Devastating wildfires have become a common, painful global reality. In Australia, a cooperative effort between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people has significantly reduced that problem.
Many Indigenous Australians have been comfortable with fire since they were children. They know how to manage the land by burning vegetation during the right time of year. But many of them moved away from their land after colonization occurred, according to an article in a National Geographic special issue, Saving Forests, published in May 2022.
Beginning in the 1970s, many Indigenous Australians became part of a homelands movement that brought them home, where they noticed the make-up of plants and animals had changed. Kylie Stevenson wrote in the National Geographic article, "Fighting Fire with Fire," that "non-native weeds and feral animals, such as cats and buffalo, had moved in; some native animals, such as emus, were scarcer; ancient bim (rock art) sites were being damaged by buffalo and fire; and the health of monsoon rainforests, floodplains, and the savanna was deteriorating."
The anbinik forests were also suffering. These culturally and ecologically significant trees had been used for everything from antiseptics to fighting sticks. When Indigenous Australians had cared for the land they'd kept it healthy by doing carefully planned burns during the early dry season when it was cooler and the land held more moisture. Their efforts kept the fire-prone tropical savanna healthy.
In an alliance of trust and respect, Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land in northern Australia cooperated with non-Aboriginal people to reinstate ancient practices regarding lighting strategic fires in the early dry season and focusing on firefighting during the late dry season. That plan "limits wildfires, protecting forests and reducing the overall amount of smoke," wrote Stevenson. "The emissions avoided are sold as credits."
The project started in 2006 in western Arnhem Land, Stevenson explained, as "the world's first savanna-burning carbon-abatement project." The liquefied natural gas facility in Darwin supported the plan partly because it was required to offset its emissions. One way it could do that was to buy credits that came from the successful reduction of wildfire, which reduced emissions. Australia's carbon market lets "polluters buy credits representing an amount of greenhouse gases kept out of the atmosphere," Stevenson wrote.
Indigenous Australians run about 80 such projects in northern Australia. They are so successful that they have generated revenue of about $53 million annually. Not only have the wildfires reduced dramatically, but vegetation is benefiting, and many native animals are returning to the land. The money allows improved land management activities as well as the construction of community schools so children don't have to leave home to be educated.
Trusting indigenous know-how could work globally. Australians are showing the world how it can be done.