indigenous cultural burning
National Firesticks Workshop 2018, Image: Heidrun Lohr, courtesy Bundanon Trust

OXYGEN FILES: Amidst the smoke and fury of this summer’s bushfire catastrophe, there is a positive note – the growing recognition of the value of Aboriginal fire and landscape management practices. Key among the listeners is the artistic haven of the Bundanon Trust at Shoalhaven south of Sydney, which has embraced indigenous fire practices not long before it was threatened by fire early this month.

Inquiries have been flooding into the Indigenous led Firesticks Alliance from fire services brigades, landowners and others wanting to engage with traditional knowledge to protect country.

According to Tagalaka man, Indigenous fire practitioner and director of Mulong, Victor Steffensen, the Firesticks Alliance has also been hearing back from property owners where cultural burns had been conducted before this fire season and helped protect their land

“All the areas we burned last year, didn’t burn this year,” he tells The Fifth Estate.

Steffensen says there is a real willingness to learn on the part of fire agencies such as the NSW Rural Fire Service and other Indigenous groups and landowners.

The only people not on board yet are the policy-makers.

The federal government’s new bushfire inquiry, for instance, has no Indigenous MPs or senators on the Environment and Energy Committee running the inquiry, nor are Indigenous practices, protocols or knowledge mentioned in the terms of reference.

indigenous cultural burning
National Firesticks Workshop 2018, Images: Heidrun Lohr, courtesy Bundanon Trust

An important thing many people do not understand about Aboriginal cultural burning is it’s not just about hazard reduction through reducing fuel loads.

It is also about connection to Country, teaching culture, practising cultural Lore, landscape health, waterway health and protecting biodiversity  Steffensen says.

“It is very layered.”

Western thinking works by separating people from each other and from the landscape, he explains.

It separates thinking about water from thinking about fire. It separates thinking about conservation from acknowledging the untold thousands of years of Aboriginal interaction with the entire continent and its ecosystems.

There is a need to get more demonstrations happening, and more programs for Aboriginal fire practices underway to achieve multiple benefits – including social and economic wellbeing for the Indigenous community, Steffersen says.

“We just want to start managing landscapes and caring for Country.”

A deeper perspective on conservation

The Bundanon Trust at Shoalhaven on the NSW South Coast has already embraced Indigenous fire practices and cultural knowledge around caring for Country.

The 1215-hectare property was a gift to the Australian people from painters Arthur Boyd and his wife Yvonne Boyd. It has been a wildlife refuge since 1974 and is managed to care for the landscape and the built legacy and artworks located on the property.

Chief executive of the trust Deborah Ely says it has been working with the Firesticks Alliance for two years now.

In 2018, it also hosted a teaching and learning workshop on cultural fire practices and caring for country led by Yuin Elder Noel Webster, who heads up Djuin Mudjingaalbaraga, the Nowra-based men’s Firesticks group.

The trust’s property was subject to an evacuation during the recent wildfires. The Rural Fire Service with aerial support played a key role in ensuring the bushfires did not cause widespread damage.

Ely says that the fires came from a different direction to the area of the property that has been managed through Aboriginal cultural burning, so it is difficult to assess the role it played in protecting the property.

What she has observed, however, is that the areas where cultural burnings have been practised are in better health than they were before.

She says the relationship with the Firesticks Alliance is important to the Trust and will continue. The Alliance also works closely with the local RFS.

Cultural burning is about “more than burning off,” she says.

It is about biodiversity, the health of the landscape, food resources within the landscape and animal diversity and wellbeing. It is also about sightlines and ceremony.

Natural Resource Manager at Bundanon, Michael Andrews, says he initially became interested in cultural burning following a workshop at Bombaderry featuring Noel Webster and Victor Steffensen.

He saw an opportunity for the trust’s large area of land to provide space for Indigenous practitioners and Elders to provide training and experience for Indigenous people who are “rediscovering and relearning” this knowledge.

Fire is always a risk for the Bundanon property too, another reason it is a suitable site for implementing the practices.

Cultural burning also addresses other management challenges such as maintaining access tracks and walking trails and dealing with exotic weeds, Andrews explains

The ongoing relationship has grown to include researchers, such a University of Wollongong masters students from the bushfire knowledge hub.

When Country is “sick” because it doesn’t include medicine and food plants

“I have seen nothing that hasn’t been beneficial with this [ongoing] relationship.”

Andrews says that walking the country with the Elders often had him thinking, “why wasn’t I taught that in university?”

A whole different perspective on the landscape was revealed.

A ridge for example, that he had thought was fairly healthy bushland, was described by the Elders as “sick” country, because the mix of species did not include medicine and food plants that cultural knowledge says should be there.

Lack of appropriate fire and cultural practices for decades were identified as one of the primary causes of the area’s unhealthy condition.

Andrews says the Indigenous perspective on change in the landscape and time in the landscape is different to the Western perspective.

There is a holistic approach to caring for Country, where landscape, water, fire, soil, animals, people, plants and cultural teachings are interrelated.

Andrews says the trust is aware there are potentially other ways it can manage its land compared to the past, through engaging with Aboriginal cultural knowledge, practices and people. It is a way of deepening the management’s conservation focus.

Providing ongoing social benefits to the Indigenous community as well as the environmental benefits for the Bundanon property are important too.

indigenous cultural burning
National Firesticks Workshop 2018, Images: Heidrun Lohr, courtesy Bundanon Trust

Listen. Learn.

The trust and others reporting benefits from Indigenous-led fire practices are important voices in the wider land management discussion now taking place.

“In light of the last couple of months, a lot of people are now talking about cultural burning,” Andrews says.

He has seen “enormous respect” develop between the RFS and Koori people as they continue learning from each other.

“Things are changing,” he says.

Steffensen says there are “many good stories” yet to be told about Indigenous fire practices and caring for Country.

His own story, Fire Country, about the journey of learning about Country, culture and fire is due to be released in March this year by Hardie Grant Travel.

Supercomputers that can predict behaviour of weather conditions on the terrain

Other Aboriginal voices are also emerging, such as UNSW’s Professor Jason Sharples, a Bundjalung man and professor in the Applied Industrial Mathematics Group at UNSW Canberra.He researches the dynamic behaviour of wildfire, using complex equations and supercomputers to create predictive models that consider terrain attributes, weather conditions and the shape of fire as elements that can influence the likelihood of severe fires forming.

In an article published by UNSW, Sharples urges more Indigenous people to enter the sciences because they are fundamentally part of the culture.

“Aboriginal peoples have always been innovators and scientists; we’ve needed to be, to develop a successful way to live here for thousands and thousands of years.

“Innovation and ingenuity are a part of our legacy and our history as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, so we should be proud of that and continue it today.”  

He says in many ways Indigenous knowledge is ahead of Western science when it comes to fire and land management. Combining the cultural practices with modern science is increasingly important as “climate change barrels down on us”.

Better preparedness – ask the experts

Victor Steffensen from Firesticks Alliance says letting Indigenous fire knowledge take the lead in terms of national preparedness is logical.

The alternative is to continue with more of the same Western-style hazard reduction burns – the value of which has recently been questioned by scientists including both fire experts and ecologists.

Going forward, the focus needs to be on re-training Indigenous people in cultural burning and caring for country. The fire and land management agencies also need to take part in this journey.

When caring for Country also cares for people

And there are other benefits.

A focus on Indigenous-led engagement in landscape management can also help with closing the gap on Indigenous life expectancy, chronic disease burdens, unemployment, education, training and community resilience.

“Studies have shown connection to Country has a positive benefit for Aboriginal people’s health and wellbeing,” Steffensen says.

In New South Wales, the Rural Fire Service created two special brigades which have created jobs and training opportunities, as well as improving the protection for the community from fire impacts.

Indigenous mitigation crews in Bourke and Brewarrina have an important role not only in protecting the communities, but also assisting Elders in caring for Country that includes places of deep significance such as the heritage-listed Brewarrina fish traps, and National Parks including the Lake Mungo sites.

In Victoria, the Country Fire Authority supports a female-led CFA brigade at the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust in Gippsland, a self-governing Aboriginal community. The Gunai/Kurnai grandmothers and mothers formed the brigade 18 years ago, out of concern for the challenge the community faced accessing assistance.

A report on the brigade by the ABC noted that fires happened for a range of reasons – deliberate lighting of fires in bushland, fires started due to campers in surrounding areas failing to extinguish or manage their fires, or incidents within the 40-odd homes of the community.

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