The Australian bushfires have so far scorched over 18,000,000 hectares and over 60 fires continue to burn in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. The 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season, which commenced on the 5th of September last year, has been one of the worst in recent history. It is believed that up to one billion mammals, birds and reptiles have perished.
There has been a growing belief that the answer to preventing such devastation occurring in the future may in fact lie with the Aboriginal people. Prior to European colonisation, the Aborigines practiced fire management techniques known as cultural burns. The logic behind this controlled burning, is to purposefully start knee-high blazes in order to rid the area of leaf detritus and kindling, so that in the event of a natural bushfire, there would be less fuel to spread the flames. Although some animals would inevitably be killed in these controlled fires, this worked as an effort to prevent mass destruction. There is even a system of creating wildlife corridors; strips of preserved natural habitat that would allow animals to escape the fires. Aboriginal culture is about working with the Earth, which they believe to be a mother.
Shannon Foster, a University lecturer at the University of Technology, Sydney, and ‘knowledge keeper’ for the indigenous D’harawal people, states that: “the bush needs to burn”, and that “the current controlled burns destroy everything. It’s a naïve way to practice fire management and isn’t listening to the indigenous people who know the land best”.
There is a scientific logic to this practice. Foster states that “soft burning encourages rain [as] it warms the environment to a particular atmospheric level, and once the warm and the cool meet, condensation – rain – occurs, helping mitigate fires.” In addition to this, “cool burning replenishes the earth and enhances biodiversity – the ash fertilises and the potassium encourages flowering”. It appears the logic here is that, by being fine-tuned to the environment, it is possible to maintain an equilibrium and effectively prevent catastrophic natural disasters.
So, why has the indigenous way of fire management been disenfranchised? The issue is that the knowledge of cultural burning was suppressed through the displacement of the Aborigines from their homelands, the programmes of forced assimilation, and the banning of indigenous languages. Until 1992, the indigenous people of Australia had very limited rights to their own land, as Australia was legally considered unowned before its colonisation, robbing the Aborigines of the right to claim their own land. Only after decades of legal battles have the Aborigines seen any form of a return of control. Today the indigenous people control 67 million hectares of Australian soil. This reclamation is in part a scheme to potentially revitalise traditional cultural burning methods.
Some scientists, however, have claimed that the landscape is very different from its pre-colonisation state. Colonisation led to development, and human-created climate change, so there are fears that the cultural burning techniques may not be applicable to the current situation. In terms of the current situation, Associate Professor Noel Preece, a former national parks ranger, believes that “nothing could have stopped these fires”. However, it could have potential preventative uses for future fires.
Looking towards the future, Shannon Foster raises concerns about how all this fire-cleared land is going to be utilised. She states: “It terrifies me that so much land has been decimated, developers could move in and say we might as well put this estate here; the land is cleared.” She describes the situation as ‘devastating’, and is awaiting the day that there will be proper communication between the government and the indigenous people, so that the Aborigines (who are the oldest surviving civilisation in the world and have been around for roughly 50,000 years) can finally make their voices heard.