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

Discussion 2

Rhys Jones: I'd like to ask Patrick a question. I've just been to the Kimberley, working with Sue O'Connor, and afterwards I went on a journey, a bit like the journey that Tony Press was talking about, north to the Drysdale River and then across the Pentecost sandstones back to Wyndham. And what struck me was that the Kimberley, now, is a bit like the Alligator River area was about twenty years ago. One of the things that struck me was that very little of the country was actually burnt. You have these kind of tall dry grasses and lots of notices saying 'cattle is grass' or something, although I didn't see any cattle, particularly.

So, there's obviously a different, a totally different culture of land management which, I think, possibly, is more influenced by Perth than it is by comparable northern experience. That's just an observation. You might like to talk a bit about that in terms of the attitude of the pastoralist to fire. But also, what's going to happen in an area like, say, the Drysdale River National Park? Is there going to be any attempt to involve Aborigines in the management of that park ? In the same way as is happening more and more in the Top End?

Patricia Green: I think, I don't even have to remind most of you people, other than we've now just had the High Court hearings with Mabo and all that stuff coming on. And the WA State Government is now trying to challenge that, this month in the High Court. We're now in a position to negotiate with who can run the land and how it can be run. Now, the Conservation and Land Management [CALM] there is working with Aboriginal people who are the traditional owners of those parks. We've had a number of agreements. And there are others throughout the State but we're not getting the full say, or not even a very little to say, on how we can run the park other than what's in the legislation, as it is now.

Deborah Rose: Look, I'm just wondering, on the cattle stations that are now owned by Aboriginal people, there in the Kimberley, well, what are people doing? Are they burning those stations? Are they using fire to muster out the cattle? What's happening?

Patricia Green: With fire on pastoral properties, I might add that we do own one, we only use the fire to regenerate the land where we only do once a year and we do it with the season. So, and that really goes on to the bloke that asked the question earlier whether fire can be dangerous or can be used as a resource. If it's used at the right time of the year it can be used as a resource.

Pauline Woodie (Landcare Education Officer, Greening Australia): My coordinator is Mike Carmody and I apologise he's not here because he just went down to Alice Springs for another conference. But we are all here for the same reason, I guess, and fire is a big issue for us, for everyone. With my job, everyone down in Greening Australia, we do a lot of reproducing and propagation with natural environment and I would like to let you know that fire is a big thing. It's a problem for us, everyone down here and Joe Philomena and I do a lot of propagation work and it affects everyone, of course, with our job too. My people said that we do burn off at the right time of the year because burning goes with our culture, and our language as well, with everything with us. I'm trying to help everyone and, together as a team, I think we should work together about this big thing. Thank you very much.

Andrew Craig (Department of Agriculture, Kununurra, WA): April, I wonder if I could ask you a question. You talk, or everybody this morning has talked, about burning immediately after the wet season. Having some connection with the pastoral industry, I notice that some of the pastoralists burn during the early part of the wet season after the early storms or if there are early storms in the area. My question really is: does that sort of burning, in the wet season, or in gaps in the wet season, is that part of the traditional burning in the Top End at all, or is it simply not practical because it's never dry enough to burn or too wet to burn at the time? Further, in the Kimberley, certainly in the southern parts, sometimes they do burning in these gaps in the wet season. I'm just wondering if that's part of traditional burning in some cases?

April Bright: Up in the Top End we're familiar with the pastoral side of things as well as our tradition of burning of country. The burning in the wet season, as you're referring to, when the rains have already fallen, even though the early rain, it does prove fruitless in that the grass is just going to grow again. So, therefore, you'll be having a second burn in the stages when it then does become dry enough to burn. So, during the wet season, you're defeating the purpose. With the Kimberley region, you mentioned, I'm not familiar with that area. So, I can only assume that, in those areas, it's according to the country there, because of the aridness of most of the country there. The areas that I refer to as gorges would be holding water, and by burning it in the dry season it causes the water to be drying out, possibly rapidly. By burning it in the wet season, they will remain fresh and alive and with plenty of water to feed them into the drier parts of the oncoming dry.

Peter Latz (CCNT, Alice Springs): Down in Alice Springs where there's a lot of dreaming trails which cross over, these are really important places. They are so sacred you can't kill animals or even pick plants. And of course you don't burn them. You might burn around them in order to look after them. Do you have that sort of thing up here? Very sacred places?

April Bright: In my talk earlier I did refer to the burning off, in particular, I went into the rainforest because I steered away from going into detailed talk on areas of significance, as I called it. Because some of those talks are just for the ears of your own people. I'm not really sure in what context the Aboriginal people in Alice Springs would be regarding their animals as sacred. So, I can't really answer that question because I really don't know what context it's in.

Patricia Green: I think with that, it does differ from country to country and yeah, people do, do have sacred objects and places they do need to protect and it really depends on the season of whether they can burn or not and you will find in the desert regions, where probably on the edge of the desert region where during the dry the wind is so much there that a fire would destroy anything if you did try to light one.

Linda Ford (Mak Mak Marranunggu): I am a Mak Mak Marranunggu woman from Kurrindju which is where Kathy and April are from. It really amazes me about what perception people have of other people, and one of the things that has been quite outstanding here is that non-Aboriginal people look at Aboriginal people and think that we all have the same philosophy. Marranunggu philosophy is quite different to Patrick's philosophy over in the Kimberleys. Marranunggu philosophy is different to Joe's philosophy over in East Arnhem.

Until Aboriginal people are able to get their skills in western education, to be able to communicate to you about our philosophies, it's really going to be difficult for non-Aboriginal people and Aboriginal people to understand what we talk about for our own country.

When we, when April and Kathy talk about our country we go on that trip with them because we know that country, and there are a lot of things that they talk about that my family and I can relate to, but Joe and Patrick mightn't be able to come on that trip with us because their country is different. The terrain, the geographical area are completely different. The ways that we were taught by our elders are different. They might have some of the groundings that are the same but they are still different and this is what non-Aboriginal people need to understand. They don't blanket us all with the same brush. And that's all. Thanks.

Kathy Deveraux (Mak Mak Marranunggu): Are there any more comments or questions?

Andrew Craig: I just wanted to make one point in response to Rhys's comment about the Kimberley. He went as far north as Drysdale River. I don't think the gulf is quite as wide as Rhys's comment would suggest. If he'd gone a little bit further north, onto Theda Station, for example, we see a station where fire is being used in a very patchy way which may be similar to traditional patterns. And they are raising cattle up there quite satisfactorily on that basis. So, there are pastoralists up there who are willing to try and are, indeed, enthusiastic about the use of fire in pastoral operations. I just wanted to try and put that in as a slight balance to the idea that pastoralists are hostile to the use of fire. What some of them do worry about, further south particularly, is this indiscriminate burning we've all been hearing about, in that all their dry season feed can be lost in a matter of a few days. So, there's a great divergence about how to control that fire up there amongst the pastoralists but, in some areas, at least, the sort of patchy use of fire every couple of years is becoming a quite acceptable and, apparently, sustainable way of running cattle. Thank you.

Patrick Green: It would be good if they could use a local Aboriginal knowledge when to use fire.

Joe Yunupingu: My cattle down at the Nhulunbuy area near road highway from Nhulunbuy, to Nhulunbuy and some of them drive from Darwin to Nhulunbuy, and my cattle that last two or three weeks ago, somebody, the people, you know, that highway driving back and forward from Nhulunbuy to Darwin and my cattle, the grass burnt for the cattle. I don't know, somebody thrown out the fire on the grass and they burn, all sent the cattle running around. That bit I worry. I'm to protect that country nearly half way to Caledon Bay and to Nhulunbuy. That area belongs to the cattle and I worry about somebody lighting a fire and burning all over the place.