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.

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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...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.