Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Burning Solution

By Seán Kerins

A revival of indigenous fire management in the Gulf country is restoring environmental integrity and reducing carbon emissions.

In the early 1980s, Waanyi and Garawa people reclaimed some of their ancestral land in the south-west Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory. But later, due to a lack of government support for basic citizen services – health and education – they were once again forced off, relocating to overcrowded living conditions in nearby townships.

Not living on the land soon meant that people weren’t “caring for country”. This inactivity saw fuel loads substantially increase. Once lit, massive hot late-season wildfires – sometimes in excess of 16,000 km2 – quickly consumed vast areas of land, detrimentally changing vegetation cover and destroying the habitat of endemic species. Without vegetation cover the sandy soils quickly erode, choking creeks and wetlands. Further compounding this damage were thousands of feral animals. Government officials on both sides of the Northern Territory and Queensland border were trying to solve the region’s problem but none were talking with Aboriginal landowners.

In early 2004, the Australian government declared the region a fire natural disaster area. This provided much-needed funds and enabled Aboriginal landowners to hold planning meetings to decide how to combat the threats to the land and its bio­diversity. Through consensus decision-making, and drawing on their ecological knowledge, they drafted planning documents and started a ranger program to manage fire and provide some meaningful employment in a region with few opportunities. They also made a decision to work with scientists to establish a number of fuel-load monitoring sites to measure greenhouse gas emissions with the intention of participating in future carbon markets to generate income.

Over the past decade they have taken control of fire, reducing late-season wildfires by 87% across the 20,000 km2 of land they manage, replacing the boom-and-bust cycle of wildfires with an early-season mosaic burning regime that protects habitat and has seen a considerable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. They have also reconnected many young people with their country, bringing them to camp on country to participate in burning activities, planning meetings and fauna surveys. They have also developed a management plan for the soon-to-be-declared Ganalanga Mindibirrina Indigenous Protected Area to help expand their work activities, engage young people, create more employment and develop enterprises such as cultural tourism and carbon farming.

Since the development of their cultural and natural resource management work many more Waanyi and Garawa people visit their country. They stay at the dilapidated outstations, which continue to play a vital role in their land management. They also use them to host young people from surrounding communities who participate in fauna surveys looking for the endangered species such as the Carpentaria grasswren and the Carpentaria rockrat. Outstations continue to play a vital role in land management, knowledge transfer and eventually the development of small enterprises such as cultural tourism.

While they have been making significant progress in land management in a very remote and rugged region they have been encountering significant barriers. One of the most challenging is their inability to live permanently on their land without basic services. Another is the long wait for government policy to activate carbon markets that will generate much-needed income.

The most significant lesson that can be learnt from this work is that when indigenous peoples’ aspirations, knowledge, cultures and skills are given priority in project development they often succeed. And, when outsiders participate in these indigenous-led projects instead of making indigenous peoples participate in externally defined, top-down government programs, as is the dominant practice, both indigenous socio-economic circumstances and biodiversity outcomes can greatly improve.

Seán Kerins is a Research Fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. Garawa and Waanyi landowners are research partners with the Australian National University, and together they collaborate in the Australian government’s National Environmental Research Program. A recent video of their work can be viewed at