AUSTRALIA – A young man walks purposefully through the bush, drawing a line of fire behind him.
The dry grass bursts into crackling flames. He nods as he looks on, pleased with the day’s work.
Here in this remote pocket of Arnhem Land, Warddeken rangers are doing what Aboriginal people have done for thousands of years, but are now combining traditional knowledge of fire management with new technology to protect the landscape.
Through this they gain carbon credits that are traded with mining companies and the Federal Government.
Since 2006, ConocoPhillips has paid the project group about $1 million per year to offset greenhouse gas emissions from its LNG plant in Darwin.
Kabulwarnamyo is the main outstation in the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area in the Northern Territory.
It’s extremely remote a nine-hour drive from Darwin through thick bush, crossing dozens of rivers, along unmarked roads.
And it’s the birthplace of the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project, which uses fire very differently, said Dean Yibarbuk, a fire ecologist who works with scientists on this carbon collecting project.
When Mr Yibarbuk first began working, he said elders had noticed a decline in the landscape due to a decrease in traditional early dry season burning, which helps prevent bigger, hotter and uncontrolled fires later in the season.
“We purify this country to make the land become alive again for our birds and animals to come and feed on, to make our shrubs to bring new pollens,” he said.
Back then, families would burn on foot, circling the terrain.
“[Now] we’re using two toolboxes, the traditional and scientific knowledge it works well,” Mr Yibarbuk said.
“In Arnhem Land, we’ve been burning for thousands of years. Even then colonisation appeared, we’ve still been burning.
“Once you lose those tools there’s no better way of looking after or managing country.”
Bushfires contribute up to 4 per cent of Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, and in Arnhem Land, uncontrolled fires could wipe out 40 per cent of the land.
Now there are more than 80 projects across northern Australia using this particular methodology of burning early in the season to reduce devastating bushfires later on.
Traditional owners are consulted about which areas to burn, which helps them retain a connection to their spiritual obligations to the land, Mr Yibarbuk said.
The Arnhem Land project is believed to be a world-first in using fire to create carbon credits, said Warddeken’s operations manager Jake Weigl.
“When I first came to Arnhem Land I saw a beautiful environment and people saw themselves as part of the environment. People and the environment were one and the same thing,” he said.
About 20 rangers work from two stations and cover an area half the size of the Netherlands, or about 16,000 square kilometres.
There’s only about 600km of roads crisscrossing a landscape of rocky escarpments and gorges, so the rangers mostly travel by helicopter, which is expensive.
He said that when the program first started about 15 years ago, there were a lot of sceptics.
“Especially the whole idea that early burning by lighting fires would prevent more carbon being released into the atmosphere sounded fairly crazy to a lot of people,” he said.
But there have been countless benefits from the program, as the technology and skills of people on the ground have become increasingly sophisticated.
“It’s also an avenue for employment pumping funds back into remote communities where there often isn’t a lot of opportunities for making a buck,” Mr Weigl said.
There’s also fewer fires travelling large distances and almost wiping out some types of vegetation.
“Sometimes a fire would start in August down in Bulman and wouldn’t go out until it reached the coast or the wet season started, we’re not seeing those sorts of fires anymore,” he said.
“We’re getting on top of our fires generally within a week of them starting, which is great, they’re not burning for months on end anymore, that’s where we’re making a real difference.”
He said the local community was thriving, with jobs for locals who are enthused about their work.
“When we succeed at putting out a large wildfire I ask them what it feels like and they say it’s like winning the grand final at footy,” he said.
“People get a sense of accomplishment when we succeed at things that seemed impossible to start with, and no one person could have done on their own.”
There’s a strong appetite for locally driven fire management carbon credit projects, said Shaun Ansell, Warddeken CEO.
“When corporate Australia look at them they see projects that are proven, that are successful, and that have such a significant social and environmental impact in the areas they operate in that they’re truly achieving a gold standard in terms of carbon offsets,” he said.
“[But] it’s not just about the carbon offsets, it’s about the ability for those projects to actually deliver upon social and environmental outcomes for this part of the world, so it’s tremendously important.”
In 2016 alone, Arnhem Land projects produced over 800,000 tonnes of carbon abatement.
The rangers plan to look at how the burning project has affected the way carbon is stored in the environment.
“Large logs that lie on the ground and aren’t consumed by late season fires, contribute to a pool of carbon which increases because the early burning allows for there to be more of them,” Mr Ansell said.
“As a result of that you get to claim the carbon that’s stored in there, so that methodology will significantly increase the amount of carbon that can be accounted for each year.”
They’ll also look at how carbon is sequestered into the living biomass of the landscape.
“When you change from a late season-dominated regime with lots of hot intense fires, to one with fewer hot intense fires and more gentle early-season burning, you actually get an increase in the growth of existing trees but also the recruitment of new trees,” he said.
“So you basically get more stems per hectare and from that more carbon stored in the environment.”
Mr Ansell said in 11 years, the community has grown from “a small collection of tents” to more than 50 permanent residents.
“People are happy, they’re fulfilled, most mature age people work,” he said.
He said that Warddeken employed 147 Indigenous people in the past financial year, and called for the Federal Government to invest more in strong ranger projects.
“Right across Australia as a whole, people want to work, and they want to work in these programs that have such meaning and consequence for them.”
Ranger Lindsay Whitehurst said he loved his job.
“It’s really wonderful out here, being on country, working on land,” he said.
“We need to protect the land, keep it safe, keep it healthy, keep it the way it’s meant to be.”