Living in a land of fire

Intergrative commentary
Professor Rob Whelan, University of Wollongong
Professor Peter Kanowski, Australian National University
Dr Malcolm Gill, Australian National University
Dr Alan Andersen, CSIRO Tropical Ecosystems Research Centre
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006

Case study 3: Integrating Indigenous and western knowledge systems for land management

Landscape fire is fundamental to traditional Indigenous society as it has played a key role in natural resource management, as well as serving a variety of cultural and spiritual needs. In the north, where Indigenous people are major landowners, fire management remains an integral part of Indigenous life. Although Indigenous fire management had been severely disrupted, much of the traditional knowledge has been retained, and can be re-applied to landscape management (Horstman and Wightman 2001).

This opportunity is being realised by a family of traditional owners in Kakadu National Park, who are re-applying Indigenous fire management at Boggy Plain, a Ramsar-listed wetland on the floodplain of the South Alligator River. Boggy Plain is a site of outstanding biodiversity and it is also an important place for hunting and harvesting by Indigenous people. It is habitat for species including the Magpie Goose (historically, up to 85 per cent of the total Northern Territory’s magpie geese have gathered there to feed) and the Long-necked Turtle.

These species, along with a range of water plants such as water chestnuts (Eleocharis species), Wild Rice (Oryza rufipogon) and Red Lily (Nelumbo nucifera), are important food resources for local Indigenous people. Following removal of the Asian water buffalo from Kakadu in the late 1980s, the wetland became overgrown with a grass, Hymenachne acutangula, reducing both biodiversity and food availability for Indigenous people.

To senior traditional owner Violet Lawson, the solution was clear—fire needed to be reintroduced to Boggy Plain. Since 2001, Violet’s family have set about burning Boggy Plain, based on traditional knowledge handed down from Violet’s mother and father. This knowledge has been passed on to Violet’s children, and in turn it is being passed on to their children.

The family has implemented a pattern of repeated burning over November and December when the wetland has little standing water, and few birds are in residence. The Hymenachne is still green, so the first fires just burn the drier bases, causing the grass to fall over and die. This provides fuel for subsequent fires. The fires are all relatively low intensity, and the surrounding woodland margins are burnt early in the dry season (April and May) to prevent the flames escaping into the broader landscape.

Using fire, the family has transformed the wetlands of Boggy Plain from a dense thicket of grass into a mosaic of habitats that is rich in biodiversity and of greatly enhanced cultural value to Indigenous people. With support from Parks Australia and the Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist, Violet’s family have been monitoring the changes in vegetation since they began burning. Vegetation change is being assessed using a combination of historical aerial photographs (from 1950 to 1991), Landsat satellite imagery, real-time, high resolution Quickbird satellite images, and ground-based surveys.

More recently, CSIRO has joined the partnership and the project is institutionalised under the national Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre. As employees of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Violet’s daughter Sandra McGregor and son-in-law Peter Christophersen are now quantifying the extent to which fire has enhanced hunting and plant harvesting efficiency, and are assessing the contribution this makes to the regional Indigenous economy.

The project has achieved a range of beneficial ecological, social and economic outcomes, including:

  • enhanced biodiversity in Ramsar-listed wetlands within a World Heritage National Park
  • enhanced cultural value of the wetlands in terms of increased availability of important food resources for Indigenous people
  • intergenerational transfer of traditional ecological knowledge, from old people to children
  • demonstration of the value of combining two knowledge systems, traditional ecological knowledge and Western science.

The Boggy Plain project serves as an internationally significant model for integrating Indigenous and Western knowledge systems to achieve positive outcomes for both traditional resource use and the conservation of biodiversity. It has received formal recognition as such through its achievement as a finalist in the inaugural Northern Territory Research and Innovation Awards. The lessons learnt are now being applied to enhance biodiversity and the tourist experience at Kakadu’s most iconic wetland, the internationally acclaimed Yellow Waters.