To Help Australia, Look To First Nations - The Years Project

To Help Australia, Look To First Nations

By Philip Kuhel

I remember the day in late August of 2019 when I saw the smoke rising in the distance from the suburbs of Cairns, North Queensland, Australia. I remember learning that bushfires from the past ended up shaping the evolution of Australia’s land and native species for millions of years. Aboriginals living there controlled these bushfires through 60,000 years of intergenerational transfers of environmental knowledge.

As the bushfire continued to ravage the forest we, like everybody else, carried on with our day as we drove into Cairns City. Coming from a city like New York, this was a life unfamiliar to me. A place that can experience such dryness that barbecuing in your backyard can be so dangerous that it can be illegal. A place that can get so dry that lighting a single match can have irreversible implications. 

A few months later, Australia experienced one of its worst bushfire seasons ever. Bushfires are now occurring at an alarmingly unnatural and unpredictable rate as our planet continues to face the effects of climate change. 

When First Nations inhabited the land prior to the arrival of colonizers, specific relationships to the land and the sea determined where they settled. A harmony exists between Aboriginals and their environment where fires were done thoughtfully without allowing them to get out of hand. Their health and wellbeing was and is dependent on the wealth and wellbeing of the land and vice versa. Fire management by First Nations is a practice taken with much deliberation and respect. Only the elders, those who hold the most knowledge, fully understand the specifics of properly conducting certain fire management practices. The objective of the burn, its size, ignition point, burn speed, temperature of burn, height of the flame, timing, frequency; all of it is calculated to be done supplementary to the land and environment rather than to its detriment. 

Before lighting a fire, First Nations communities first determine the health of the land based off of the grass, soil type, and the animals that are living on the land. In order to start the fire, they will typically use a piece of tea tree bark. Today, kerosene bark or a drip torch are used which result in much hotter and less controllable fires. Early dry-season cool burns (from the tea tree bark) as opposed to late dry-season fires allow for a mosaic network of fires that can be easily managed compared to hotter more erratic fires. The significance of a cool fire is in its preservation of the canopy of trees, which has many benefits. First and foremost it protects the canopy itself which provides shade, fruit flowers, and seeds. On top of that, there is a reduction in the carbon emitted from the fires because they are far more efficient than uncontrolled burns. These controlled cool burns ultimately preserve tree life cycles and are triggers for seed germination leading to future generations of plants to be born. 

Our current Western ecological knowledge of Australia is one that is very young compared to the First Nations Australian’s. In fact, it’s actually quite lopsided: 200 years versus 60,000 years. Yet, Australia has allowed Western knowledge systems to dominate its environmental management practices. This has created a division of ideologies, stagnating the much needed convergence between First Nations knowledge and Western knowledge. However, do not be mistaken. The approach needed is a two-way flow where First Nations can also obtain information from Western, more scientific, methods. A cooperative plan taking into account both systems is needed in order to most effectively handle future fire management. 

This is described as the “two toolbox” approach by Indigenous Elder Terrah Guymala who is a senior member of the Bordoh clan of the Warddeken people in remote west Arnhem Land and director of Warddeken Land Management. He outlines this approach with the traditional knowledge and land management skills (the first tool) from First Nations and the use of helicopters and satellite imaging coming (the second tool) from Western Australians.  

Today, in Australia, First Nations knowledge is seen as outdated and antiquated and yet it is priceless knowledge needed to properly tackle landscape-specific bushfires in an eco-friendly way. We must look beyond what we think we already know and try something else: listen. We must listen to those that have lived on the land far longer than we have. There is no ‘one-size fits all approach’ to not only tackling effects of climate change but also for mitigation practices such as fire management. A multicultural approach has the ability to expand the scope of ecological research, management, and restoration in the midst of a changing climate.

Header photo: Rob Russell