Last February, I spent three days in remote Northern Australia on the Cape York Peninsula where I visited the community of Pormpuraaw to meet with Traditional Owners and Pormpuraaw Land and Sea Rangers and learn how a strategic savanna fire management project operates.
Travelling to this remote community from Sydney is a mission in itself. After making it to Cairns, you have two options: either hop onto a small plane and fly into Pormpuraaw via Kowanyama, or take a seven-hour drive northwest along the Peninsula Development Road.
Each year, the savannas of Northern Australia experience a dry season (May to October) and a wet season (November to April). I visited Pormpuraaw last February during the wet season, or monsoon. At this time of year, heavy rains flood all roads into Pormpuraaw and flying is the only way in.
Pormpuraaw nine days after a flood
Pormpuraaw means "thatched hut" in the local Thaayore language. Its population of about 300 is made up of several First Nations People, including the Thaayore and Munkan-Kugu People, as well as some Wik, Bakanh and Yir Yoront People.
Among other amenities, the town boasts a thriving Aboriginal Arts Centre, a primary school, a pub, a supermarket and a rolling burger stand. It's also home to the Raak Nguunge – Pormpuraaw Savanna Burning project, a project developed and managed by South Pole's subsidiary, Natural Carbon.
Strategic fire management in Cape York
In the late dry season, the savannas of the Cape York Peninsula catch fire due to high temperatures, dry lightning storms, or in some cases, human activities.
Fire is a natural part of life in Northern Australia and is even necessary for ecosystem regeneration, but large uncontrolled wildfires are damaging. They threaten wildlife, livestock and human communities and make the land vulnerable to erosion in the monsoonal rains that follow.
This is where strategic fire management comes in. Tens of thousands of years before European colonisation, the Traditional Custodians of this area were managing the landscape strategically with fire. Nowadays, the goal of savanna fire management projects like Raak Nguunge is to bring down emissions from these late season fires by carrying out planned burns in the early dry season before August.
Fires are lit from a helicopter using an incendiary machine, supported by on-ground burning with matches and drip torches. When done correctly, these 'cool' fires, which burn mostly grass, create substantially less emissions than late dry season 'hot' fires that kill off vegetation and wildlife, as well as cattle pastures.
Savanna burning is undertaken by local rangers and Traditional Owners, many of whom are employed from the local community.
Before lighting 'cool' fires, rangers take precautions such as establishing protective fire breaks around local infrastructure. Planning and preparing for the burns is crucial: proper execution ensures safety, improves biodiversity, and maximises the output of carbon credits—an important source of income for the local community.
Among other initiatives and services, revenue from the sale of carbon credits is used to fund community infrastructure maintenance. In recent years, these funds have refurbished ten outstations that Traditional Owners stay in when working out on country.
Saving turtles and other important work
Carbon abatement is also critical for the Pormpuraaw Land and Sea Rangers, helping to fund the program and support activities throughout the calendar year.
Pormpuraaw rangers care for country through a range of ecosystem management activities beyond seasonal fire management. Their work includes ensuring environmental and health standards via testing food and water quality, or safeguarding biodiversity by managing feral animals—and even saving baby turtles!
The Pormpuraaw Ranger Turtle Program keeps Olive Ridley and Flathead turtle eggs safe from feral pigs, goannas and crocodiles. Each breeding season in July and August, rangers secure over 300 nests on the beaches north of Pormpuraaw with mesh aluminium cages to keep predators out.
And it's not just the turtles that benefit from the project activities; kangaroos, emus and blue tongue lizards now flourish in a landscape that is much greener and lusher than it was before the project was established in 2014.
Thanks to the Pormpuraaw Ranger Program, local Indigenous people and their communities have access to employment opportunities that give them the chance to care for country and reconnect with their ancestral homelands. In conjunction, the Youth Ranger Program inspires young people by giving them a taste of what it's like to work in the community, staying connected to the lands and songlines of their Elders.
Spending time in Pormpuraaw taught me a lot about being in touch with nature, as well as giving me an appreciation for the intimate connection to and understanding of the land that Australia's First Nations People share. I also saw the benefits—both concrete and intangible—beyond emission reductions that savanna fire management projects like Raak Nguunge create for Traditional Owners and their communities.
Like remote Indigenous communities around Australia, Pormpuraaw is currently closed off to outside visitors to stop the spread of coronavirus and protect vulnerable community members. This means that right now, savanna burning operations are a particularly important source of income, supporting the local economy, sustaining employment and funding vital community services.
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