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Never has there been a greater need for Aboriginal fire-stick farming

As the bush fires rage so too does the debate on how land should be managed, specifically to prevent the repeat of these catastrophic fires.

On the Left we have the realists who believe the scientists that have warned there is a link between bush fires and climate change; and on the Right we have those who deny the link and so are furiously looking for someone to blame. They are blaming the usual suspects: Lefties and greenies, for they are the ones – apparently – who have stopped hazard-reduction burning in the cooler months. I’ve never known it to happen (which is not to say it hasn’t) but the Right want someone to blame regardless.

We all know that fires kill wildlife, whether it’s through hazard-reduction burning or through uncontrolled fires. Ideally, what we want is bush fire prevention with the absolute minimum (or no) loss of wildlife, and which also reduces the future loss of all life, including human life.

This can still be achieved through hazard reduction burning. It’s by ‘who’ that is the key.

Aboriginal Australians hold that key.

As traditional Aborigines were not land owners they felt that they had a responsibility to the environment. The environment, the land, and even the sky were created in one – as were the people – and all were related. With this attitude (belief) is it any surprise that the Aboriginal people never took anything from nature? Aborigines were the original conservationists and their use of land management promoted ecological health.

An example of this was fire stick farming: The low-intensity burning of undergrowth in wooded areas that would promote the germination of new plants, and thus attract the animals that were an important part of an Aborigine’s diet. This burning was carried out before the dry season and was done carefully and systematically. No more was burned than necessary. Burning was also more than just sound land management; it was evidence that the land was healthy and being fully utilised. There was also a religious significance to burning: As the Ancestral spirits of the Dreaming still inhabited the land, the burnings provided these spiritual inhabitants with lands on which they could hunt. But fire-stick farming had another purpose: to decrease the risk of the wild fires now all too common in modern Australia.

Conservation was also extended to all practices of hunting and gathering. No more food was taken than required and no food source was over exploited. In some societies prohibitions were placed on the taking of immature plants or animals. In times of crisis, such as drought or flood, land ownership need never be relinquished. The resources have been preserved. Critics of fire-stick farming would argue that forest burning kills wildlife. This was not the case. For example, the koala – the tragic face of the current bush fires – was an important source of food for traditional Aborigines, so the areas chosen to be burned would not have contained a population of a valuable food source. It defeated the purpose of their land management practices. Why kill what they were trying to preserve? After burning, the regrowth of vegetation attracted wildlife to the area, so Aborigines were actually producing an environment that was more suited to them. As an Adnyamathanha man told me today of those practices; “Burn an area of scrub where there’s no koalas, within 5-6 years the koalas would be there.”

Conversely, the western attitude to the land did not encourage sound management or preservation techniques. Whereas the Aborigines were careful in their exploitation of resources, the westerners unwittingly created vast tracts of land devastation. For instance, the over grazing of stock has rendered many areas infertile. The senseless chopping down of forests has destroyed delicate eco-systems. The salinity of the waterways is largely due to pollution. It is evident that no consideration had been given to the protection of natural resources. Land exploitation was used to advance British colonisation and became the rationale for European land ownership.

And slowly, as land was seized from the Aborigines, the land management techniques of our First People and the practice of fire-stick farming were discarded.

In his book Aboriginal Environmental Impacts, James Kohen explains the demise of the latter:

While Aboriginal people used fire as a tool for increasing the productivity of their environment, Europeans saw fire as a threat. Without regular low-intensity burning, leaf litter accumulates and crown fires can result, destroying everything in their path. European settlers feared fire, for it could destroy their houses, their crops, and it could destroy them. Yet the environment that was so attractive to them was created by fire (p 42).

In fearing fire, they – and we – have succumbed to it. We need to turn back the clock two hundred years and return the keys to the Aborigines to manage this delicate continent. We have failed.

The author has a BA in Aboriginal Affairs Administration, a BA (Honours) in Aboriginal Studies, spent three years as a Project Officer for Aboriginal communities in the Flinders Ranges, Batemans Bay and Eden, and three years as a Policy Officer in ATSIC, Canberra.

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42 comments

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  1. mark delmege

    There is a place for fire especially as many of our plant species have adapted to that and actually need fire to germinate but perhaps not in more bushy areas and perhaps after a drought and the heat the impact would not be as great as many think.

  2. Michael Taylor

    Mark, the Aborigines knew exactly the best time to burn. They were better at forecasting the weather than the BoM. But then again, so am I. All those years on Kangaroo Island watching the ants was 100% reliable. (Which also makes the ants better than the BoM).

    And in the Flinders Ranges the site of a white cockatoo in flight was a sure message that rain was coming.

  3. mark delmege

    I kinda like BOM anyway fires might be perfect for grasslands and for creating them.
    But thick forest – I haven’t seen that argument.

  4. New England Cocky

    Hmmmm ….. in Armidale the arrival of the Black Cockatoos up from the gorges usually heralds the arrival within 24 hours of SE weather, sometimes even rain.

  5. Alan Nosworthy

    The greatest estate on earth by Bill Gammage presents much evidence to back up this argument. That of careful and methodical long term management of that envoironment to produce a sustainable status quo.
    The quantum of damages inflicted on that envoironment in the last hundred or so years would require that much remediation work be carried out before similar maintainance could safely resume. Whilst stocks of traditional knowledge of these practices are fragmented or totally lost in most country, and the environment and weather patterns have changed considerably since sustainability, respect, and stability enhanced the land, the principles are still valid.
    To balance the little time we have left to learn through trial and error we have the advantage of the scientific method and advanced modelling techniques to help us learn to live within our means in a truly sustainable fashion.

  6. Michael Taylor

    Mark, perhaps you’ve been arguing with the wrong people.

    I don’t know where you live, but if it’s in SA you might like to visit some of the Adnyamathanha communities in the Flinders Ranges. Tell them what you just told us.

    Then run. Quickly.

  7. Andrew Smith

    All well and good but still requires funding, resources, optimal weather and/or seasonal conditions with political and strong public support; that’s a lot of variables.

    Anecdotally I know of in recent years normal hazard reduction burn offs getting out of control in the Otway forests SW Victoria, out of season.

    My concern is that many required factors or tactics to ameliorate bush fire risk, including indigenous methods, need to be included in overall strategy but constrained by politics, fossil fuel sector, short termism, frequent incompetence and perceived costs.

  8. mark delmege

    Flinders Ranges, South Australia sparse almost desert country from the look on google earth. Yeah I reckon cool burns would work there and thats my point. FWIW I’ve long advocated cool burns.

  9. Michael Taylor

    Well then, mark, go on Google Earth and find a wooded area in NSW or Vic, for example, find out who the Traditional Owners and ask them.

    Or you can look at my credentials at the bottom of the article. I didn’t make this stuff up.

  10. mark delmege

    I do plants you do admin, fine. Why quote me Flinders after what I wrote?

  11. Alan Nosworthy

    Up my way tropical rainforest merges into vine scrub, wet sclerophyl, through open eucalypt to savannah. The benefits to humans of traditional techniques are obvious as rainforest regrowth is tough, invasive stuff given suitable weather. But last years scenes of bushfire breaking out down in Tully and Eungella, areas not previously vulnerable to this was a frightening wake up to myself and other locals who are usually preparing for cyclone season when fires ravage the South.

  12. Michael Taylor

    Because I’d been speaking to a Flinders man this morning. He said that his mob are screaming for traditional burning.

  13. Michael Taylor

    I also spent a year working with the Aboriginal communities in Batemans Bay, Mojo and Eden.

  14. corvus boreus

    From what I’ve gathered;
    Some bits got burnt fairly regularly (eg grasslands, heath, open forests with grassy understory).
    These fires would have tended to be low intensity. with quick vegetative regeneration.
    Other bits most likely only got a burn every now and then when they started getting too choked with undergrowth and debris (eg scrubland, denser forests with scrubby understory).
    These fires would have been much higher intensity, with slower vegetative recovery time.
    Some bits just didn’t get burned (eg rainforests and cloudforests).
    It should also be considered that burns were sometimes conducted as much as a hunting tool as a land management method.

    The last thing to consider when reintroducing such burn regimens is that Indigenous Australians tended to live a semi-nomadic existence at fairly low population densities, and had a general view of land as commons.
    The modern land-matrix is a convoluted patchwork of property boundaries and jurisdictions, dotted and crossed with permanent dwellings and infrastructure, and now contains a hell of a lot more humans (including lawyers)
    That makes simply flicking a flame then walking away a much less simple option.

    Using fire as a hazard-reduction land-management aid is a commendable practice for many locations and situations, and is an increasingly prevalent practice with bodies such as NPWS, where it is very often conducted with the co-operative input of Indigenous people, but it always going to potentially problematic in implementation, and should not be considered as an easy universal panacea.

  15. Michael Taylor

    Corvus, some may have been semi-nomadic, but many weren’t. Like all ancient civilisations, people moved to better environments when necessary.

    Some examples of long-term occupation that I’m aware of include the Lake Mungo area, where there was permanent occupation from 40,000 years ago until 15,000 years ago (the people moved because the lakes dried up); and a cave at Seal Bay on Kangaroo Island that showed archaeological evidence of continuous occupation over 8,000 years.

    But we’re talking about now. If they nomadic or not in ancient times is irrelevant.

  16. corvus boreus

    Michael Taylor,
    Yeah, generalised statements without qualificative and quantative disclaimers rarely cover nuanced complexities.
    Firstly the term Indigenous Australians covers a myriad of nations inhabiting the width and breadth of this continent, who inhabit/ed a wide range of environmental ecotypes that are often chalk and cheese to each other.
    Secondly, the terms semi-nomadic and semi-permanent can be kind of blurred.
    For instance, signs of ‘continuous’ habitation at a specific location can mean that people lived there all year every year, or, possibly just as likely, that they were regular come-back-to places around which seasonal resource harvesting regularly occurred.
    Moving around a bit certainly gives a better variety in diet and places far less long-term stress on local resource.

  17. New England Cocky

    @mark delmege: Perhaps you are a little out of your depth in understanding the Australian bush. The majority of Australian flora have evolved to handle fire, including trees in dry sclerophyll forests. Maybe you should escape from your metropolitan ghetto and spend some time in the various types of bush rather than just looking at Google. OK, I disclose my academic Botany training.

    @ Michael Taylor: My sympathies to you for the unfortunate loss of the quite lovely Mogo, location of the delightful Mogo Bookshop.

    Certainly aboriginal communities were both nomadic in places and fixed abodes in others, depending on the food sources. Read Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, to discover how the English “explorers” took great pride in plundering the grain stores at Menindee Lakes where an established Aboriginal settlement including stone buildings existed before the “explorers’ proudly burned the remaining stores and the building.

    There are other reports from other locations of similar settlements, but these data did not suit the European story of the uncultivated Aboriginal savage.

    @Corvus boreus: Stop arguing semantics and go and read the evidence supplied by the European explorers in their exploration travel logs. These are available in state libraries on request. There are also several private collections of first editions that require privileged access.

  18. mark delmege

    maybe you could learn to read NEC. I’m with CB on this.

  19. Michael Taylor

    What, mark! You’re not with me! 😳

  20. corvus boreus

    NEC,
    Yes, particularly productive areas like the Menindee lakes have evidence of more permanent indigenous settlement.
    That is why I used the word ‘tended’ when referring to ‘semi-nomadic’ lifestyles.
    But anyway, as the author said, ‘we’re talking about now…ancient times is irrelevent’.

    Ps, It’s funny that you chip me for ‘arguing semantics’ when most of my statements substantially differ little from your own.
    I sometimes wonder if you really mindfully read and think things through properly before reactively commenting.

  21. RosemaryJ36

    The arrogance of modern ‘experts’ precludes consulting our First Nations. In the NT, our Rangers work on the lands of their ancestors.

  22. Michael Taylor

    And as a consequence they have less bushfires, Rosemary.

    They have been doing it for well over 20 years and the rest of us still haven’t caught on.

  23. Michael Taylor

    By crikey I’ve copped a bashing for this post (mostly on Facebook) from offended white people. I was compelled to tweet:

    Had a textbook in my first BA on Aboriginal Oz and in it was a racist cartoon with the caption; “If u want to know what’s best for Aborigines, go ask a white fella.” The response across SM to my article about Aboriginal land management suggests that in 2020 not much has changed.

  24. mark delmege

    Well Michael I was taught that in general (or as cb said tended) aboriginal ‘(language) groups’ moved around within their territory depending upon the season – and that their territory was determined by water courses. I guess by the time you were an administrator those traditions would have pretty much ended – as groups from far and wide were herded together yeah much like cattle and probably with less respect. ( I haven’t see you fb post)

  25. Michael Taylor

    I don’t post much on my Facebook page, mark, preferring to just share AIMN articles in relevant Facebook groups. After being trolled day after day I decided just to leave my own page for family stuff, though I did break that vow today.

    The last couple of days have been emotionally draining. I was raised on a farm on Kangaroo Island so the events over there are cutting into me very deeply. I was able to keep a brave face, but when I read about “the stress on the firefighters as they heard the screams of dying koalas” … that did it for me. I openly wept.

    I wept too when I heard that the house I grew up in escaped the blaze despite fire twice ripping through the old farm.

    I also think of the great loss of the ancient campsites of the Kartan people, some maybe dating back 20,000 years. Kartan, by the way, comes from the word “Karta” – the name given to the island by the mainland Aborigines. Karta – in cruel irony – means “Island of the Dead.”

    25,000 dead koala. 😢

  26. New England Cocky

    @cb: Touche!!

  27. corvus boreus

    Michael Taylor,
    The devastation being wrought upon native flora and fauna has been bloody heart-wrenching.
    Ecologists estimate (based upon the area of primary habitat burned thus far) that on the Mid-North coast of NSW over 30% of the existent local koala population has likely perished.

    Visa-a-vis my comments made 6/1 6:45 pm, my generalised and partially speculative overview of traditional burn-off patterns (in this region) was informed by not only by extensive experience working in local ecology (including some participation in control burn operations), but also through having professional working relationships and personal conversations with some ecologically active folk amongst the long-term local Gumgaynggir people (including a very clever acknowledged elder who wears a NPWS badge).

  28. HUNGRYCHARLEY

    Hi Michael, thank you for your contribution on this debate. There is no doubt indigenous people lived in an environment where a balance was maintained with nature, at the same time strategic use of the landscape was promoted through targeted use of fire to promote grassy areas for meat production and germination of food plants, such as cycads for example. Observations by early explorers, such as Mitchell (as well as modern writers such as Pascoe and Gammage) provide some clue as to what occurred, on the Namoi River, for example, large patches were burnt to attract kangaroos in the following season when the green new growth occurred. However these burns were not at a landscape scale and unburnt river front was always maintained to ensure animals had something to eat in the short term.

    We have to be careful about promoting the idea of ‘firestick farming’ as a panacea to our current woes. Firstly, the current landscape bears little resemblance to that which existed prior to European arrival, if you consider the extent of land clearing, swamp drainage etc etc that has occurred. Secondly, there was much more mature forest vegetation which is better able to carry fire without being destroyed. Thirdly, not all country was burnt, some grasslands were subject to annual harvesting of the seed, range country and rainforests probably not deliberately burnt at all. No need as bushfires still occurred, they just didn’t do the damage we see today. Which leads to the last point, the climatic conditions now (with a drying continent and bushland) makes any fire potentially dangerous, even ‘cool burns’ are more difficult to control today, one recent study showed that ‘cool burns’ can remove 40% of hollow bearing trees in any stand. The evidence is all around us now with the current tragedy.

    My own view is that we need to adapt and use the best science we can to reduce the risks of fires. Rather than more burning, (given the extent of the recent fires), we need to be better at putting them out quicker using aerial control and restrict burning to maintain lives and assets in times of wildfire. We need better informed discussion. Thank you for your article.

  29. mark delmege

    yup. even common sense should tell you fire has a limited use.

  30. guest

    The elephant in the room? The time of European settlement in Australia pretty well corresponds with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the increased use of fossil fuels. The pre-industrial level of CO2 in the atmosphere of 280ppm has now blown out to 410ppm. The pre-industrial level of 280ppm for thousands of years was able to keep the average global temperature at about 14 degrees C. Now we witness Climate Change/ Global Warming “at the rate of 1 degree in 60 years; that is, 20 times faster than any previous sustained rate of temperature change.” (Tony Eggleton, CUP, 2013)

    So there is no point in talking about past climate change. It is the current Climate Change which is impacting on us.

    Much has been written about Climate Change, some of it by a gaggle of deniers, but our eyes can see Australia on fire now.

    While we refer to First Nations’ farming practices, a book examining European farming practices in Australia is Charles Massy’s “Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth”. An eye opener.

  31. guest

    Michael, sympathy to you for the destruction wrought on your beloved Kangaroo Island, sympathy we extend in particular to all those badly hurt across Australia.

    But Kangaroo Island is a special place in South Australia. The French Captain Nicolas Baudin and the English Matthew Flinders met near this island in 1802. There are places there with French names. It is a popular tourist destination, rich in agriculture, marine foods and pristine bushland at Flinders Chase on the western end, now destroyed. Also partly lost, Ligurian heritage bees.

    Ironically Flinders himself “poignantly noted that the arrival of the Europeans … also heralded the passing of what he romantically termed the golden age of the pelicans”.(cover note of “Alas, for the Pelicans!”, Wakefield Press, 2002)

    So also the destruction of nature in these wildfires across Australia.

    While there is much discussion about how we might deal with wildfires, eventually we have to face the reality of Anthropogenic Global Warming – the burning of fossil fuels.

  32. Michael Taylor

    The crazy excuses getting thrown at me as to why this won’t work make me wonder if the human race is yet fully evolved. Things like:

    Have you forgotten about the Industrial Revolution?

    There aren’t enough Aborigines.

    All Aborigines are still nomadic.

    On the latter, I should explain that they were only nomadic within the boundaries of their own language group/nation. Depending on their environment, this could be very large area or a very small one. They just couldn’t wander off into another nation’s area. To even enter the boundaries of another nation they first needed permission from the elders to enter their land.

    One dude – who knew absolutely nothing – told me to go and educate myself. 😳😳

  33. DrakeN

    “One dude – who knew absolutely nothing – told me to go and educate myself. ”

    A variation on the Dunning-Kruger effect writ loud.

    Much like the much vaunted “pub test” which assumes that alcohol affected persons have better reasoning powers than sober ones.

    The lunch time sessions at the Parliamentary Bar prove that to be a complete falsehood.

  34. DrakeN

    I weep for a world where the cancer of human activities and its incessant metastasising of built environment and associated activities is destroying its host.

    Like you, Michael, even though I have no historical roots to any of the fire ravaged areas, I weep for my land and for its non-human occupants – plant and animal.

    As Ghandi is reputed to have said in regard to a question as to what he thought about “Western Civilisation” – “That would be nice.”

  35. Rossleigh

    Yes, Michael, it’s always good to “educate” oneself. After Craig Kelly called Laura Tobin an “ignorant pommy weather girl”, she educated herself and just a few minutes later had a degree in Physics and Meteorology as well as years of relevant experience in meteorological fields.
    Still, I guess that’s no match for an ex-furniture salesman who played Rugby…

    Now, before all the furniture salesman get upset. I’m not saying that you don’t have a right to an opinion on things. It’s just that I’ll probably listen to my doctor about health matters before I’d follow your advice that ten drinks a day don’t really have a detrimental effect on one’s health and it’s all a scam by experts and this new couch should be fine for dealing with any side of effects of the drinking.

  36. Michael Taylor

    Yup, Rossleigh. Same here.

    Within five minutes of being told to educate myself I completed two degrees (one with Honours) and spent over three years working with Aboriginal communities.

    But hey, I still know jack shit compared to the average racist.

  37. corvus boreus

    Apparently the furniture-salesman-turned-pollie’s attempt at a ‘science’ project didn’t even pass the Piers review process.

  38. corvus boreus

    DrakeN
    A perfectly valid ‘pub test’ (conducted with an accompanying soundtrack performed by ‘SKY after dark’).
    Around 7 out of ten of those who appeared to be visibly intoxicated declared themselves ‘good to drive’.
    In the smokers’ area, there was a near-unanimous consensus that ‘durries won’t hurt ya’.
    I forgot to ask for general opinions about the alleged link between global warming and worsening bushfires.

  39. mark delmege

    I can see how my use of language was confusing in my first post comment #1. What I meant was heavy forest but the rest was confusing enough. Anyway this article presents the whole argument from an entirely different perspective. Fire of course changed the flora and fauna of Australia but the weather too apparently.
    http://theconversation.com/how-aboriginal-burning-changed-australias-climate-4454

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