Changing fire policy for the Good Earth

A burning issue for policymakers

Leslie Schultz, Jessica Weir, Helen Langley

Environment & energy, Government and governance | Australia

3 October 2019

This fire season, Australia must fight to protect its most valuable assets – working with traditional custodians in the lead-up needs to take a higher priority, Leslie Schultz, Jessica Weir, and Helen Langley write.

During hot, dry summers, extreme fires burn in the arid Australian interior, consuming three or four million hectares in a season.

Climate change and the absence of fire management have contributed to this situation. While these fires do not attract the kinds of attention received by bushfires in rural and peri-urban areas, they are destroying valuable assets.

One such valuable asset is an arid eucalypt forest in southeast Western Australia, which has evolved over 300 million years to survive in dry conditions. Covering 16 million hectares, it forms 30 per cent of all of Australia’s eucalypt forests.

More on this: Rising from the ashes: Bushfire policy

The eucalypts rise out of the red earth to provide a shady canopy from the hot sun for all – mammals, including us humans, plants, reptiles, and birds such as the Malleefowl and their remarkable nesting mounds.

This bird is known as Nganamarra to the Ngadju people, whose homelands include much of these forests, which they call Ngaata Ngalpa. The mature eucalypt stands were considered to be fire-resistant, but large tracts are now being burnt by extreme fires that are consuming the arid interior.

An initial response is being worked out through collaborations between government fire authorities and the traditional custodians who are the first peoples of these lands. This is part of the growing ‘ranger movement‘, which matches the priorities of traditional custodians with government policy goals.

Still, Australia’s land management legislation is designed around the land management responsibilities of governments, farmers, and pastoralists, and not the worldviews, priorities, and organisational forms of traditional custodians.

With their role as custodians partially recognised by the High Court as native title, a national re-think of statutory land management arrangements is required. This needs to consider afresh who the landholders are, what this means for understandings of the public good, and thus the goals of land management and their regulatory models.

At the same time, traditional custodians have to work together to navigate the native title system and look after kin and country according to their traditional and now also native title responsibilities.

Western Australia’s land tenure history means that much of the state either is or will be recognised as exclusive possession native title land. For Ngadju, native title recognition has recognised their status on government maps as the largest landholders in southern Australia.

More on this: Indigenous policy must be in Indigenous hands

Ngadju Kala – Ngadju fire – understands fire as a way to support and protect people and country through cool burns.

Cool burns protect sacred and heritage sites, including rock holes, caves, artwork, strategically planted bush tucker such as quandong fruit trees, and wanyaar – the water trees that Ngadju have created by adapting certain eucalypts to farm rainwater and condensation into water reserves.

More than just protecting specific sites, these cool burns are part of Parna Yalunya – Earth’s Good – a way of living with country and kin that is attentive to sustaining life-supporting relationships over generations. The logic of Parna Yalunya is that we all lose if we lose these extraordinary arid forests.

In recent times Ngadju have focused on expanding their opportunities to conduct cool burns by founding a ranger group, a Rural Bush Fire Brigade, and a conservation organisation.

They have also navigated the regulatory requirements to establish the sign-off for these burns – but efforts to undertake collaborative regional fire management have been slow, with a public sector still adapting to native title.

More on this: Returning teaching to the land

Traditional custodians have also had to adapt to this very technical and legal native title system, and how it relates to their traditional responsibilities to kin and country.

The government’s adaption to the landholding and land management presence of traditional custodians necessarily requires a policy shift in understanding what is at risk of being consumed by bushfires. This is about bringing country into fire policy, or, rather, positioning fire policy within country.

Attention about bushfire risk is often focused on rural and peri-urban areas where most people live, but the arid places of Australia are not without value. They are an iconic and powerful part of the Australian identity we all share.

Ngadju are meeting with other groups across Southern Australia and the Ten Deserts Project to discuss their fire management responsibilities and land, water, and sea management issues more generally, including raising their concerns with government.

Environmental groups, government, and researchers are also collaborating with Ngadju to protect Ngaata Ngalpa the Great Western Woodlands and conserve its biodiversity value.

Meanwhile, the earth turns and the next hot season arrives. Without the regulatory support needed, and because the forests are so quickly being lost and hold so much value, Ngadju are now committed to obtaining their own fire trucks and equipment. With this, they will be able to undertake traditional burning during the cool months. This is Parna Yalunya – re-igniting and re-fashioning old practices with new for life yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

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