6 Mar 2011, 3:34pm
Case Studies Principles
by admin

Indigenous wetland burning: conserving natural and cultural heritage in Australia’s World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park

Sandra McGregor, Violet Lawson, Peter Christophersen, Rod Kennett, James Boyden, Peter Bayliss, Adam Liedloff, Barbie McKaige, Alan N. Andersen (2010). Indigenous wetland burning: conserving natural and cultural heritage in Australia’s World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park. Human Ecol (2010) 38:721-729

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


Growing worldwide interest in, and appreciation of, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is creating a new approach to contemporary land and sea management (Redford and Mansour 1996; Berkes et al. 2000; Huntington 2000; Schmidt and Peterson 2009). Driven by concerns about the failure of western science and management to address ecosystem degradation and species loss, people are looking to the deep ecological understandings and management practices that have guided indigenous use of natural resources for millennia for alternative ways of sustainably managing the earth’s natural resources (De Walt 1993; Bart 2006; Berkes and Davidson-Hunt 2006). Equitable partnerships between indigenous and non-indigenous researchers and managers are revealing a way of looking after the world that emphasizes human obligations to natural resource management and promotes holistic thinking about the role and impact of humans in the environment (Ross et al. 2009). This new recognition of traditional knowledge, coupled with greater control by indigenous peoples over their land and sea estates, holds great promise for better management of the world’s natural resources.

Aboriginal people have occupied northern Australia for at least 40,000 years, and over this period have developed a rich culture of law, ceremony, oral history and detailed ecological knowledge. Despite nearly two centuries of European colonization, large areas of northern Australia remain in Aboriginal ownership or have recently been returned to indigenous management and control (Ross et al. 2009). A high priority for Aboriginal people is to record and revitalize their indigenous knowledge and practices to meet stewardship obligations and to ensure they are available for younger generations of Aboriginal land and sea managers. In recent years there has also been increasing recognition by non-indigenous peoples of the value of applying such traditional ecological knowledge and practice to contemporary land management (Burbidge et al. 1988; Horstman and Wightman 2001; Walsh and Mitchell 2002).

This is particularly the case for fire management in the savanna landscapes of northern Australia, where in many areas fire management remains an integral part of Aboriginal life and traditional fire knowledge is still strong (Haynes 1985; Whitehead et al. 2003; Hill et al. 2004; Fig. 1).

The general principles behind Aboriginal burning in Australia have been well documented (Jones 1969; Nicholson 1981; Bowman 1998), and there are emerging examples in northern Australia where Aboriginal burning practices are being adopted on non-Aboriginal lands to improve environmental management (Russell-Smith et al. 2009). However there are few case studies written and informed from an Aboriginal perspective that describe in detail the specific aims and practices of Aboriginal fire management. Effective documentation is important for validating traditional ecological knowledge (Davis and Ruddle 2010), and for enabling Western land managers to appreciate both the depth of ecological understanding held by indigenous people and the complexity and effectiveness of traditional land management practices.

In this paper we provide such a case study, describing Aboriginal fire management of wetlands in the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park. In Kakadu, traditional ecological knowledge is being used in powerful combination with Western science to manage and monitor vital cultural and natural resources, leading to a dramatic enhancement of biodiversity and cultural values, and to a deeply enriched tourist experience. We hope this paper will contribute to a greater appreciation of the importance of fire management to Aboriginal people, and a greater understanding of the complexities of managing land with fire. …

The burning of wetlands, with the seasonally shifting land and water interfaces, is a more complex procedure than burning the surrounding savanna woodlands, and the timing and extent of traditional wetland burning continue to be the focus of scientific and community debate. This scientific debate can constrain contemporary Aboriginal burning by raising doubts in the minds of Aboriginal people over whether or not they are doing the “right thing.” The knowledge we draw on and present here has been passed down from Minnie and Yorky Billy Alderson, parents to Violet Lawson, and grandparents to Sandra McGregor. Like their ancestors before them, Minnie and Yorky lived all their lives on the country, and had traditional obligations to manage it and to pass on their knowledge to the next generations. …


From an Aboriginal perspective, effective burning for cultural and natural resource management requires a finely tuned, expert use of fire that is based on deep experiential knowledge, honed over generations of intimate living with the landscape. This knowledge and practical experience is increasingly difficult to maintain as Aboriginal people experience severe social dislocation as a result of engagement with the mainstream economy. However, although Aboriginal culture (like any other culture) will continue to adapt and change, the underpinning Aboriginal law that provides inherent obligations to care for the land remains unaltered. Violet’s family does not want to return to a wholly traditional lifestyle, but they still retain strong aspirations for maintaining traditional land management practices. The traditional knowledge required to do this is still strong, passed on to Violet’s children and on again to their children.

The re-application of traditional fire management to Kakadu wetlands dramatically enhances biodiversity as well as the importance of these wetlands in the cultural values of the local Aboriginal people. The enhanced biodiversity values are being documented through science-based monitoring that involves both ground-based surveys and remote sensing. The particular burning practices we have described are highly context-specific, and we do not suggest that they can be widely generalised to other environments (see Agrawal 2002 for a critique of generalizing traditional ecological knowledge). However, we suggest that by integrating indigenous and Western knowledge systems to achieve positive outcomes for both traditional resource use and the conservation of biodiversity (Moller et al. 2004), this specific burning program serves as an internationally significant model for the use of fire in the joint management of indigenous lands elsewhere.

A critical ingredient for success has been that Aboriginal people continue to exercise considerable control over burning, and have not had their knowledge and practices subverted by Park management. Aboriginal people want to have control of their knowledge, to have the opportunity to put it into practice, and to be able to pass it on to their next generation. Many Aboriginal people throughout northern Australia have the skill and knowledge to carry out landscape burning, but often lack the guidance, encouragement and resources to put this knowledge into practice. The challenge is to empower such skill and knowledge for the benefit of all.

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