Aboriginal communities call for ongoing funding of cultural burning for bushfire mitigation

29 January 2020

Published by https://www.abc.net.au

AUSTRALIA – An Aboriginal community in New South Wales says it is unable to continue the traditional burning practices that saved their land from a devastating bushfire.

The Bega Valley community is one of many across Australia to have demonstrated the benefits of traditional cool fire burning, but are unable to sustain cultural fire management because of a lack of recurrent program funding.

Dan Morgan, from South East Local Land Services, said when a massive, fast moving bushfire tore through the coastal village of Tathra in 2018, it burnt around the land where the Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council had conducted a traditional cool burn the previous year.

“After we did the burn we got a lot of the native grasses coming back, and native sedges,” Mr Morgan said.

“What that does is it retains the moisture in the soil.”

Healthy landscape that retains moisture

Practitioners say that the low-intensity burns traditionally used by Aboriginal people over thousands of years encourage regrowth that results in a more fire-resistant landscape.

Mr Morgan said that it was a different approach to suppressing wildfire.

“Modern day hazard reduction burns are based on reducing fuel loads per hectare,” he said.

“When we do burning traditionally we’re creating a healthy landscape, and by doing that we’re maintaining soil moisture.”

Oliver Costello, from Firesticks Alliance, works with Aboriginal communities and land management agencies across Australia to reintroduce traditional burning.

He said the Tathra example was one of many across Australia that had demonstrated the effectiveness of the technique.

“If we were being resourced, then that ranger team could have been doing those burns all through the landscape,” Mr Costello said.

“We would have had a much bigger impact.”

Aboriginal teams work key agencies

The Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council is the largest private landholder in the Bega Valley, responsible for the management of a vast area of bushland, much of which is on urban fringes such as at Tathra.

The CEO of the Bega LALC, Glenn Willcox, said it worked with other agencies such as the RFS and NPWS.

“The Aboriginal cultural approaches to burning are increasingly seen as an alternative and potentially a better method for managing hazard reduction burns,” he said.

But Mr Willcox said the Land Council has difficulty finding funding for traditional cool burning programs.

“The NSW RFS has paid teams that do much of the proactive fire mitigation works,” he said.

“Our crews’ activities are comparable to these paid teams.”

Mr Willcox said that land councils in NSW did not receive recurrent government funding, and instead were required to compete for land management grants when they became available.

“It’s very short term funding cycles — you might get enough funding to spend a couple of months doing some traditional burning work and then the funding dries up,” he said.

“The opportunities for funding this sort of work have become increasingly limited.”

Mr Willcox said that with each project they build a new team, provide training, develop skills, plan and begin work on a targeted areas of land, “and then funding runs out and the momentum is lost.”

While the benefits of cultural burning have been getting recognition over the last decade, the “stop-start” nature of the funding mean that the communities need to start from the beginning again with each project.

Mr Costello said that ongoing funding was necessary to expand the number of skilled and resourced Aboriginal work crews, and support long-term land management strategies.

“You know, one burn here and one burn there is not a cultural fire regime,” Mr Costello said.

“To turn the opportunity into what it can be we need long term investment.”

Traditional cultural burning techniques shared

Aboriginal work crews learn from Aboriginal cultural fire practitioners as well as training with the Rural Fire Service.

Mr Morgan said the knowledge passed in both directions, with non-Aboriginal fire services staff learning about traditional cool-fire burns — especially the holistic environmental management objectives — with a focus on the type of regrowth after burning.

Cultural burning practitioners also work with farmers and other private landowners on using traditional methods as part of their farm and environmental management.

These projects are also seen as a way of bridging the social and cultural gap between the broader community and Aboriginal community, and a positive way to support Aboriginal culture and employment.

“It’s connecting the Aboriginal community back to culture, back to country, it’s creating employment opportunities,” Mr Morgan said.

“It really is a win-win situation.”

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Key points:

  • A burning practice that saved land from the savage 2018 Tathra bushfire is being stalled by funding issues
  • The Indigenous approach focusses, among other things, on regrowth and retaining soil moisture, rather than just reducing fuel loads
  • The Bega Valley Aboriginal community says its work is comparable to that of paid firefighters
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