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Opinion And World View: Australian Aboriginal Land Management Practices Go Global

"It is now well understood that Aboriginal people actively promote land productivity and biodiversity,'' writes Paul Newbury.

Fire and detailed knowledge of their local environment are the key components of Aboriginal people’s land management practices. In the past, they used fire in game drives and for clearing vegetation to improve access and later greening. Fire is an ancient practice that helped form the Australian environment and its fire-dependent ecosystems.

In the Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia (Allen & Unwin 2011), Australian historian, Bill Gammage says Aboriginal land managers burnt most of the Australian continent every one to five years depending on local conditions.

Gammage argues that prior to European contact, Aboriginal people were highly mobile and through precise firing of the landscape, they created the continent of Australia. This is possession in its most fundamental sense and it represents a denial of terra nullius, the outrageous concept that at the time of the British invasion, the Australian continent was a land belonging to no one. This was overturned by the High Court of Australia in 1972 when the Justices handed down the Mabo decision.

It is now well understood that Aboriginal people actively promote land productivity and biodiversity. Today, they use mosaic burning to maintain biodiversity in national parks and through fire frequency, intensity and timing, they generate a dynamic mosaic of ecosystems at various stages of recovery.

Indigenous wisdom lies in the people’s awareness of life systems and in their paradigm, knowledge is not centralised in hierarchical structures like schools and universities but is dispersed throughout society.

The awareness people possess, teach, exchange, and inherit constitutes their intellectual property - their knowledge is locally-based and that is the key to its value. Gammage speaks passionately of the Aboriginal connection to country prior to the invasion:

Every yard of ground was loved and cared for, every corner rich with story. It is one of the great tragedies of our history that we so casually cast that knowledge and that love aside.

Recently, the Australian Government began a program - The Savanna Fire Management Initiative as part of a $600 million fast-track financial package to fund climate change programs in developing countries. The initiative is based on the re-introduction in northern Australia of traditional Aboriginal patchwork ‘cool’ burning of savanna early in the dry season. The Aboriginal people of the region carried out slow burns for thousands of years prior to the European invasion to stimulate regrowth of vegetation and to prevent late summer destructive fires.

The Australian Government has facilitated the return of Aboriginal traditional owners to their lands to resume this age-old tradition. It is now dedicated to market Aboriginal traditional land management practices to the world particularly to sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and South America where a similar savanna environment is common.

As in Australia, traditional fire management practices have been interrupted in these areas of the world through colonisation resulting in uncontrolled and destructive wild fires that emit large amounts of greenhouse gases. Australia’s Indigenous peoples living on their traditional lands can now generate sustainable incomes through the Australian carbon market.

At Dohar, Qatar in December 2012, an Australian delegation launched Australia’s initiative ‘Savanna Fire Management: Mitigation and Sustainable Development Opportunities for Developing Countries’.

The lead speaker was the Hon. Mark Dreyfus MP, Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. In this initiative, the Australian Government has been working with the United Nations University (UNU) and the Northern Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance Ltd (NAILSMA).

Peter Yu, the Chairman of NAILSMA, spoke at the launch together with Sam Johnson, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at UNU who has been working on the project as part of UNU’s Traditional Knowledge Initiative.

Mark Dreyfus said the initiative builds on the pioneering savanna fire management methodology recently approved under Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI). The Australian Government with UNU and NAILSMA is now helping to propagate savanna fire management mitigation projects with developing countries who have similar savanna environments. The aim is to obviate uncontrolled and destructive wild fires and the release of poisonous greenhouse gas emissions.

Peter Yu says Indigenous land managers have been leading the development of the CFI methodology for savanna fire management in Australia. There are two savanna fire management projects underway in North Australia: the award-winning West Arnhem Land Fire Management (WALFA) Project and the Fish River Fire Project that has been recently approved as a carbon emission offset project under the CFI. This means the project can generate carbon credits that can be sold into the Australian carbon market. On these issues, Mr Yu said:

These projects have the potential to generate sustainable livelihoods in remote communities where few other opportunities for earning an income exist … but more importantly, they strengthen ties to culture and country and provide an opportunity for Indigenous people to stay on their ancestral lands.

WALFA has been the driving force to get traditional owners to reconnect with their country and generate sustainable livelihoods that allow them to live on their traditional lands.

Traditional lands returned to Indigenous people in Australia under land rights and native title legislation are commonly referred to as the Indigenous estate. It comprises more than one thousand small Aboriginal communities covering 1.5 million sq km or 23% of Australia. As well, Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) cover 270,000 sq kms or 3.4% of Australia; and Aboriginal-owned land under joint management with government bodies like National Parks cover 69,300 sq kms or 0.9% of Australia.

These small communities work to rehabilitate and protect the natural and cultural values of their lands that are of fundamental significance to their material and spiritual wellbeing.

In the last decade, the Australian Government has invested significant resources in protecting Australia’s natural heritage in a changing climate. Australia's National Reserve System (NRS) 2009-2030 is a nation-wide network of protected land set up to safeguard Australia's unique native species, natural ecosystems and associated indigenous cultural values in perpetuity under natural and cultural resource management programs. These lands are an integral part of the Caring for our Country movement.

The threat to biodiversity posed by climate change requires the Australian Government to accelerate its efforts to expand and better manage the NRS. Its immediate objective is to increase the NRS by 25 per cent and Australia’s network of protected areas by 125 million hectares by the end of 2013.

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