aboriginal communities—especially their vulnerable young men—employment, purpose and a connection to culture. As a result, the return of the ancient dance between humans and fire is bringing a biocultural renewal to the land.
Click here to listen to Senior Ranger Otto Campion speak about the importance of staying ‘on country’ to work. Otto manages land around Ramingining, Murwangi and Maljarnanyak in West Arnhemland. He has extensive experience in formalised Indigenous land management and was one of the founding rangers of the Djelk Ranger group in Maningrida.
Click here to learn more about the project on NAILSMA’s website
For a more in-depth assessment of the project in the Solutions Journal, click here