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

Final discussion

Kathy Deveraux: I'd like to thank all the speakers this afternoon, particularly April Bright, Patrick Green and Joe Yunupingu for their contribution on the Aboriginal perspective of the fire symposium. The main area that I'd like to bring to your attention is a strategy to employ and involve Aboriginal participation in fire management and land use. In summarising the discussion I'd like to talk about four issues here.

Throughout the fire symposium we have heard many views that have been represented by government and non-government groups. It is my opinion we have been put on notice. We are politically positioned to take action in addressing all these issues that are now on our agenda.

And, finally, Aboriginal people have to continue using fire in accordance with their tradition. Thank you.

Jeremy Russell-Smith (ANCA, Jabiru): Thank you Kathy. I'd just like to make a couple of comments. Perhaps they don't relate much to the proceedings, or maybe they cut across them.

The first is that I am impressed by the differences, geographical and cultural, in burning practices across Northern Australia. I think that is something we always need to bear in mind. Central Australia, a land of unpredictability. In the north, a land of great predictability but obviously very marked differences in the effects of fire regimes raging on eastern Cape York compared with the Top End and the Kimberley.

Second, this diversity of practices requires a high level of communication between people. Obviously, with different objectives in mind. I would illustrate that by a Kakadu situation where we are required, if we are going to deliver an effective fire management program, to communicate with park staff, many of whom are Aboriginal people, and also other Aboriginal people who live in the area, Aboriginal neighbours, pastoral neighbours.

And probably with one exception a person who employs a 'no burn' policy we are all effectively in agreement. We don't like raging late dry season fires. That person who employs a 'no burn' policy gets burnt out every year and blames us.

Extending on from this I'd just like to pick up from a comment made by Bill Panton that this 'no burn' policy that rages in the urban area or the urban-rural interface is obviously ridiculous, given the fires that are currently going around the place at the present time. There are huge fuel loads that build up there every year. They've got to be managed in some way. Wet season burning or annual burning is one way obviously to do that. There are other ways but it needs to be addressed. To walk away from that type of problem is negligence, environmentally.

Another theme I should also point out, that applies not just to Darwin, is a very important emerging theme: getting community involvement.

I come to the third point. We need to cooperate a great deal more. And that requires better levels of communication but, more realistically and practically, fire as a land management issue has to be introduced into school curricula. I don't think there's any escaping that fact. The Bushfires Council in the Northern Territory is making a start, and it is essential. You cannot attempt to run fire management programs across the country, whatever the objectives, if the people are not informed.

In the Jabiru area, as an example, we have a school which probably has about two hundred pupils, a third of whom are Aboriginal kids from the region. There are no Aboriginal teachers in that school. How can anyone, realistically, who is going through that school process, develop any broad-based environmental perspective on land management issues, burning issues. I see this as pretty much a central issue which requires attention into the future. Thank you.

Deborah Rose: As mentioned in a lot of the publicity for this event, this symposium is being funded primarily by the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories who have a Biodiversity Unit. When I was speaking with Neal Hardy of that Unit earlier this year, he told me that what they were aiming for is a national strategy on biodiversity and I put it to him that in Australia a national strategy will only have any hope of being effective if it's built up out of understanding the regions of Australia. I resisted the idea of trying to run a symposium devoted to national issues here in Darwin. We don't even really understand the issues across North Australia as well as we could. Neal and his colleagues accepted that argument.

And one thing I've gotten out of the speakers today is the realisation that across North Australia, from the Kimberley through the NT and over into north Queensland, we really have a lot of significantly different regions and there probably isn't any single strategy that would even be suitable for North Australia. What this means then is that, as Jeremy said, there's an impressive need for communication throughout the region. There's also an impressive need for local knowledge and here I would really want to urge the scientists back to the Aboriginal people. I would remind everybody yet again of Peter Latz's discussion of the local experts and the scientists who have quite different kinds of expertise and the intense need to put these people together.

In short, we can think of geographical regions and then we might also think of regions of knowledge, and those regions of knowledge are located amongst different segments of the people of North Australia. Just as geographical regions need to be in communication to know what's happening, different regions of knowledge need to be able to talk to each other. I'm very grateful, therefore, especially to all of the Aboriginal people who came today and to everybody who sat and listened and who will go away with a very grounded understanding of what it means to have intense detailed local knowledge.

I would like to thank a couple of speakers especially for their comments: David Bowman urged us in the most eloquent way to grapple with what he termed the 'philosophical issues' here. And of course we all want to shirk away from it because we're none of us philosophers. But really every one of us is a philosopher, and I was very impressed with Peter Stanton's non-philosophical statement which I actually took to be a very philosophical one. He said that as a manager, it's his obligation to keep open as many options as possible and I would like to reinforce that view. To me that is something like 'zen and the art of land management' only perhaps it goes a little bit further. Because what's inherent in that, I think, is the view that this is a world that's full of a hell of a lot of living things and each of them, all of them, have a logic of their own and they're all interacting in ways that are far more complex than we are ever really going to be able to control or grapple with. Therefore, if we keep the options open we keep open the possibilities for life and that is really what it is all about.

On another point, one of the things that is open to this symposium, and I include all of you who've sat here all day as well as the people who've spoken, is to send some messages back to the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories who very kindly enabled this to happen. It seems to me that one of the regional issues that has come up, that struck me very forcibly, is that there has been, across North Australia, quite an unequal distribution of financial resources, of scientific resources, of scientific research.

Peter Stanton's words out of north Queensland carried a special urgency and it may be that one of the recommendations that we could send back is this: in addition to thinking regionally, it may be important also to consider those regions where these issues are particularly urgent and to think of ways in which facilities and resources can be distributed more evenly or in which the expertise that's built up in one area could be made available across regions in appropriate fashion. I will just open the discussion for comment there if anybody wants to take up those issues or if anybody has any other issues that they'd like to send back to Canberra.

Andrew Craig: You're talking about species diversity and it seems to me from this forum here, we have a number of different approaches towards land use. We've already been talking about tribal variations and different people, different lands having different approaches to fire. We've talked about pastoral lands also being managed in different ways in relation to fire and they, in themselves, create a form of diversity in landscapes, in terms of different fire regimes which, in fact, ought to also be considered when we're looking at the whole question of, if you like, global diversity or landscape diversity. You mustn't just look at what we're doing with the species and individuals.

Bill Panton: I wonder if it's appropriate that, coming out of this meeting today, we make some more formal statement to the NT Fire Service or, perhaps, just the Darwin community more broadly, that we are concerned that issues of biological diversity, as they affect the local Darwin area, might be severely impinged by the current fire management practices that are going on, and that the various groups that are involved should work closer together to get a fire management strategy that's more appropriate.

David Bowman: A really positive thing which should be sent back to Canberra concerns the conservation of biodiversity and the complex land tenure issues, particularly Aboriginal land and Aboriginal management. Wouldn't it be a wonderful idea and maybe it has already been thought of, if the Canberra bureaucracy in ANCA set up a unit which started thinking about how they're going to facilitate rational land management, particularly in Aboriginal land, across different land tenures. There's definitely a need for a clearing house to start thinking through some of the issues involved here. Another thing which I think would be a really important idea which should be sent back to Canberra is: wouldn't it be great if Aboriginal people could actually be paid for their knowledge. I would like to see a lot more Aboriginal people being paid to burn their country on a seasonal basis, to burn other people's country, it would be tremendous! Because, with all due respect, flying around in machines throwing fire out of helicopters and aeroplanes does not simulate to any degree the fineness of detail which is required for firestick farming.

Firestick farming is going to require a lot more care and thinking about boundaries and, as we've heard from some of the Aboriginal speakers, just thinking about when the wind's about to change or has changed or how deep the water is, or should we wait three hours, or could we do it then or could we do it later. If you're in a helicopter, as Peter Stanton said, you've booked it, you're moving, you know you're part of the capitalist machine. I would like to see bushwalkers too have a permit to walk around when bushwalking, burning country. I think there should be encouragement for the view that part of the experience of interacting with country should be burning it.

Seriously, the message should go back to Canberra that we have some really great opportunities here for collaboration but there is going to be a need for (a) a bureaucratic clearing house and (b) probably some funds to oil the wheels, maybe not indefinitely but to kick it off.

Pauline Woodie: Another issue that I've just raised with Greening Australia, because we are based in Darwin, and there's only me and Joe and Mike Carmody who work throughout the Territory, based from Katherine up would there be any possibility if we had someone based in the community? Because as we said earlier on: 'we all speak different languages even though we are all Aboriginal'. But I'm not the same as her, I don't eat the same bush tucker like her, I don't speak the same language as her.

Could we have someone assisting us in remote communities and actually working with old people, because we have been flown over from the islands into school or college and that, and we lost most of what our ancestors used to do? That happens all the time because we had to learn your scientific way of mathematics and English, and is there any possibilities then if we can have somebody based in the communities, working for us, in producing information and sending it to us here in Greening Australia. Or anywhere, any other areas?

Deborah Rose: That kind of networking seems like probably one of the most effective things that can be done because the systems already are in place. They're just not being utilised. You know, the old people are there, the knowledge is there, the desire to learn is there. It's all there and the question is how can what's there lock into a Greening Australia structure, or any of these others.

Pauline Woodie: Or anywhere else. Before we lose our old people, because they are going away, now, there's only a few left in the communities, as far as I know from my side, on the Tiwi Islands, and I guess it's everywhere else too.

Deborah Rose: I'd be happy to incorporate your comments and include an emphasis on the fact that when we're talking about different systems of knowledge, we're also talking about different ways of organising knowledge. The bright young scientist, fresh out of university, with the degree in his or her hand is central in one region of knowledge, and in another system of knowledge, the old people who have it all in their heads are the ones who really are the experts.

Pauline Woodie: And they all go, just leaving us slowly because we are in 1994 now.