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Chapter 18: Indigenous land and fire management


18.1 Indigenous land management aims to protect, maintain, heal and enhance healthy and ecologically diverse ecosystems, productive landscapes and other cultural values. It is not solely directed to hazard reduction.

18.2 It is an example of how local knowledge has successfully informed land management for tens of thousands of years. Today, Indigenous land management maintains its traditional and cultural importance, while also leveraging technologies such as helicopters and satellites.

18.3 Public interest focuses mainly on Indigenous fire management practices, despite it being just one aspect of the broad and integrated approach of Indigenous land management.

18.4 There is growing recognition of the value of Indigenous land and fire management practices as a way to mitigate the effects of bushfires. This is particularly evident in the north of Australia, where it has been used to reduce the intensity and extent of bushfires. However, conditions enabling Indigenous land management in the north of Australia vary in a number of ways compared to prevailing conditions in southern parts of Australia. There may nevertheless be opportunities to reinvigorate Indigenous land management practices in parts of southern Australia.

18.5 Australian, state and territory governments are increasingly supporting Indigenous land management practices. There is a desire to generate hazard reduction and environmental benefits, while also improving the resilience of Indigenous communities.

18.6 All governments should work with Traditional Owners to explore the relationship between Indigenous land management and natural disaster resilience.

18.7 Governments and land managers should further explore the opportunities for Indigenous land and fire management in land management strategies.

Indigenous land management

18.8 Indigenous land management aims to protect, maintain, heal and enhance healthy and ecological diverse ecosystems, productive landscapes and other cultural values.

18.9 Indigenous land management, also referred to as ‘caring for Country’, is undertaken by Indigenous individuals, groups and organisations across Australia for a range of customary, community, conservation and commercial reasons.

18.10 Indigenous land management activities are diverse and include a range of environmental, natural resource and cultural heritage management activities, including water management, the harvesting of food and fibre and the conduct of controlled burns. [1951]

18.11 Indigenous land management is not solely directed to hazard reduction.

The significance of local knowledge

18.12 Indigenous land management is an example of how local knowledge has successfully informed land management for tens of thousands of years.

18.13 It draws on a close knowledge of Australia’s landscapes, developed from observation, ongoing interaction, active custodianship and adaptation to changing circumstances. It is place‑based; targeting action to the specific circumstances of a place, including its environment and customs, and engaging local people in development and implementation. Techniques and outputs are therefore specific to a place or practitioner, and differ widely across Australia. [1952]

18.14 Different landscapes across Australia require different regimes depending on the requirements of Country, including environmental factors such as vegetation type, climate and introduced species. [1953]

18.15 Today, Indigenous land management retains its traditional and cultural importance, while adapted to changing ecosystems and leveraging various technologies. [1954] We heard examples of traditional knowledge being used together with technology. For example, Warddeken Land Management in the NT explained that Indigenous rangers in West Arnhem Land use a combination of traditional knowledge and technology, such as helicopters and GPS, to help guide their burning. [1955] The WA Government notes that, in the Kimberley and Western Desert areas, Indigenous communities work with state agencies to maintain traditional burning practices assisted by various technologies. [1956]

Indigenous fire management

Indigenous fire management on public land in Queensland

Figure 70: Indigenous fire management on public land in Queensland [1957]

18.16 We heard that the use of fire has always been a means of shaping and managing the land by Indigenous Australians. [1958] It has also been an aspect of Indigenous land management that has generated significant public interest during our inquiry.

18.17 Public interest focuses mainly on Indigenous fire management practices and their role in altering fuel loads, despite it being just one aspect of the broad and integrated approach of Indigenous land management. [1959]

18.18 It is common for the term ‘Indigenous fire management’ to be used interchangeably with the term ‘prescribed burning’, and for the general public to consider the approach exclusively in terms of its hazard reduction outcomes or similarities in technique (eg mosaic burning). However, Indigenous fire management has cultural origins and broader objectives. It aims to achieve a wide range of social, economic and cultural outcomes beyond hazard reduction. [1960] As noted by the CSIRO, ‘the physical impact of Indigenous cultural burning is complemented by a cultural and symbolic significance that is passed from generation to generation’. [1961]

18.19 Jurisdictions recognise and endorse the importance of distinguishing between priorities of broad-scale fuel management for hazard reduction purposes and Indigenous cultural burning practices. [1962]

18.20 Indigenous use of fire, including for hazard reduction purposes, is but one component of broader Indigenous land management.

Mitigating the effects of bushfires

18.21 There is growing recognition of the value of Indigenous use of fire as a way to improve disaster resilience by mitigating the effects of bushfires. This is particularly evident in the north of Australia, where it has been used to reduce the intensity and extent of bushfires. Research in northern Australia demonstrates that savanna burns conducted early in the dry season can reduce the incidence of more destructive and higher intensity fires. [1963]

18.22 Although reducing bushfire risk is not necessarily the primary purpose of Indigenous land management, reduced fuel loads and improved ecosystem resilience can be important benefits of its application. [1964]

18.23 In the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement program in the NT, Indigenous rangers worked with government agencies and scientists to introduce cultural burning to a large part of Arnhem Land, resulting in a reduction in the frequency and magnitude of large bushfires. [1965] In return, they now receive carbon credits, which can be sold to the Australian Government and other buyers.

18.24 A range of programs are exploring the relationship between Indigenous fire management and natural disaster resilience. For example, the NT Government established a Conservation and Land Management Fund, which provides funding to assist Indigenous rangers to improve conservation practices, including fire management, on Indigenous land and sea Country. [1966]

18.25 We heard that the majority of Indigenous fire management in Australia occurs in northern Australia (NT, Queensland and WA). [1967] The Australian tropical savanna covers approximately 25% of the Australian mainland and is primarily composed of sporadic eucalyptus trees and understorey grass. Rapid growth during the wet season and a prolonged dry season provides conditions conducive to extensive wildfires in the late dry season. [1968] Indigenous fire management activities can assist in reducing unplanned bushfires and maintaining the biodiversity of the tropical savanna.

18.26 Fire projects in northern Australia often use aerial incendiary drops from helicopters during the early dry season to reduce fuel loads and establish a network of strategic fire breaks, hundreds of kilometres long, across the landscape. [1969] These burns are complemented by on-ground burning from people in vehicles, or walkers using matches and drip torches. Using both aerial and ground burning techniques allows for more effective fire projects, mitigating the intensity and extent of late-season bushfires, while the fire breaks create barriers around sensitive vegetation and cultural sites.

18.27 In southern Australia, the vegetation and geography are different and lend themselves to different hazard reduction techniques. We also heard that fire management practices are not as prevalent in southern Australia as it is in the north. [1970] However, Indigenous organisations and communities are seeking to increase the level of knowledge and contribute to land and fire management practices in southern jurisdictions. [1971]

18.28 Some jurisdictions are working with Indigenous communities to address these knowledge gaps. For example, NSW National Parks and Wildlife service is partnering with Indigenous communities to undertake burns on public land. While these burns are recognised as promoting specific cultural outcomes, those that correlate with hazard reduction are being measured to contribute to a growing knowledge base. [1972]

18.29 We were also told of the improved ecological resilience effects of Indigenous fire management on Australian landscapes, attributable to the benefits of local knowledge of plants, animals and landscapes informing fire management practices. [1973]

Recognition and support for Indigenous land and fire management

18.30 Australian, state and territory governments are increasingly supporting Indigenous land and fire management practices. The incorporation of Indigenous land management practices benefits the resilience of Indigenous Australians, and provides opportunities for a whole of community response to bushfires.

18.31 We heard recognition of, and support for, Indigenous land and fire management in two main forms:

  • engagement and sharing of knowledge from Indigenous land and fire managers, and
  • the inclusion of Indigenous-led land and fire management in the state and territory response to bushfires.

Engagement and sharing of knowledge from Indigenous land and fire managers

18.32 Jurisdictions emphasised the importance of close engagement with Traditional Custodians in their fire management approaches. [1974]

18.33 We heard of a number of forms of engagement and sharing of knowledge between Indigenous land and fire managers and state and territory fire and land management agencies, including:

  • consultation and partnership arrangements with Indigenous Australians on land and cultural heritage management, including managing bushfire risk, [1975] and
  • Joint Land Management arrangements between governments and Traditional Owners to share responsibility for the management of public land. [1976]

18.34 We heard from jurisdictions that this engagement is reflected and promoted in strategic documents and arrangements. For example, the ACT emphasised that engagement has been incorporated as an action in the ACT’s Strategic Bushfire Management Plan. [1977] Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science outlines their structured partnerships with Indigenous communities and work underway to prepare Strategic Plans for Gondwana, Riversleigh and K’gari (Fraser Island) World Heritage areas. These plans will consider approaches to bushfire management. [1978] Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning highlighted the development of bespoke partnerships with individual Traditional Owner corporations at a regional level, tailored to reflect their specific interests and capabilities and underpinned by memoranda of understanding. [1979]

Box 18.1 North Kimberley Fire Abatement Project, Western Australia [1980]

In the North Kimberley, Dambimangari, Wilinggin, Wunambal Gaambera Uunguu and Balanggarra Indigenous Rangers and Traditional Owners are managing the land and sea Country of their respective native title areas – including through ‘right-way’ fire.

The four groups registered savanna burning carbon projects in 2014 and have since worked together as the North Kimberley Fire Abatement Project (NKFAP).

Fire management is carried out in line with Healthy Country Plans, using a combination of science and traditional knowledge, with the objectives of looking after Country and culture, limiting late-season wildfires, driving biodiversity conservation, protecting cultural sites and facilitating intergenerational transmission of traditional knowledge. The carbon projects were registered under the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) in order to generate revenue that could be reinvested to ensure the sustainability of these operations, continue providing access to Country to Traditional Owners, provide jobs skills and training opportunities, and create other economic opportunities.

Healthy Country fire operations carried out by the NKFAP partners in the early dry season have significantly reduced the average extent, intensity and frequency of late-season wildfires. Revenue from the projects has enabled a maturing of fire operations while supporting capacity building, governance and growth of the four organisations. Relatedly, the ranger groups also manage invasive plants in order to prevent the incursion and spread of high biomass weeds, such as gamba grass, that promote fire across their native title / carbon project areas.

The NKFAP projects are nationally and internationally acclaimed both for their fire management outcomes and the social, environmental and economic benefits they have brought to remote Indigenous communities – far beyond the value of carbon credits earned. Indigenous Rangers have participated in two way exchanges to share their skills and knowledge in Botswana Africa as part of the International Savanna Fire Management Initiative.

18.35 Close partnerships and two way knowledge exchanges were emphasised by jurisdictions. For example, the WA Bushfire Centre of Excellence is developing a Traditional Fire Program and integrating traditional knowledge and cultural fire practices into training programs. [1981] The Queensland Government emphasises efforts to work with Indigenous communities to deepen partnerships with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service rangers, to provide two-way learning opportunities. [1982] It was noted that the last decade has seen a ‘convergence of Indigenous-led grass roots initiatives, new recognition of Indigenous rights within land management governance, and a growing receptiveness to collaboration within many government agencies’ in southern Australia. [1983]

18.36 We also heard of instances where support networks and mechanisms have been effective in renewing connection. Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation told us that they help to establish fire programs on Country by working with communities to re-invigorate and share knowledge of how fire should interact with their landscapes. [1984]

18.37 We heard that successful application of practices in areas without Indigenous land ownership can often rely on informal relationships developed between individuals in the Indigenous community and individuals in the relevant agencies. [1985] However, Indigenous perspectives are not always considered in planning and decision-making processes. [1986]

18.38 Guidance such as the Our Knowledge, Our Way Guidelines, developed by more than 100 Indigenous contributors and launched in July 2020, is an example of strengthening and sharing of Indigenous knowledge in land and sea management in culturally appropriate ways. [1987] State and territory agencies also have policies and guidance for staff engaging with, and involving, Indigenous Australians in fire management. [1988]

18.39 Indigenous land management advocates highlighted benefits of bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous land managers to learn together. [1989] Victor Steffensen from Firesticks highlighted the value of these opportunities, where appropriate, to give ‘non-Indigenous people a greater understanding of [Indigenous] culture’ as well as an understanding that ‘Indigenous fire management is valuable for the future, not just culturally but to look after the environment’. [1990]

Box 18.2 Our Knowledge, Our Way Guidelines [1991]

Our knowledge our way: best practice guidelines from Australian experiences
Our Knowledge, Our Way: Best practice guidelines from Australian experiences

The Our Knowledge, Our Way Best Practice Guidelines identify ways that partners can support good knowledge practice, for example, through strong partnership agreements, support for cultural governance arrangements, and protocols.

The Guidelines were supported by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program, Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub, under the project Knowledge Brokering for Indigenous Land Management.

The Guidelines are Indigenous-led, based on an open, transparent process established by the Project Steering Group, which called for Indigenous Peoples to submit case studies that demonstrate best practice in working with Indigenous knowledge.

The following are extracts from the Our Knowledge, Our Way Guidelines:

‘Our Indigenous knowledge connects us to our Country and our cultures. Our knowledge is owned by us as Traditional Owners and is diverse across Australia. The vision for Our Knowledge Our Way in caring for Country, established by the Indigenous-majority Project Steering Group, is:

  • Indigenous people are empowered to look after Country our way.
  • Improved environmental conditions and multiple social, cultural and economic benefits come from effective Indigenous adaptive management of Country.’

‘The Guidelines are based around 23 case studies from across Australia that show how caring for Country can be supported through:

  • Strengthening Indigenous knowledge
  • Strong partnerships
  • Sharing and weaving knowledge
  • Indigenous networks.’

Key steps that can help Traditional Owners and partners in sharing and weaving knowledge

Figure 71: Key steps that can help Traditional Owners and partners in sharing and weaving knowledge [1992]

Initiatives supporting Indigenous-led land and fire management

18.40 Contrary to some public perception, the Australian, state and territory governments have put in place initiatives to support Indigenous land and fire management.

18.41 We heard about ways in which jurisdictions are directly supporting Indigenous-led activities that include fire management, including:

  • ranger programs that support Indigenous rangers to manage and protect Country [1993]
  • carbon abatement initiatives that allow land managers to earn carbon credits by changing management practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions [1994]
  • the establishment of Indigenous Protected Areas, which are areas of land and sea managed by Indigenous groups as protected areas for biodiversity conservation and other social, cultural and economic benefits, [1995] and
  • development of strategies and initiatives that support Traditional Owners to apply Indigenous land management on Country. [1996]

18.42 The Queensland Government works with 24 communities around the state by providing grant funding to support the employment of 100 Indigenous Land and Sea rangers. [1997] We heard of the extensive ranger network in the Kimberley, where between 70 and 100 full-time rangers are employed and collectively manage an area of over 450km2. [1998] The NSW 2019‑2020 Bushfire Inquiry found that NSW can ‘look to and learn from’ successful models of Indigenous land management that incorporate cultural burning, such as the Indigenous ranger models in the NT and Far North Queensland. It also found that this support should have ‘due regard to the different landscapes, vegetation-types and settlement and land-use patterns in those parts of Australia.’ [1999]

18.43 We heard of other support for Indigenous-led initiatives. For example, Victorian Traditional Owner groups nominate traditional burns to the Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMVic) and Country Fire Authority (CFA) Joint Fuel Management Program – over 30 traditional burns have been nominated by a range of different Traditional Owner groups to this program for 2019-2022. [2000] The ACT has introduced an ‘Aboriginal Fire Management Zone’ in the ACT Strategic Bushfire Management Plan 2019, the objective of which is to identify a landscape scale area in the ACT where the priority is to allow traditional burning practices to be undertaken by local Indigenous groups. [2001] Uncle Denis Rose of the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation told us of the Corporation’s successful partnership arrangements with the Victorian Government and how, under the guidance of Traditional Owners, Budj Bim Rangers undertake cultural burns at Kurtonitj and Allambie, using mosaic burning to regenerate areas of vegetation. [2002]

18.44 State and territory agencies have also developed various strategies to support and invigorate the application of Indigenous land management. For example, between 2017 and 2019, the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning supported Traditional Owners to author the Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Strategy, in partnership with Parks Victoria and the Country Fire Authority. The strategy is intended to provide ‘a roadmap for the Victorian Government to reduce barriers and support Traditional Owners to apply traditional fire to Country.’ [2003]

18.45 A range of state, territory and national policies and guidelines support engagement and collaboration with Indigenous communities in bushfire management and support for Indigenous land management. [2004] The extent of the implementation of these guidelines is not always clear. We heard that a better understanding of implementation can identify opportunities to improve support and engagement, increase transparency, provide benchmarking against which progress can be tracked and elevate the status of Indigenous land management in agency planning. [2005]

Supporting community resilience

18.46 Community resilience, specifically the ability of communities to withstand and recover from the impacts of natural disasters, is connected with overall community health and wellbeing. [2006] Indigenous land management allows landscapes to be managed in a way that empowers and reflects the cultural practices, voices and aspirations of Indigenous Australians. Through their involvement in Indigenous land management, Indigenous communities also accrue health, social and cultural benefits.

18.47 We heard of knowledge transfer across generations, and of associated social and mental health benefits of that transfer. [2007] Mr Munuggullumurr Yibarbuk, Warddeken Land Management Ltd, noted that ‘we have a new generation coming up that we need to teach, we need to invigorate our knowledges’. [2008] We also heard of the social and cultural value in restoring the role of Indigenous women in land management. Vanessa Cavanagh, an expert on Indigenous fire management, told us of the unique values, interests and responsibilities that Indigenous women have to maintain on Country and the benefit of specific strategies that support Indigenous women to be more involved in these processes. [2009]

18.48 Indigenous land management is also providing a source of income for many Traditional Owners in northern Australia. [2010] Carbon abatement programs have assisted to re-invigorate Indigenous land management, providing an operational budget, and generating positive social, economic, health and cultural outcomes for Indigenous communities. [2011]

Recommendation 18.1 Indigenous land and fire management and natural disaster resilience

Australian, state, territory and local governments should engage further with Traditional Owners to explore the relationship between Indigenous land and fire management and natural disaster resilience.

Recommendation 18.2 Indigenous land and fire management and public land management

Australian, state, territory and local governments should explore further opportunities to leverage Indigenous land and fire management insights, in the development, planning and execution of public land management activities.

Box 18.3 Gunaikurnai Land and Water Aboriginal Corporation [2012]

Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) represents Traditional Owners in the Gippsland region of Victoria from the Brataualung, Brayakaulung, Brabralung, Krauatungalung and Tatungalung family clans, who were recognised in a Native Title Consent Determination, made under the Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010 (Vic).

GLaWAC has a partnership with the Victorian Government to jointly manage ten parks and reserves in Gippsland. These environments include forests, rivers, beaches, plains and animals and are all part of ‘Country’ and the cultural identity of the Gunaikurnai. This formal partnership arrangement brings together the combined skills, expertise and cultural knowledge of the Gunaikurnai people and the Victorian Government in a way that respects and values the culture and traditions of the Traditional Owners.

GLaWAC believes that collaboration and knowledge sharing between Traditional Owners and government agencies is integral in generating an adaptive fire management practice. The Corporation has formal and informal protocols and agreements with land management agencies on when and how they should be consulted and involved.

GLaWAC was also involved in the emergency response in the Gippsland region through consultation with the Aboriginal Cultural Values Officer at the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning to check significant values for registered Aboriginal places and to provide management recommendations for these sites, and undertake cultural heritage assessments. Gunaikurnai people were also trained as firefighters by local authorities as part of knowledge exchange efforts and were deployed during the bushfires. GLaWAC notes examples of Indigenous cultural heritage sites that were protected by firefighters who had prior knowledge of the location of the sites; knowledge gained through the work over many years of cultural heritage teams and sharing this knowledge through the Aboriginal Victoria database.

GLaWAC highlighted areas for improvement, including the need to prevent future rushed actions that cause damage to Indigenous cultural heritage sites, and ensure a holistic approach to the management of natural disasters in Australia, including year-round management of Country that is properly resourced.

In terms of direct fire-related work, GLaWAC describes being at a different stage in terms of reconnection and reinvigorating land management through cultural burning compared with areas in northern Australia. They emphasise wanting to approach cultural burning in a way that is safe and constructive and does not hold up communities as being ‘a protector or a non-protector of any assets’. They seek to support older community members to demonstrate leadership and share their knowledge, and younger community members to feel safe in learning and practising it. They note gaps in how they are resourced to undertake fire-related work. GLaWAC endorses the Victorian Cultural Fire Strategy, a government funded initiative led by Victorian Traditional Owner fire knowledge holders that was developed to re-invigorate cultural fire through Indigenous-led Traditional Owner practices across all kinds land tenure and Country.

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