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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