Climate Action

Fires and droughts: How indigenous knowledge can offer solutions

wildfire bushfire indigenous knowledge

Indigenous burning techniques could help protect biodiversity and prevent catastrophic bushfires in Australia. Image: Unsplash/ilya kerig

Maryanne Macdonald
Lecturer, Indigenous Education, Edith Cowan University
Darren Garvey
Senior Lecturer, Kurongkurl Katitjin, Edith Cowan University
Eyal Gringart
Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology and Social Science, Edith Cowan University
Ken Hayward
Lecturer, Kurongkurl Katitjin, Edith Cowan University
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  • Climate change has resulted in weather patterns that are causing more frequent bushfires, floods and droughts in Australia.
  • Non-Aboriginal land management practices have also increased levels of flammable plant material, leading to more intense bushfires.
  • But there is evidence that aboriginal burning techniques can help manage forests, protect biodiversity and prevent catastrophic bushfires.
  • Researchers must recognize the value of this knowledge and harness it to find new and more effective ways of tackling environmental problems.

In the climatic context that now dominates in Australia – where bushfires, floods and droughts are more and more numerous – long-term solutions are long overdue. They are all the more necessary as these climatic disasters cost billions due to the loss of agricultural and economic productivity, environmental vitality and expenses related to the mental health of citizens.

To face up to these multiple threats, it is time to listen to the indigenous populations who have in-depth knowledge of the country and its lands thanks to their ancestral knowledge.

For tens of thousands of years, indigenous peoples have dealt with climate change on this continent and successfully applied their knowledge to land management. This knowledge deserves full recognition.

To this end, our recent work calls on Australian researchers to recognize the value of this knowledge and to harness it to find new and more effective ways of tackling environmental problems.

Create a sense of environmental responsibility

An independent survey published in 2020 on the state of biodiversity, conducted by Graeme Samuel at the request of the Ministry of the Environment, revealed that the number of natural sites in Australia was declining in a clear and worrying way. The study advocates long-term strategies, including those that "respect and harness the knowledge of Indigenous Australians to better inform how the environment is managed".

In many disciplines, we are already teaching these approaches which emphasize the existence of inextricable links between humans and their environment.

This way of thinking can inspire a sense of environmental responsibility that could lead to new approaches to issues such as climate change or natural disasters.

Proven Aboriginal techniques

In southeastern Australia, climate change over the past century has resulted in weather patterns that increase the likelihood of bushfires.

At the same time, non-Aboriginal land management practices, especially those that prevent cultural techniques of prescribed burning , have increased the amount of flammable plant material, which can lead to more intense bushfires.

Yet there is evidence that Aboriginal burning techniques help manage forests, protect biodiversity and prevent catastrophic bushfires.

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Scientists also demonstrated how implementing Aboriginal fire knowledge can reduce environmental destruction and greenhouse gas emissions. The “West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement” project carried out in the northern territories is a good example in this regard.

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On the trail of the incendiary birds

Scientific work has also underlined the accuracy of indigenous knowledge regarding the behavior of birds in relation to the spread of fire; experts have collaborated with “traditional owners” in order to gather evidence of this behavior.

Scientists have found that some species of birds deliberately spread fires by picking up burning branches and dropping them in unburned areas to hunt prey. Understanding this phenomenon has allowed scientists to better conceive of the spread of controlled fires, and has informed regional fire management policy.

These examples of collaboration between researchers and aborigines are not limited to fire management.

In Eastern Tasmania , ranchers and scientists are working alongside the Aboriginal community under a $5 billion government grant for the Future Droughts Fund .

Indigenous Knowledge Holders bring their expertise to farmers in grassland management and drought resilience to improve land sustainability through regenerative management.

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A world heritage to preserve

Ignoring this ancestral Aboriginal knowledge has a cultural cost, evidenced by the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves in May 2020.

This loss of a world heritage was not only catastrophic for the indigenous traditional owners: anthropologists and archaeologists considered the incident a desecration and a prejudice for future research on the history of the site.

Samuel Graeme's study therefore recommended that indigenous cultural heritage should be better protected by law. However, the Western Australian government has recently passed legislation that allows for the destruction of cultural heritage sites.

By encouraging research collaboration, researchers can serve as role models, appreciating and engaging with indigenous knowledge and approaches. These approaches can be used by society as a whole, including for political decisions regarding land management.

Learning to respect indigenous cultures enhances our social, economic and environmental potentials. By working with Indigenous peoples, we could extend our time on this planet while preserving the practices of the oldest human populations on Earth.

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