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 1

Bill Freeland: I'd like to ask Camilla a question. One of the things that has been intriguing to me over the last couple of years has been the potential of using the existing NT Acts as a vehicle for promulgating Aboriginal practices, or laws, into our legal codes in the form of either management plans or regulations under various Acts. What sort of capacity do you think exists for the fire management question? I can see potential within the Territory Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act in the form of management programs. Are there any other avenues that you can envisage for fire management?

Camilla Hughes: I think it has to be done on a regional basis. We're talking about different Aboriginal people and different Aboriginal laws. We're not talking about one monolithic law to apply across the Territory. But certainly that's the way it needs to be looked at, on a regional level, but management plans, I assume, do cover particular regional areas. Is that right? That might be a good way to do it.

I guess the other point I want to make is that integrating Aboriginal law doesn't necessarily mean writing it into law all the time. A lot of these things happen, actually, at an administrative level, don't they? The things that change don't necessarily have to be codified.

Tony Press: Could I make a comment on that, in terms of general issues of nature conservation and park management planning, in particular. My organisation the Australian Nature Conservation Agency or, as it was then, the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service submitted a report to the Australian Conservation Foundation. They had commissioned that study which has just been published, called 'Bridging the Gap', about Aboriginal people and nature conservation. We advocated that the various State and Territory conservation authorities should involve Aboriginal people and other key stakeholders, in the process of erecting management plans, particularly if those management plans have some statutory base, and that would apply in this instance. If plans for fire management over various regions of the Northern Territory did have the power of a statutory instrument then that would be a good way of doing it.

Phill Cheney (CSIRO Division of Forestry, Canberra): To Camilla and others: how legally can we get fire accepted as a natural thing rather than a dangerous thing, in the law. At the moment, it's considered as a dangerous animal which charges across the countryside whereas, in fact, it's as natural as the rain spreading across the land. If you don't want to get wet you put a roof over yourself. If you don't want to get burnt you remove fuel before another person's fire comes. Is there any hope of legally getting more sense into the situation so that litigation by lawyers is not perpetuated?

Camilla Hughes: I don't know that there's been a lot of litigation, but it's a good point that you make. The Bushfires Act is overdue for a rewrite, not so much from the point of view of Aboriginal burning, but for other reasons. And, certainly, when you look at the Bushfires Act the whole language is about preventing fire and controlling fire and certainly doesn't recognise fire as a natural part of the landscape. So, the whole Act is written in that kind of language and I agree with you that it would be appropriate for it to be rewritten because what's happened is that there is, in fact, an enormous gap between the language of the Bushfires Act and the practices of the Bushfires Council.

Russell Anderson: I'm sure if you come to my office, I think we can discuss this even further than in this forum. But I'd like to make a couple of points. The Bushfire Council is motivated by, as you said earlier, the Council and that Council is appointed by the Minister. It has 59 members across the Territory, I might add.

Camilla Hughes: Is that including regional Bushfire Councils?

Russell Anderson: Regional committees across the Territory. Fifty-nine individual people who live on the land. Now, you brought up the content of the Council and I must admit that Aboriginal membership is lacking, although we have two members on the regional committees. The Act itself, I believe, is a very workable tool, in the sense that it motivates the community. Only recently the Act has been used to enforce preventative fuel reduction in the closer urban areas of Darwin and Katherine. Prior to two years ago that wasn't the case. The Act was not used in that way. Coming to the point of permits to burn, to my knowledge and perhaps someone else in the room could enlighten me to my knowledge, Aboriginal people have never had to obtain a permit to burn. It is up to the regional committees for that part of the Act to be enforced. The Act was originally drawn up by a 1965 Ordinance. That Ordinance was put together so that Aboriginal traditional burning could be part of the landscape.

Camilla Hughes: Well, thanks Russell. I'm not sure if any response is necessary to what you've said but I think it would be useful to re-examine the Bushfires Act simply because there is this enormous gap between what the Bushfires Council is actually doing, and I know that they are trying to do a lot of innovative things, and what the Bushfires Act actually says. Anyway, it'd be interesting to talk to you.

Bill Panton: I suppose anyone that's read the paper or noticed smoke everywhere in the last week in Darwin would know about the fires. There are some really important issues about fire management going on here. Uncontrolled fires are annually ravaging the remnant vegetation around Darwin, having a major impact on the biodiversity of the area.

We are here talking about the maintenance of biodiversity while it is currently being threatened around us by these wildfires. There are two fire management authorities in the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory Fire Service has jurisdiction over the Darwin area and has a policy of fire bans to achieve fire exclusion. This objective is probably appropriate for urban areas to stop backyard incinerators and rubbish burn-offs, but it is also applied to natural areas where fuel loads accumulate and uncontrollable fires result. Conservation agencies with responsibilities for managing land around Darwin are prevented from undertaking controlled burns by this policy. There seems a legal contradiction here where the policy of one government department affects the ability of another department to do its job.

Camilla Hughes: There is another set of issues in the Darwin metropolitan area but, as you say, it goes out to the urban fringe and it comes under the Fire Service Act. There are problems there. It's not just a management problem, is it? I think that legislation is very restrictive though I haven't looked at the Fire Service Act in any great detail.

Bill Panton: It is quite encouraging to see here today the wide range of representatives from the community as well as experienced research people. Perhaps the opportunity exists here to get a resolution from this conference to urge that the appropriate authorities work together to develop a fire management strategy to conserve the biodiversity around Darwin. We need something that includes the use of fire but reduces the extent of high intensity late fires which we know to damage sensitive vegetation.

Dick Braithwaite (CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology, Darwin): Just to take up one thing, there's probably nothing intrinsically wrong with some late fires. That's part of the diversity. And also the factor of putting control on the landscape through early dry season fires ensures that there are unburnt areas which are also very important, and that's part of maintaining the diversity.

I think there's been a great shift of opinion. There's an American term we use paradigm. And I can remember a conference, I think it was organised by CSIRO, about 1968, 1969, might have been 1970, and the paradigm was quite different to some of the views discussed here. This was the scientific paradigm. It was a statement that fire had very little natural role in the management of landscapes.

It was a view which was probably dominated by foresters, I think, in those days. And, obviously, influenced by a terrible fear of catastrophic fires which had seared people's personal experiences. Those who were arguing about fire management were seen as heretics. Either seen as heretics or seen as idiots. Or both. And I think there has been a change of views. It's very largely the kind of scientific work that you've heard from Dick Braithwaite and other people in the room here.

April Bright (Mak Mak Marranunggu): I'd like to pose a question. Is there a conflict of interest with burning the national parks in that the national parks, like Litchfield Park, are still considered to be traditional Aboriginal areas and the Northern Territory Conservation Commission burns the park, but it's not necessarily in agreement with Aboriginal people?

Bill Freeland: Can I make sure I have the question right? My understanding of the question is that what we're doing in Litchfield Park, in terms of fire management, is not, although some of our rangers think it is traditional in some sense, it's not what you would class proper fire management? Is that correct?

April Bright: Yes.

Bill Freeland: I think what we need to do is to start talking more. Okay? I'm really serious And we'll have to get you in touch with the regional management and see what we can do. Some of the problems nowadays are a bit different because we have lots of people camping in funny places, which necessitate certain different kinds of management but it seems to me we need to talk.

Deborah Rose: I might add that one speaker who couldn't get here today was going to make a very similar point about the park in his region. It doesn't need to be raised here in detail but I might just let people know that it is not just one park where Aboriginal people are experiencing a sense of not having enough communication with the rangers who are, in effect, managing land that Aboriginal people still regard as their own.