Indigenous fire skills blaze an eco-friendly trail

Joe Morrison Canberra Times 28th July 2011

Savannah management and carbon tax works, but we need cohesion.

The Federal Government's move to establish the Carbon Farming Initiative establishes opportunities for indigenous Australians to drive a once-in-a-lifetime paradigm change, from the ground up.

During the late 1990s, indigenous people across the Top End of the Northern Territory became increasingly alarmed by the lack of fire management on their remote and traditional estates. Many local groups established teams of dedicated workers, typically referred to as "rangers" supported by welfare payments. A few had access to other resources - government and mining money. Fire became the "tool" that brought people together, as it had done in ceremony for millennia, this time as a land management motivator in the 20th century.

Northern Australia's tropical savannahs are well known as a fire prone ecosystem. Scientific research tells us that this has been the situation for a very long time, in addition to the records of the first white arrivals who remarked about the "natives" continually firing the landscape, indigenous land managers have always told of the importance of fire for the health of their country and kin.

Indeed recent science has now confirmed what indigenous people have been saying for a long time: that indigenous fire practices and knowledge is an essential tool for the future conservation of northern Australia. More importantly, when indigenous fire practices and in particular the re-establishment of mosaic fires across diverse ecosystems are put in place, then less vegetation gets burnt, leading to less greenhouse gases. It is now known that savannah fires across northern Australia produce about 3per cent of our national carbon emissions, but in places like the NT, they account for about 40per cent of the total. The need to manage fire by using indigenous knowledge is profoundly important.

In western Arnhem Land, the re-establishment of indigenous fire practices using modern tools and employment of an indigenous ranger workforce has produced a world first offset arrangement that is being replicated across northern Australia. This project has shown that in addition to achieving offsets, it is providing employment that indigenous people enjoy - managing their natural and cultural resources, but on behalf of the nation.

The emergence of a domestic carbon trading scheme in Australia gives some indigenous groups hope that land managers can participate in reducing Australia's emissions by employing their knowledge - combined with western science - to produce credible offsets in areas where private sector investment and employment that suits the local residents is hard to come by. In many places, these new establishing industries may replace existing programs that are almost entirely reliant on government transfers. This is a major motivator for many groups to become independent of this sort of short-term and ad-hoc funding.

Importantly, many experts and commentators now appreciate that the north's unique environment can be better managed by employing indigenous people to use their knowledge and skill to reduce the amount of land that gets burnt.

As an indicator of success, many indigenous people and their knowledge have collaborated with scientists and others to produce the first methodology released for assessment under Australia's new CFI. Leading scientists, working with remote indigenous communities over the past 15 years, have refined the methodology and accounting of gases to a world-class level. Our scientists have set a new standard for greenhouse gas accounting - led by Wamud Namok - a consummate natural historian and artist and true national treasure - now deceased.

Namok's leadership is not unique in northern Australia. His detailed and deep knowledge of his country and its ecology is simply unmatched. It is this strength of connection that makes indigenous carbon and participation in the economy now being built around carbon such an important opportunity for indigenous people. The nation needs to get it right - now.

Many obstacles have been overcome, but many remain before indigenous people can participate fully and achieve real benefits from carbon markets under the emerging national scheme.

Other key challenges arise in carbon rights and ownership, unscrupulous "carbon baggers" and the research and development needed to match community expectations (not other agendas). Critically, coordination will be needed among indigenous carbon offset providers so as not to build competing carbon offset projects and to avoid undercutting each other.

The Australian Government should follow through on its commitments to support indigenous people to engage with the carbon economy. Australia's efforts to grapple with climate change can be part of building remote economies that are needed to make the Closing the Gap commitments more than belated housing, education and policing programs. Implementing the CFI and the connected carbon pricing mechanisms in ways that optimise the indigenous contribution and social benefits seems such an obvious thing to do. But all too often policies are made in isolation from each other so that the obvious gets lost.

The Government has taken a number of positive steps in design of the CFI, but much will depend on complementary action in the states and territories, especially around establishing rights in carbon and crafting mechanisms to recognise and reward the carbon benefits of uninterrupted good stewardship of the nation's savannah.

I urge all governments to require in law that the interests of indigenous people are fully recognised in all decisions on access to the benefits of improved carbon management.

Joe Morrison is the chief executive officer of the North Australian Indigenous Land & Sea Management Alliance.

Carbon credit plan fires burning ambitions

Emma Masters ABC News July 29th 2011

A Northern Territory organisation planning to sell carbon credits through traditional burning of savannah country says it is expanding into Western Australia and Queensland.

The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance is developing a model using traditional burning methods to reduce bushfires and carbon emissions.

Chief executive Joe Morrison says the Arnhem Land project is being adopted by Indigenous groups in the North Kimberley, Gulf Country and Western Cape York.

He says the Federal Government's price on carbon is helping to boost confidence.

"People are pretty excited about the prospects of their knowledge and their environmental services being valued in this way ... that Indigenous knowledge about the management of fire is something that potentially will be taken seriously by the market and people will pay a price for it," he said.

Mr Morrison says the government price on carbon credits gives the alliance certainty to move forward.

"I think the prices are pretty good and allow us a way in which we can start building a business case," he said.

Carbon Farming Initiatives announcement by NAILSMA

Press Release
North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA)

The emergence of a domestic carbon trading scheme could enable Indigenous groups to participate more fully in reducing Australia's emissions if Indigenous participation is followed through, according to the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance.

Joe Morrison, CEO of NAILSMA, said that the scheme could also be much more than about reducing emissions if handled well.

"Australia's efforts to grapple with climate change and a shift to a low carbon future can be part of building remote economies that are needed to make the Closing the Gap commitments, and indeed more reaching than belated housing, education and policing programs," he said.

Mr Morrison said scientific research was now confirming what Indigenous people have been saying for a long time: that Indigenous fire practices and knowledge is an essential tool for the future conservation of northern Australia.

"Savanna fires across northern Australia produce around 3 per cent of our national greenhouse gas emissions, but in places like the Northern Territory, they account for approximately 40% of the NT's total emission profile." he said.

Additionally Indigenous people across northern Australia have recovered large tracts of land and retain Native Title interests over approximately 80 per cent of the region.

"Combined with western science, our role is critical in realising the potential to reduce emissions and sequester enormous amounts of carbon at a price the nation can afford," said Mr Morrison.

He pointed to a western Arnhem Land project where the re-establishment of Indigenous fire practices using modern tools and the deployment of an Indigenous ranger workforce had produced a world first offset arrangement that is being replicated in other parts of northern Australia.

"This project has shown that in addition to the demonstrably achievable offsets, it is providing employment that Indigenous people enjoy – managing their natural and cultural resources, on behalf of the nation," said Mr Morrison.

He acknowledged that there remained major challenges including carbon rights and ownership, unscrupulous "carbon baggers" and the necessary research and development needed to match community expectations.

He also warned that while the national government had taken a number of positive steps in design of the Carbon Farming Initiative much would depend on complementary action in the States and Territories, especially around establishing rights in carbon and crafting mechanisms to recognise and reward the carbon benefits of uninterrupted good stewardship of the nation's savannas.

The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance facilitates large scale initiatives across Northern Australia's wet/dry tropics and is committed to finding practical solutions to support people to manage their lands into the future. NAILSMA has led research into the first offset methodology released under the Carbon Farming Initiative.

About North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance, NAILSMA
The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance facilitates large scale initiatives across Northern Australia's wet/dry tropics and is committed to finding practical solutions to support people to manage their lands into the future. NAILSMA has led research into the first offset methodology released under the Carbon Farming Initiative.

Contact Details: Penny Underwood
Ph: 03 9818 8540 and#124; URL: http://www.nailsma.org.au and#124; Email: mediawise@mediawise.net.au