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Traditional Fire Management in Northern Australia

Environment   Nov 9, 2017 by Erin McConnell

Bushfires are the single biggest contributor to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in northern Australia. Up to a third of northern Australia is burnt each year. Fires release greenhouse gasses by changing the carbon in the levels in the soil and vegetation as well as releasing methane and nitrous oxide (greenhouse gasses) through the burning process.The expected raise in temperature and therefore drought across northern Australia, will increase the likelihood of bushfires.

Prior to European settlement, Aboriginal Australians used land management practices such as lighting small fires in winter to prevent much larger summer fires. This meant that there were less large fires and therefore less carbon released into the atmosphere. Once Australia was colonised by the British, this practice was abolished and Indigenous knowledge was not valued. After many years of battling bush fires the Australian Government finally recognised the importance of traditional methods in reducing bushfires and therefore carbon emissions, and allowed projects such as WALFA to be initiated.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig.1 shows indigenous communities and their size around Australia, while Fig. 2 shows the frequency of fires in northern Australia. When compared, they show that areas where Indigenous Australians live are highly affected by fires. Additionally, these highly affected areas are often areas where native title exists. Therefore, it is imperative that Indigenous groups have a say in and contribute to fire reduction efforts.


The Western Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project was initiated after requests by traditional land owners in 1996, is led by Indigenous ranger groups and uses traditional fire management practices to reduce large summer fires. By using traditional techniques such as doing small burns in winter, the project reduces the number of large, devastating fires and thus reduces the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by these large fires. In 2006 ConocoPhillips, a multinational energy corporation, initiated a 17-year deal to buy carbon reductions from the WALFA project (through carbon credits), in return for around $1 million per year.

While the majority of the effects of Climate Change on Indigenous people are negative, projects like these provide economic opportunities to Indigenous communities, as well as ways to use their important traditional knowledge to contribute to reducing carbon emissions and therefore climate change.

By Erin McConnell, Amy Tomlinson and Simeon Koshy

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