Australia’s firefighters have a lot to learn from Aboriginal people

Cultural burn at an old hunting camp in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. (Photo copyright 2018 by Mark A. Bonta, 2018.)
Cultural burn at an old hunting camp in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. (Photo copyright 2018 by Mark A. Bonta, 2018.)

In southern, temperate Australia, this year’s fire season has been one of the worst in living memory — but in much of the country’s tropical north, it is nothing out of the ordinary. 

This is no accident, experts say — it’s partly due to the predominance of Aboriginal people in the north, and whites in the south.

Aboriginal communities have lived in close contact with the land for at least 40,000 years, and are among the world’s oldest cultures. They never invented agriculture, but instead learned how to live off the land, and that included learning how to live with wildfires. 

The descendents of European colonists, who only arrived after 1788, have always treated fire as an enemy, and suppressed it wherever they could.

Living off the land 

Aboriginal cultures burned off vegetation in patches to favor places for certain types of plants to grow; these attracted kangaroos, emus, and other animals they could hunt. 

This type of “cool burning” reduced the amount of combustible material across the Australian bush — and intricate form of management using small-scale fires that largely prevented the type of massive damage seen today.

Aboriginal people were also typically highly mobile, without the dwellings and infrastructure that needed to be protected from burning. 

This is in contrast to white communities, which built towns, cities and suburbs, and tried to stop the fires from happening at all. 

Their plantations and ranches also had to be protected. 

Forests grew more lush and animals thrived in these areas.  

But all this changed with the droughts of the 1980s; hundreds of people have since died in massive conflagrations across the south.

Largely exterminated 

Now, with the effects of climate change accelerating, programs to restore the Australian landscape through controlled burning — which prevent much bigger fires — are more urgent than ever. 

And many voices are clamoring for a greater respect for Aboriginal methods.

Aboriginal people were largely exterminated in areas where whites settled, and this included most of the south. 

But in the north, from Western Australia to the Northern Territory and Queensland, was less desirable for whites, and was settled later. 

Many Aboriginal groups in those regions not only survived with their languages and traditions intact, but, thanks to recognition of their rights to own land, they are now forces to reckon with in land management.

This story is well known to Australians, though mostly unfamiliar to outsiders who have panicked over the effects of this years’ fires that they see in the media. 

Ancestral knowledge 

Fire suppression is a huge topic on the continent, and blame has been spread to everyone from environmentalists and suburbanites to the fire fighters themselves.

In reality, plenty of preventive burning is taking place in non-Aboriginal areas — there’s just not enough of it. 

The key, say many Aboriginal people, is their connection to “country,” and respecting the lands of the ancestors. 

Deep feelings for the land and all our wild relatives that depend on it must be cultivated and restored.  

Shannon Foster, a “knowledge keeper” for the D’harawal Aboriginal group, told BBC News that “[c]ool burning replenishes the earth and enhances biodiversity — the ash fertilizes and the potassium encourages flowering. It’s a complex cycle based on cultural, spiritual, and scientific knowledge.”

Sources: NPR, CNN, BBC News

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