Aboriginal wetland burning in Kakadu (2005)
Traditional ecological knowledge is being used in powerful combination with Western science to enhance the biodiversity and cultural values of wetlands in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory.
As part of the northern Australian Burning for Biodiversity project, we are working with the Bushfire CRC and a family of traditional owners in Kakadu National Park to examine the biodiversity and cultural benefits of Aboriginal fire management as it is re-applied to floodplains associated with the South Alligator River.
[Music plays and title appears: Aboriginal Wetland Burning in Kakadu]
[Image changes to a grass fire]
Violet Lawson: My mother taught me a lot about looking after country. You look after the country and the country will look after you. [Image changes to Violet Lawson, Kakadu Traditional Owner]
My daughter Sandra and Peter and my grandchildren they are out there helping out burning yeah and looking after country.
[Image changes to a shot of wetlands with magpie geese flying off] [Image changes to family walking through long grass]
[Image changes to Sandra McGregor]
Sandra McGregor: When you go out there, in the grass, walk out there and just keep an eye out for pigs when you’re walking out they lie under the thick Hymanachne out there.
OK, before we start, you got your matches?
[Answered off screen “yeah”]
Alright cool… you know how to light it then? I’ll just remind you.
[Camera zooms in on the match as Sandra strikes it against the box]
If you’ve forgotten, always strike downwards and always strike your match on the downside of the fire so you don’t get trapped in flames.
[Music plays and a young boy lights a match and places it in the grass]
Peter Christophersen: When we burn the flood plains, one of the important things is that we require a lot of wind to actually move the fire out across the water. And remembering the water can be over a metre deep. So we need the big winds to actually push the fire out over those wetlands. And burning before a storm comes is the prime time. So you have this huge driving wind that’s coming from the storm and then suddenly the rain falls and puts it all out. It’s all over very quickly.
[Music plays and the image changes to show a fire raging through dry grass and around termite mounds]
Sandra McGregor: It’s important to have the whole family involved so that knowledge and skill is learnt out here while we’re doing the practical stuff. So it’s easier for them to watch how creatures move and how fire behaves with wind and how we can show them how fire can actually burn over water.
[Image changes to Peter and Sandra, with a child on her hip, walking towards camera with the raging fire in the background]
Peter Christophersen: Early in the dry season we have to put in the early burns around the wetland fringes and that protects the woodland from later fires, which we would be putting in, in say September or October. It’s important that we burn the woodlands associated with the edges and also the springs that feed into those wetlands so that fires will not travel out later on in the year.
[Image changes to Glenn Meade, Kakadu Park Manager]
Glenn Meade: Cultural resource management is the key object of the park. As park manager I see the Boggy Plain’s project being the coming together of shared interest. From Parks point of view were seeking biodiversity outcomes. Aboriginal people living here are seeking a sustainable ecosystem, to meet their stewardship or their cultural obligations and for healthy food.
[Image changes to show a 4WD emblazoned with a “Bushfire CRC” logo approaching. Sandra, Peter and family get out and walk off into grasslands]
Sandra McGregor: This is the first burn here you can see where the fires actually going through and burning the dead grass underneath and then the new growth is actually burning off and falling and as that falls to the ground that will cure or dry in the next three days and then you can come in and burn the green grass that’s fallen down that will cure for three days and then, yeah, you can do your second lot of burns then.
Peter Christophersen: Early results are showing that with the removal of Hymenachne off the wetlands we have, I think, in 2002, we reduced the Hymenachne by 40%. And we had huge increases in other vegetation such as wild rice, nalumbo, nimfeya all the lilies and we had a large recruitment of paper barks and other herb species.
[Image changes to show the camera panning over the wetlands and magpie geese]
[Image changes to show Peter crouching down beside the Hymenachne] You can see here, once we’ve started to thin out the native Hymenachne, you can see all these other plants starting to come through. Some of the different herbs have come back and also this grass here you can see it’s a much finer, thinner grass and that’s native rice and it’s a very important food source for the young fledgling magpie geese and once they’re old enough to move off the nest, then the adults don’t want to take them too far to find food and so selecting a nesting site is very important to enable them to collect feed very quickly.
[Image changes back to show Sandra supervising the burning off]
The major significance in this project is that Aboriginal people really have to take responsibility and manage their different landscapes appropriately particularly here in the wetlands where wetlands are continually changing. People have to be up for that change and move and manage those wetlands appropriately. Not only for the biodiversity side of it for National Parks but also for their cultural needs, their sustainable lifestyles. To be able to hunt, their major food sources from here, and to be able to do that they have to manage them appropriately. [Image changes back to Glenn Meade]
Glenn Meade: The Boggy Plain project provides a learning opportunity. For white fellas, such as me, it provides me an opportunity to see how Aboriginal people use fire. It also allows Aboriginal people to use science to communicate to the world, that what they’re doing makes a difference.
[Image has changed back to Peter and Sandra supervising the burning off]
Peter Christophersen: This is really a good example of how joint management can work. We have a National Park, we have park managers, we have Aboriginal people on Aboriginal land – two different types of outlooks on life, two different sciences, two different ways of doing things. and I suppose, this is an example of combining all of those differences into one package and not only managing a landscape to suit cultural needs, but looking at its major outcomes and relating them back to Park values and I think this is the way that Aboriginal people will be moving towards into the future.
[Music plays and different shots of the wetlands and burning off appear on screen]
[Sponsors logos appear CSIRO, bushfire CRC and Australian Government Director of National Parks Supervising Scientist]
[© 2005 CSIRO]