Two documents vividly characterise the predicament facing Australian society in relation to the current state of the environment and possible responses to it. The State of the Environment Report (SOE) starkly presents the parlous state of ecological health across the whole of the continent. Among its key findings are the following:
- [T]he state and trend of the environment of Australia are poor and deteriorating as a result of increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction.
- Indigenous people have cared for Country across generations for tens of thousands of years … Respectful use of Indigenous knowledge, recognition of Indigenous knowledge rights, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems working together will lead to positive change.
- Renewed focus on restoration of the landscape by individuals, communities, non-government organisations and businesses, and greater recognition and empowerment of Indigenous land management practices, where possible, across large parts of Australia can help us to heal Country and find new ways to gain a broad range of benefits.
At the same time, the Uluru Statement from the Heart has offered a cultural strategy that, by drawing on an ancient body of knowledge, could provide a path for us to implement some of these recommendations. For all its pessimism, the SOE acknowledges the cultural roots of the problem, referring to the ‘deep interconnection between the health of Country and the health of Indigenous people’, and recognises that ‘Indigenous knowledge and sustainable cultural practice are key to environmental management’. Consistent with this, the Uluru Statement, which predates the SOE by five years, affirms the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ontological relationship with the land and puts forward an ethical vision of a fresh dialogical process whereby the Australian people can walk together for the benefit of all.
Writing in Continent Aflame after the catastrophic fire season of 2019–2020, Pat Anderson, one of the co-authors of the Uluru Statement, explains why one of its key proposals—the Voice to Parliament—should be seen as a precondition for an effective response to the national environmental challenge:
[The Voice] would be a place where we bring our stories and our knowledges to the symbolic centre of contemporary government … a permanent place in which to share that knowledge, and use it to help all people now living here, and to help prevent the kind of suffering we are seeing …i
The confluence of these two great themes in Australian society is not an accident. The forces driving the destruction of the natural environment and the attempted annulment of Indigenous culture, after all, arose from common origins. The Enlightenment commitment to the control and mastery of nature was inherently linked to the European drive for colonial domination and its contempt for competing ontologies and worldviews. Arguably, the long-established practices within settler society for interacting with nature are now reaching their limit, and the only way forward will involve not just a new set of technologies but also, more fundamentally, a radical reimagining of both the elementary concepts of time and place on which our relationship to the land is based and the ways in which we interact with it.
Navigating this transition will not be easy; it will require the creation of a novel process of communication between contending worldviews, aiming towards a—hitherto unattainable—level of ‘reconciliation’ between them. In this essay, taking the question of how to manage fire as a focus, we try to mark out some of the cultural vicissitudes whereby such common meanings may be negotiated. We outline the different ways in which fire is understood and imagined and how they have become embedded in contending fire-related practices in order to discern possibilities for building novel, respectful collaborations around ecological management practices.
In this endeavour, our focus on process, communication across difference and the search for a shared ethical basis for much-needed novel practices parallels that of the Statement from the Heart itself, in which the Voice is proposed as the necessary precondition for a subsequent process of ‘Makarrata’, ‘coming together after a struggle’, in opposition to the more conventional colonial quest for a technical solution (a ‘treaty’) that leaves the intellectual and cultural structures of colonialism untouched.
Contending meanings and practices of fire
If a solution to the problem of fire in contemporary Australian society is to be found, it will not be at a purely technical level but will require a deep cultural and psychic reorientation. To discern a possible way forward it is necessary to go back to the multiple, not completely consistent, ways in which fire inhabits our contemporary cultural imaginary.
In Australia, fire is associated with diverse social, environmental and economic meanings. Fire provides warmth and light, the means to cook and a sense of safety; and it can nourish and improve environments and habitats. But it can also instil fear and threat because of its destructive power; it can be fast, uncontrollable and inescapable; and it can destroy structures, crops, harvests, animals, habitats and human lives. These different kinds and instances of fires can also become meaningful in terms of different fire ‘imaginaries’: that is, the deep-seated or nonconscious images of fire with which different individuals or groups of people identify, or by which they can tend to be captivated.
Communities’ and individuals’ responses to fire are contextualised and nuanced by their locations and environments, cultures and previous experiences. Many of the colonial literary narratives around fire see it as something to be feared, and as an assault on British efforts to tame and ‘civilise’ a wild land. In the European tradition, fire has clear moral resonances, being associated with Hell and damnation. In European culture, ‘what is first [learnt] about fire is that we must not touch it’.ii Yet Australia has a history of fire being used by First Nations people for millennia to manage Country actively and productively, through burning activities, in order to ‘bring health to the land and people’.iii
A changing climate and the devastating fires in much of south-eastern Australia in 2019–20 have contributed to a growing interest amongst non-Aboriginal communities in ‘cultural burning’—its history, methods and relevance and usefulness for managing Australian landscapes, including reducing and managing bushfire risk. Cultural burning is a practice that follows strict protocols and has many purposes. It takes a holistic approach to land management that is based on an in-depth understanding of ‘place’ and gives pre-eminence, and is exquisitely responsive, to local ecological conditions and indications.iv Aboriginal communities are increasingly seeking to relearn and restore burning practices that in many instances, particularly in the south of the country, have not been possible since colonisation. In doing so, they are reasserting their sovereignty through a manifest agency and authority with respect to Country, while at the same time sharing with non-Aboriginal Australians insights into how better to manage, work, live with, and heal our relationship with the environment. Such ‘intercultural fire management collaborations’ can both express and be products of what has been called an ‘emergent social movement’.v
Aboriginal versus Western fire practices
Aboriginal fire practices differ in important respects from forestry management techniques widely employed by government agencies around Australia, but they cannot be completely separated from them. They are local and context-sensitive, and based on deep knowledge of local flora and fauna, topography, season and climate. Arguably, the array of practices—which includes the management of fire, water, animal and plant conservation—has articulated into a consistent global control system that has remained stable for a very long period.vi It differs from established Western practices of ‘hazard reduction’, ‘controlled burning’, ‘prescribed burning’, ecological burning and various other conservation and sometimes agricultural techniques.
It is important, though, not to think of cultural burning as just another, perhaps more refined, set of technologies for managing an expanding problem. There are significant challenges to be faced in negotiating the proper place for the various extant practices, including Aboriginal cultural burning and Western ‘hazard reduction’ or ‘strategic fuel management’ techniques.vii Contemporary ecologies are different from those once managed using traditional practices. With the advent of the altered conditions of climate change, novel, flexible and evolving techniques are required. Within this, it cannot be assumed that all Western fire management practices—in many cases themselves developed on the basis of longstanding experience—are necessarily misconceived, ineffective or obsolete.
Increasing complexity of meanings, players and responses
If we are to clarify the proper roles of the different approaches to fire and to develop a consensus view that is efficacious, reflects contemporary cultural needs, and provides a fecund resource for the future, we need to go back both to the empirical data and the cultural processes.
The meanings of fire in Australia are undergoing a process of transformation. The social contexts around fire, its psychological resonances and the discourses deployed to reflect on fire are in rapid flux. Multiple stakeholders are directly involved with or impacted by fire, and their relationships with each other will be reformed by the changing circumstances. These stakeholders include Traditional Owners and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members; state and federal government agencies responsible for management of National Parks, care of the environment and protection of agricultural assets; community-based volunteer organisations such as the Victorian Country Fire Authority and its equivalents in other states; farmers and agricultural workers; residents of remote, rural, regional and peri-urban communities; bushwalkers, campers and urban dwellers who visit and experience the rural landscapes; and conservationists and environmental and land care groups and their networks, such as Landcare, Trust for Nature and Bush Heritage.
At present there’s an opportunity to document these stakeholders’ different perceptions of fire and to examine the processes of change. A deeper understanding of the experience and perceptions of these changes will not only help develop new fire management practices in the context of climate change but also enable fire to be used as an active element in our learning to ‘walk together’ as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.
The growing complexity of the situation was reflected in multiple, sometimes contradictory, responses to the summer of catastrophic bushfires, 2019–20. Two very different directions emerged.
On the one hand, the nature of the fires and their extent were so far beyond the historical norm that for many people the usual fire-fighting business-as-usual approaches no longer applied.viii To them, there was an obvious need to develop and implement over the long term an alternative set of ecologically sound measures. These especially included Aboriginal burning approaches that involve, as described in a recent collaboration:
using what’s in the landscape for our burning. For example, instead of putting in big mineral earth breaks around the area you need to burn, you can use the kangaroo tracks and other existing tracks that animals have created. You can stop, read what’s there and work with that to have less impact.ix
On the other hand, the symbolics and metaphors surrounding the concept of a ‘war’ on bushfire also intensified, and were used in an attempt to drive policy in an entirely different direction. The established fire protection industry has a stake in promoting and driving technological approaches and expanding the use of conventional heavy-duty, ground-based and airborne fire-fighting equipment. A ‘war on bushfire’ for many people has a familiar resonance because it calls up a tradition of the colonial frontier and its mythologies in which settlers heroically battled the harsh, unforgiving landscape under a burning sun.x
This perspective has deep historical roots and enduring potency. The ‘Black Thursday’ wildfires in Victoria of 1851, an early source of apocalyptic fire imagery, occurred only a decade after Aboriginal people were denied the right to practise their culture. In 1939, the Stretton Royal Commission into bushfire management made no investigation, no mention even, of Aboriginal people and their fire practices.xi In the immediate aftermath of the 2019–2020 fires, media discourses around environmental recovery and strategies for the future focused narrowly on the need for more state-of-the-art equipment and better preparedness in terms of a future fire-fighting workforce. An ABC Fact Check post at the beginning of the 2019–2020 summer season did not even mention Aboriginal burning practices in its overview of different-bushfire mitigation approaches.
Despite such cultural and historical obstacles, the deep knowledge and roles of Aboriginal Australians have gradually become more prominent both in mainstream fire-fighting frameworks and through the maintenance and revival of land management practices that are integral to cultural burning. For example, the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust Country Fire Authority team about 350km east of Melbourne employs Australia’s ﬁrst all-Aboriginal, all-female ﬁre brigade. And despite an undoubted continuing preference for conventional fire-fighting approaches, there has been a growing readiness on the part of state and federal governments to provide funding for cultural burning. In southern Australia, Aboriginal organisations that have retained or rekindled fire knowledge can now receive income from implementing that cultural knowledge, as long as they comply with various state-decreed conditions and protocols.xii This development may suggest governments’ ‘readiness to subsidise Indigenous industry that provides regional employment’.xiii
In Victoria, Aboriginal communities are developing their capacity to undertake burns. The Recognition and Settlement Agreements provide a framework for Aboriginal organisations to take charge of State Parks and other areas on Country. A Victorian ‘Traditional Owners Cultural Fire Strategy’, developed with state government support, contains a comprehensive vision of the reintegration of cultural fire into land management. Despite this, it remains the case that Traditional Owners retain ‘limited authority, resources and capacity to develop and apply cultural fire practices on Country according to the principles described in the strategy’,according to recent research, and ‘it remains uncertain whether recent … enthusiasm and institutional intent will lead to more widespread and embedded institutional practices and policies to support cultural burning’. xiv Nonetheless, such projects can assist members of communities to return to Country, provide opportunities for research by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers into biodiversity and other effects of cultural burning, and educate a wider public about Aboriginal burning practices, allaying any fears and avoiding any misconceptions about what cultural burning entails and what it means for Aboriginal people.1
Other communities and non-government organisations are keen to support cultural burning, and recognise the importance of putting aside prejudices about Aboriginal knowledge. They are starting to listen to Aboriginal elders like Ngarigo Elder Uncle Rod Mason: ‘You got to fire it! When you burn Country, it makes it brand new fresh’, an imperative strikingly at odds with the view of fire as a destructive force on which we can only make war.xv
An emerging paradigm change
The ferment experienced in Australia is reflected globally. Among conservationists internationally, the concept of ‘wilderness’ has been revisited in light of First Nations peoples being recognised as skilled land management practitioners who have shaped ecologies over millennia. Allowing vegetation in National Parks to grow unattended is now widely seen as a perilous romanticism.xvi Nationally and internationally, the concepts of nature and conservation are evolving, both to critique established, Enlightenment-based assumptions and to acknowledge the critical alternatives offered by ancient cultural practices.xvii
What may be a developing consensus incorporates an understanding of fire not only as a threat but also as a potential ally. The movement towards such a basic cultural shift has been significantly strengthened by the work of Australian Aboriginal people and their organisations, of which Victor Steffensen’s Fire Country is a landmark example. The anthology with which we are associated, Continent Aflame: Responses to an Australian Catastrophe, contains multiple voices speaking about fire; and key organisations such as the Fire Sticks Alliance, with its principle of ‘embedding cultural connection in contemporary natural resource management strategies’, are becoming more visible to the wider population.
Australian scientists David Bowman and Will Steffen, among many others, and the research centres in which they work have also contributed key insights into the value of and need for Aboriginal-led approaches to a fire risk problem that is considered likely to become increasingly pressing: ‘Well-trained people walking across country and burning it is a crucial approach in stemming destructive bushfires. There needs to be more investment (in) this ancient and effective pyrotechnology’. Largely in sync with such views, the Senate Select Committee report into lessons to be learned from the 2019–20 fires advocates ‘reframing Australians’ relationship with fire across the nation’, with the caution that the fires to come will need to be fought‘five years before they start’. Authored by Jason Sharples, the report acknowledges that significant gaps remain about how the knowledge of such an approach might be implemented, noting that, ‘reinstating cultural burning to the ‘whole-of-society’ practice it once was will require care, effort, time and resources’. Sharples goes on to argue that, ‘reinstatement of widespread cultural burning, including in remote landscapes, is one of a limited number of available options for mitigating the risk of extreme bushfires, and has the added potential for promoting the broader goals of reconciliation in Australia’. Similarly, research by Charles Darwin University and the CSIRO has investigated Aboriginal aspirations regarding cultural burning with the aim of ‘empowering Indigenous decision-making and involvement in all aspects of landscape fire management, including planned burning and bushfire prevention, mitigation, response, recovery and resilience measures’.
However, while there has been considerable progress in making space for traditional fire practices, not everyone is convinced, with resistance still to these approaches both from individual landholders and at the institutional level. Timothy Neale has argued that the reasons for such resistance include the fact that ‘bushfire management is a site of emerging experiments in the redistribution of legal and political authority over country. It may be this transfer of authority that is [being] resisted’.xviii While it may indeed be true that ultimately the question will prove to be one of power, it is also the case that serious and genuine reservations about the new perspectives need to be considered, including whether Aboriginal fire practices are indeed fully relevant to today’s conditions and the extent to which they can or should be combined with selected modern Western approaches.
Cautions, compromises and cultural difference
It’s not possible to argue that traditional burning practices provide a complete solution to the problem of fire in Australia. Significant questions remain that highlight the need for a transparent process of assessment of their appropriate application and how they may intersect with Western technologically focused approaches. Practices developed in the environment that pre-existed colonial occupation may not be directly transferable to a deeply transformed, and in some cases degraded, contemporary environment. At the least, traditional practices need to be reviewed, and perhaps adapted, with the assistance of a rigorous data collection and application of contemporary research techniques. At the same time, mainstream ‘one-size-fits-all’ responses to the risks of bushfire such as ‘prescribed burning’ targets are greatly in need of evaluation as to their actual effects. Of course, the strengths of mainstream fire-fighting approaches—which embody the technical values of Western rationality with its emphasis on professionalisation and specialisation—should not be underestimated. And the experience gained by farmers and others who have in many cases developed deep knowledge of crop management and renewal, ecologically sustainable grazing, and other agricultural techniques, should be part of any review. As mentioned, conservationists and community organisations involved in land care and preservation of ecological values also possess knowledge that may contribute to the emergence of a response to the current ecological crisis that must be both culturally acceptable and economically sustainable.
In other words, much work remains to be done to find a way of combining and accommodating the strengths of all existing approaches, as well as their continuing refinement and ongoing adaptation to emerging conditions. The process of such reconciliation dialogue may well be vigorous and at times even acrimonious, as in the recent controversy over Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu,xix although if respectfully conducted it may facilitate productive communication that supports the maintenance and celebration of difference as a source of creativity.xx
Such reconciliation dialogues will need to involve sharing and concessions in both directions. The risks of the potential appropriation of cultural burning techniques within the land management field, whereby Aboriginal custodians of that knowledge may be exploited while their communities remain in a state of marginalisation, poverty and disadvantage, must be challenged.
Much of the cultural burning in the south of Australia is a revival of ancient practices adapted to present circumstances. While it is applied to assist with fire mitigation, as Mick Bourke has indicated, cultural burning is not merely a ‘technique’ in the Western sense of ‘hazard reduction’, but contributes much more deeply to Aboriginal communities:
At the moment, the government are doing their own APZ [Assets Protection Zone] asset burns where it’s not giving our mob a chance to be on Country and do our type of burning. That’s the biggest thing that I find at the moment is getting our mob in the landscape.
The evidence to date strongly suggests that when properly conceived and respectfully applied in coordination with established and proven Western practices, the benefits of cultural burning are likely to be far-reaching. They will not be limited to technical consequences but will also extend to deep ethical and cultural effects.xxi
Acknowledgment and support of the deeper meanings associated with cultural burning may also provide a way for governments and civil society to recognise Aboriginal cultural difference and support practices that have the potential to become sustainable both environmentally and socially. This is recognised by the practitioners themselves:
When we go to do a cultural burn, we do a welcome at the start with a small ﬁre and smoke. This is to let the old folks, our ancestors, know we are on Country so then they can guide us. People need to understand that cultural ﬁre is not just about burning Country, lighting it to reduce fuels, reduce risk to houses, or things like that. We use ﬁre to put colour back into the landscape, as well make our ceremony, connect with each other, connect with our history, and that’s just the start.xxii
* * *
The last two hundred years of colonial land use, and now climate change, have created dangerous fire-prone conditions across the whole of our continent such that the lighting of fires at all is regarded as extraordinarily risky. At the same time, the idea that fire can be a critically important ally in the current circumstances is becoming better understood, as is its cultural importance and benefits for First Nations peoples. Addressing Australia’s relationship to fire in the context of global heating will require genuine intercultural achievements.
Established government agency-led fire management practices are not all bad. But they have grown out of a failing paradigm in which the idea of living and working intimately with fire has been lost or suppressed. Aboriginal practices, which have a long and successful history, offer new opportunities, although they need to be carefully articulated in relation to new circumstances and proven existing practices. The real challenge is changing the broad framework within which the conversation takes place and any solution formulated. This will require negotiation and compromise—a public discourse that is prepared to question existing assumptions and look for the radical difference inherent in what may appear to be simple traditional behaviours. This might involve changing the statement of the problem from one of mastery and control to one of home and place.
The authors live in the southeast of Australia and draw on knowledge of and experience in that region. We would like to acknowledge that this research occurred on the lands of the Kulin nation, including both Dja Dja Wurrung Country and Wurundjeri Country.
1 Authors of this article, who include two Aboriginal fire knowledge holders for their region, were recently successful in a Volunteer Action Grant application to DELWP to engage Djandak, the commercial arm of Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation (DDWCAC), to undertake cultural burns or Djandak wi on two conservation properties.
i Pat Anderson, in Pat Anderson, Sally Gardner, Paul James and Paul Komesaroff (eds), Continent Aflame: Responses to an Australian Catastrophe,Melbourne: Palaver, 2020, p. 27.
iiBy contrast, see Adrian Brown, a Ngunnawal man, handling fire and smoke at https://youtu.be/-dYyYpWJfyM. https://indigenousknowledge.unimelb.edu.au/curriculum/resources/fire-in-ceremony, accessed 7 January 2022.
iii Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Knowledge Group, ‘The Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Strategy’, 2019, p. 5.
iv Michael-Shawn Fletcher, Anthony Romano, Simon Connor et al., ‘Catastrophic Bushfires, Indigenous Fire Knowledge and Reframing Science in Southeast Australia’, Fire, 4(3), 2021, p. 61. For an extended discussion of Australian Aboriginal concept of ‘place’, see Tony Swain, A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 45.
v Will Smith, Timothy Neale and Jessica K. Weir, ‘Persuasion without Policies: The Work of Reviving Indigenous Peoples’ Fire Management in Southern Australia’, Geoforum, 120, 2021, pp. 82, 91.
vi Swain, A Place for Strangers, p. 129.
viii See D. Bowman and G. Lehmann, ‘Recognising the Ancient Skill of Cultural Burning’, in Anderson et al (eds), Continent Aflame, pp. 28–31.
ix Mick Bourke, Amos Atkinson and Timothy Neale, ‘Putting Country Back Together: A Conversation About Collaboration and Aboriginal Fire Management’, PostcolonialStudies, 23(4), 2020, p. 547.
x Christine Erikson and Don L. Hankins note that ‘Colonial interests in both Australia and the USA disrupted Indigenous use of fire through the removal of people from their lands and policy prohibition. In place of traditional Indigenous fire knowledge, policies derived from state and federal agencies established around the concept of fire suppression or fire-fighting has become a societal norm’, in ‘The Retention, Revival and Subjugation of Indigenous Fire Knowledge Through Agency Fire-Fighting in Eastern Australia and California’, Society and Natural Resources, 27(12), 2014,p. 2.
xi 1939 was coincidentally the year of the historic Cummeragunja walk-off, a mass strike of Aboriginal residents of the Cummeragunja mission in southern New South Wales protesting living and working conditions and government control.
xii Bourke, Atkinson and Neale, ‘Putting Country Back Together’, p. 547.
xiii See Diane Austin-Broos, ‘Keeping Faith with Self-Determination: Economy and Cultural Difference’, Indigenous Law Bulletin, 7(29), 2012, pp. 19–23.
xiv Austin-Broos, ‘Keeping Faith, p. 15; see also Smith, Neale and Weir, ‘Persuasion without Policies’, p. 85.
xv Gib Wettenhall, ‘Spreading the Lesson of Cultural Burning’, Victorian Landcare and Catchment Management, 78, 2020, pp. 14–15.
xvi See I. McNiven and L. Russell, ‘Place with a Past: Reconciling Wilderness and the Aboriginal Past in World Heritage Areas’, Royal Historical Society of Queensland Journal, XV(11), 2020, p. 506.
xviii Timothy Neale, Rodney Carter, Trent Nelson and Mick Bourke, ‘Walking Together: A Decolonising Experiment in Bushfire Management on Dja Dja Wurrung Country’, Cultural Geographies, 26(3), 2019, p. 346.
xix Pascoe wrote a reply to his critics entitled, ‘Let’s have a conversation, not a screaming match, about our history’ in The Saturday Age, 11September 11 2021, p. 10.
xx See Paul A. Komesaroff, ‘Introduction’, in Philippa Rothfield, Cleo Fleming and Paul A. Komaseroff (eds), Pathways to Reconciliation: Between Theory and Practice,Hampshire:Ashgate, 2008, pp. 1–12.
xxi ‘At the core of Indigenous eco-cultural fire processes is recognition of the interrelated and interdependent aspects of fire that follow the laws of the land (nature)’: Erikson and Hankins, ‘Retention, Revival and Subjugation’, p. 3.
xxii Bourke, Atkinson and Neale, ‘Putting Country Back Together’, p. 547.
Booming contributions by First Nations to address Australia’s environmental crisis must be recognised
It is time for climate-change policies and programs at regional, state and federal levels to respond to the productive ‘climate action’ of First Nations people with recognition and respect, and equitable resourcing to allow it to flourish.