Ancient wisdom, modern solutions: Reviving cultural burning in southeastern Australia
Updated: May 18
Wetter weather associated with La Nina has given southeastern Australia a few years of respite after the devastating 2019-20 bushfires. But El Nino is on its way back, turbocharged by climate change with global emissions still hitting record highs. It's time to take action. Reviving cultural burning through a First Nations Fire Ranger Program could play a vital role in meeting the growing and interrelated challenges of climate change, catastrophic bushfires and ecological degradation in southeastern Australia.
Cultural burning - also known as traditional burning, patchwork burning or fire stick farming - has been used effectively for fire management and caring for country by First Australians since the Dreamtime. It involves carefully controlled, cool, patchwork burning of the landscape to promote biodiversity, reduce fuel loads, and prevent larger wildfires.
While one of the most important biodiversity conservation activities at Wombat Ridge Nature Reserve in the Southern Highlands of NSW, cultural burning is largely absent across most of southeastern Australia. A First Nations Fire Ranger Program based on successful Indigenous Ranger initiatives already operating in Australia's north, could help bring it back. In addition to protecting the environment, the program would also provide significant benefits for regional Aboriginal communities including employment and business opportunities, cultural education, and youth diversion.
Developing accredited carbon abatement methodologies for cultural burning in southeastern Australia would be a necessary condition for making a First Nations Fire Ranger Program financially viable. Like the Savannah Burning methodology in Australia's north, methodologies for southeastern Australia could help fund cultural burning. Developing these methodologies would require investment, collaboration and co-design among Indigenous communities, land managers, and carbon market experts. But this would be effort well spent. Underpinned by carbon-market finance, the program could integrate with existing private and public land management activities. Farmers, government, non-government and other land owners could all engage First Nations Fire Rangers.
It is important to note that the use of cultural burning should be done in an inclusive, culturally appropriate and respectful way, with the active permission, involvement and leadership of local First Nations communities. This includes respecting the knowledge and expertise of First Nations fire practitioners and ensuring that their cultural protocols and practices are followed.