Tropical Savannas CRC > Publications > Savanna Links > Savanna Links Archive > Issue 19, July - September 2001

Issue 19, July - September 2001

Caring for country: Aboriginal groups form to save traditional knowledge

It is September 2001. A wildfire is tearing through uninhabited savannas in Kakadu National Park, roasting a parched landscape where rain has not fallen in nearly five months. Aboriginal park ranger Peter Christophersen, Sandra McGregor and their family watch from the floodplain, kilometres away, knowing that the burning area will be unproductive for years to come. The loss of traditional knowledge in managing country is exacting a terrible toll on the land but now indigenous people are banding together to pass on that knowledge to the younger generation. Dennis Schulz writes.

Learning traditional fire management must take place on the land. On Kakadu’s floodplain: John Christophersen (uniform) and Violet Lawson (uniform), Sandra McGregor (Peter’s partner) Mathew Lawson (in hat) and children Kallum and Tara Christophersen.

Managing fire in a vast landscape | Changes in Aboriginal burning | Rise of indigenous ranger programs | Indigenous land managers form alliance across the north | More information |

Managing fire in a vast landscape

That late dry-season wildfire in Kakadu, watched by Peter Christophersen and his family, adversely affected a myriad of plants like flowering wild plums, an indigenous staple as well as prime possum tucker. Now they say small animals must either forage much further away for their plums and young leaves . . . or starve. As a result, Mr Christophersen’s family will not bother to hunt or gather there.

The wildfire raged because someone threw a match or a cigarette butt in a place that was not supposed to be burned—especially that late in the dry season. It was this kind of wanton negligence that sparked both Peter and Sandra, with the support of their family—one of the many clan groups within Kakadu National Park—to form a cultural land-management program operating within the clan’s boundary.They believe elder Aboriginal custodians should be carrying out traditional burning practices that were designed by their ancestors to avoid destructive wildfires and to pass that knowledge on to the next generation.

“We are seeing that culture is dying,” explains Mr Christophersen.“If our kids are going to stay here to play a role on their country they have to have the knowledge. “There were no programs set up so we decided to do something about it ourselves.”They see traditional fire management as a catalyst that maintains cultural links between children and the elderly and their land. But this information transfer is not simply a matter of elders conveying their knowledge to a group of youngsters or into a tape player for posterity. It must take place on the land where children are taken out and shown how scientific burning can produce a healthier, more productive landscape.

“You got to burn to go hunting. They come together,” says Sandra’s mother, Violet Lawson, an Aboriginal ranger for more than 20 years. “If you go hunting you look at the plants and the wind and the humidity. You got to know where the breaks are and where the springs are and where a fire will go and when it will go out. Then you throw your match.”

Already the cultural management group is getting results. In one sprawling floodplain near the South Alligator River, the group targeted hymenachne plant growth, repeatedly burning the native plant that takes over huge areas and provides scant nutrition for wildlife. Their efforts halted the plant’s advance and presented an opportunity for nutritious eleocharis reeds to take over. With the eleocharis came a return of thousands of magpie geese, a favourite indigenous bush food.

Prior to the Park being declared in 1979 fewer than 100 Aboriginal people lived in the area—but they were unable to cover the vast areas burning along traditional lines. As a result, the land was regularly swept by huge, destructive fires. Kakadu Rangers, assisted by the traditional owners, have since halted this pyrotechnic anarchy through the use of modern technologies (including helicopters) which mimic the effects of large numbers of people burning on the ground. Although this regime works well it is a poor substitute for the ancient regime that came from many people living on the land. Rangers cannot always cover all the country at just the right time to burn.

Mr Christophersen’s family’s project fills that gap and adds a further level of refinement to Kakadu’s fire regime. Theirs is a labor-intensive program that has won administrative approval for a trial in Kakadu by Parks Australia North. Scientific evidence points to the need for fine-scale mosaic burning with a high level of skill and application. Achieving this mosaic is increasingly recognised as central to biodiversity conservation in Northern Australia. Mr Christophersen’s program, in conjunction with aerial incendiary applications, are achieving biodiversity conservation goals as well as the continuation of cultural practice.

Indigenous land managers form alliance across the north

The Kimberley Land Council, Northern Land Council and Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation have established an alliance of indigenous land management organisations across northern Australia.

The North Australian Indigenous Land & Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) aims to build capacity by facilitating knowledge sharing across the north.It will also develop collaborative arrangements with western science agencies to benefit both indigenous and non-indigenous land managers.The Alliance has a broad suite of objectives including:
  • to support and promote knowledge and leadership in local communities;
  • to assist indigenous leaders to create opportunities for the transfer of knowledge and development of leadership across generations (for example, family-based back to country camps);
  • to identify the requirements for the sustainable management of indigenous natural and cultural resources;
  • to improve communication and information exchange;
  • to investigate culturally and commercially appropriate ways to protect indigenous knowledge.
It also plans to expand the Top End’s indigenous rangers’ conference, publish a newspaper and develop research protocols. The alliance will also be represented on the board of the TS–CRC.

Changes in Aboriginal burning

Once Aboriginal people formed a thin layer of population across the entire northern landscape, carefully managing it for their needs. But in the last century they have moved off their traditional lands into settlements, leaving the country to overgrow with vegetation that becomes fuel for wildfires. “The fires are more frequent and they’re happening later in the year,” says Carol Palmer of the Kimberly Regional Fire Management Project in Broome, “which has pretty devastating consequences for plants and animals.”

Ms Palmer’s Natural Heritage Trust-funded program in the Kimberly is recording traditional information from elders, mapping fire by satellite images and researching the effects of fire on plants and animals. She says, like in Kakadu, many wildfires start because of a lack of people on the ground to burn the country in small, deliberate patches. That’s the way it was done when ringers mustered cattle on horseback, burning as they travelled. Today, mustering is carried out by helicopter and most of the area’s massive cattle properties are unpopulated, unmanaged land.

Rise of indigenous ranger programs

A return to traditional management practices has fired the interest of Aboriginal people across the north, with many compelled to form community-based ranger groups aiming to take charge of their country’s well-being. A national umbrella group, the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), supported by the Tropical Savannas CRC, has begun operation, organised by the Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation, the Kimberley Land Council and the Northern Land Council.

In Maningrida, NT, the Djelek Rangers have diversified into the sustainable commercial use of wildlife, collecting and incubating crocodile eggs for sale and involving themselves in tourism. In Nhulunbuy, NT, the Dhimurru Rangers are patrolling the wild beaches of East Arnhem Land identifying marine turtle nesting areas for protection and management.

“Ranger programs are enterprises where they can top up their CDEP pay to get real wages for their work,” explains Joe Morrison, an indigenous land-management facilitator working through Parks & Wildlife Commission of the NT. In the south Arnhem Land community of Bulman one group of traditional owners put aside $8000 from mining exploration revenue to set up bush camps for taking kids back to country with community elders. “I was around in the early ’70s when the outstation movement picked itself up and hurtled along,” recalls the NLC’s Caring

For Country Unit executive officer, Peter Cooke. “It was a real movement where you could feel this great crusade under way. What’s happening now is the first thing since then that compares to that.” Mr Cooke has been involved in helping communities form ranger groups and facilitating the transfer of traditional knowledge from elders to younger Aborigines. He was initially shocked at how much knowledge had been lost, with a significant proportion of younger traditional owners often not knowing the language names attached to important sites. Through the Caring for Country Unit, he set out to change that by taking groups of elders and younger people back to depopulated areas of Arnhem Land to rediscover their roots.

“I think Aboriginal knowledge was traditionally taught in a very place-specific way,” says Mr Cooke. “Children learned it with senior relatives as they did things together on these places. They looked at how fire worked on particular plants in a particular spot. So it’s hard to reduce traditional knowledge down to a set of principles that apply to broad generic situations.”

Ranger groups are already meeting on an annual basis to share knowledge and recommend that their methods be incorporated into mainstream land-management practices. One recommendation made at a recent forum by Mike Redford of the Mimal Rangers gets to the heart of all traditional land management: that it should always be fun. Peter Christophersen agrees as he and his family move across the Kakadu floodplain. “We’re enjoying this work,” he says. “We’ve been given a chance to intensively manage areas within the clan’s country, the way people wish to do it,” he says. “This opportunity to carry on cultural land management as a clan group will not only produce environmental benefits early on, but I’m confident it will also have social benefits for younger clan members in the future.”