Biodiversity publications archive

Country in flames

Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia - Biodiversity series, Paper no. 3
Deborah Bird Rose (editor)
Biodiversity Unit
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories and the North Australia Research Unit, The Australian National University, 1995


Deborah Bird Rose
North Australia Research Unit

'Country in Flames' was inspired by my awareness of the increasing urgency of the need to understand and promote biological diversity, and by my desire to learn more about how biodiversity and fire are related to each other and can be managed together in North Australia. From conversations with ecologists, social scientists, Aboriginal people, lawyers and others, I realised the extent to which my concerns were shared by many other people who rarely get an opportunity to exchange knowledge and expertise with each other, and I decided to organise this Symposium. The Biodiversity Unit of the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories made a timely intervention with funding and a commitment toward publication.

The Symposium was a public event attended by about eighty people. It was held in Darwin and was organised to coincide with a conference on use and management of fire, organised by the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory. Invited speakers and discussants represented a range of interest groups: archaeologists, anthropologists, legal people, Aboriginal land owners, fire ecologists and land managers. The whole of the Symposium was taped, and the proceedings are presented here in their entirety. I have edited the discussions to remove a few conversational asides, but I have made no attempt to smooth contention or to reconcile differing points of view. Some of the most insightful statements about the state of Australia's ecosystems and about our social responsibilities toward our world and our future were made in discussions, as participants challenged each other to clarify their views.

Taken together, the papers and the discussions illuminate the paradoxical quality of this period in the life of the nation and the world. In one respect, so much is known by scientists and by observant people who interact with ecosystems that it is no longer possible to say that there is not enough information on which to base the decisions now facing us. In another respect, large domains of information are held by discrete groups of people who have little interaction with each other, so that there is a communication void amongst precisely those people who should be interacting with each other. I refer most specifically to Aboriginal natural ecologists and university-trained scientific ecologists. In yet another respect, considering the degree of agreement about what is known to be happening with Australian ecosystems, there is a lack of communication with the general public. Concomitantly there appears to be remarkably little social action toward containing or curtailing the spirals of loss which are having such a dramatic and irreversible impact on the present and future biodiversity of this continent.

The main points arising from the day's proceedings can be briefly summarised:

  1. The savannas of North Australia are highly flammable ecosystems which have developed over millions of years under the influence of periodic burning. Prior to human occupation of the landscape (now believed to be some 60 000 years, at least) lightning-ignited fires were a natural, indeed formative, part of the system.
  2. The controlled use of fire by Aboriginal people has a long tradition in the landscape. This continues to the present.
  3. As well as use of fire by Aboriginal people in traditional land management, the controlled use of fire is a vital management tool employed by pastoralists, bushfire control authorities, and conservation authorities.
  4. The ecological, social and cultural uses of controlled fire (particularly Aboriginal) are widely misunderstood in the community at large, including the media, who continue to equate North Australian fire management activities (eg fuel hazard reduction) with the potentially catastrophic fires of temperate Australia. This community perception is very far from the truth. Fires in North Australia are grass borne and generally involve little risk to human life, whereas fires in southern Australia have the potential, under severe climatic conditions, to grow into life threatening firestorms raging in the treetops.
  5. Changing systems of land tenure in North Australia are resulting in changing legal status of Aboriginal people's right to burn. At the same time, the increasing use of land for conservation and reclamation purposes is requiring an increasingly sophisticated use of fire as a land management tool.
  6. Land management involving knowledgeable and controlled use of fire is essential to preserving ecosystem diversity and biological diversity in North Australia. A diversity of fire regimes is best suited to generating the diversity of habitats which enable biodiversity.
  7. The knowledge necessary to the creation and maintenance of habitat diversity is local and detailed. Different domains of knowledge notably Aboriginal domains and scientists' domains, approach these issues in different and often complementary ways.

The presentation of papers in this volume follows closely their presentation in the Symposium. The first panel, which I chaired, includes an opening address by Wali Fejo, a Larrakia (Darwin region) man, who took the opportunity to remind us of the important relationship between fire and sociality, and the importance of fire as a metaphor in human culture. The papers address the intellectual history of scientific interest in 'firestick farming' (Rhys Jones); the challenges that management of biodiversity pose for an Australian sense of identity (Tony Press); the centrality of fire for the Yanyuwa Aboriginal people of the Gulf of Carpentaria in their history and memory, their relationships to the dead, and in the complex interlocking relationships and rights among the living (John Bradley); the Northern Territory Bushfires Council's approach to fire management (Russell Anderson); and an examination of Aboriginal people's legal status with respect to burning country (Camilla Hughes). Discussion following this panel focused on relationships between Aboriginal land owners and the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory and on other aspects of the legal status of various stakeholders' rights to burn or not burn. As evidence of the extent to which the concept of Aboriginal land management, denoted by the term 'firestick farming', has become part of mainstream Australian cultural knowledge, Rhys Jones read out Mark O'Connor's poem 'Firestick Farming'; it is reproduced in this volume with permission.

The second panel, chaired by Kathy Deveraux, comprised Aboriginal speakers. April Bright offered a detailed discussion of her people's burning strategies, types of fires and land forms, and concerns for biodiversity in the Finniss River region of the Northern Territory; Patrick Green spoke briefly to issues of Aboriginal people's attempts to exercise traditional rights to burn in the Kimberley; and Joe Yunupingu spoke of his concerns about improper use of fire, and was especially eloquent on his concerns about the European practice of killing animals for sport as is happening in east Arnhem Land. Discussion following this panel brought out further information on policies and practices associated with Aboriginal burning.

In the third panel, chaired by Jeremy Russell-Smith, ecological scientists spoke to their particular domains of expertise: complex changes in Queensland ecosystems owing to the absence of fire (Peter Stanton); the complex interactions of a range of factors leading to loss of biodiversity in Central Australia and the need to get university-trained scientists in communication with Aboriginal natural scientists (Peter Latz); the effects of different kinds of fire on frillneck lizards (Tony Griffiths); differences between temperate zones and wet/dry tropics, and the importance of maximising habitat diversity (Dick Braithwaite); and the centrality of fire to management of biodiversity in North Australia, and some of the philosophical issues posed by a realistic assessment of current knowledge (David Bowman). Discussion following this panel followed up some of the regional comparative issues raised by the different papers. In this discussion, too, participants and members of the audience began to grapple with some of the social and philosophical issues facing us.

In the final discussion I invited each chairperson to offer a few comments for discussion, and then I opened the discussion to the whole audience. The conference participants called upon local and national communities to:

At the broadest level, the issues we face in North Australia are similar to those faced elsewhere in Australia and in the world. David Bowman, in his paper on the skillful use of fire, states (p 107):

In a sense science has met a boundary, as further refinement of ... [scientific analysis] will do little to improve things in the North Australian landscapes. Of course applied research is required to determine what are the most effective fire-management strategies to achieve particular ends, but this is technological rather than scientific research... Fundamentally the problem of how to manage fire to conserve biodiversity is not a scientific matter. The difficult choices regarding what will be managed and what will not, need to be made by society ...

This volume is a contribution from a range of experts in North Australia and is directed toward the nation: the moment is urgent, the knowledge is in place, the decisions are difficult, but there is a wealth of expertise provided there is a national commitment.

David Bowman kept me on the ball, Jenny Green helped with the organisation, Sally Roberts taped the whole Symposium, Greg Miles assisted ably when the slide projector went berserk, Darrell Lewis attended to innumerable tasks, Jeremy Russell-Smith helped summarise the results of the symposium as discussed above; Sean Heffernan transcribed the tapes, Ann Webb attended to the preparation of the manuscript for publication and assisted with the editing; Jenny Green put the book together, and Neal Hardy provided a range of consultations, advice and assistance. The contributors were eloquent on the day, and most were prompt in finalising their contribution; those who engaged in discussions contributed immensely to the liveliness of the Symposium. I thank them all for making possible this timely, empirical, detailed, impassioned, multi-voiced book.