2019 heard the call to arms: "Our house is burning". Although bushfires, often caused by lightning strikes, have ravaged the savanna and other parts of Australia, Africa and the Americas for thousands of years, the headlines and photos of that Australian summer shocked the world.
Annually, 30% of the Australian continent is affected by fire.
Whilst fires are necessary for ecosystem regeneration, when they burn large areas with uncontrolled tenacity, they can be extremely damaging. They threaten cultural sites, family homes and community infrastructure, damage wildlife habitat and agricultural pastures. Then, with less groundcover to stabilise the soil, heavy monsoonal rains that follow the summer cause increased erosion, further impacting the landscape.
And it doesn't even stop there. These fires also contribute between 3-4% of Australia's annual greenhouse gas inventory.
Whilst recognising that climate change exacerbates droughts and intensifies wildfires, it is with new urgency that we need to support existing solutions that mitigate bushfire effects and adapt to the weather conditions that spur them.
One of these solutions is savanna burning carbon projects, where carbon credits are earned for emissions reductions as a result of applying fire management techniques. In Australia, South Pole connects corporates looking to mitigate their climate impact with savanna burning carbon projects, channeling vital climate finance to these important initiatives.
The oldest living continuous population on the planet, the First Nations Peoples of Australia, have used sophisticated fire management practices for over 60,000 years–both as a way to care for the land and to supply them with food. In fact, these techniques are also called 'fire-stick' farming. In some areas, fire was used to create expansive grassland that encouraged kangaroos to graze so they could be easily hunted for food. Many traditional practices, outlawed for many years, hold great cultural significance for Aboriginal Australians and are now being reinstated to great effect.
Planned 'patch-mosaic' burning is carried out in the early dry season. As the land still holds moisture, these controlled fires burn at lower temperatures: still burning away the flammable grasses, but avoiding the hardier, slow-growing vegetation. When mercury rises during the summer months and inevitable lightning storms strike, the grasslands can self-extinguish as there is less kindling to fuel intense late-season fires.
In northern Australia, these practices are said to have cut bushfire destruction in half. Testament to their efficacy, the fire management techniques of Indigenous northern Australians are reinvigorating traditional fire management in Botswana. Places like California, that struggle with worsening wildfires, are now exploring them as well.
Controlled burning also improves soil quality, spurs the growth of certain endemic plant species and creates more productive landscapes for both the people and the planet. In emissions terms, this cuts carbon through sequestration and avoidance. That is, enriching the land for better carbon storage and reducing the amount of stored carbon that is released back into the atmosphere when the ecosystems are destroyed.
Now businesses in Australia and beyond can support such initiatives by channeling carbon finance into savanna burning projects. This empowers Indigenous communities, by providing the recognition, support and finance that's needed to viably continue these traditional practices. The projects work with local rangers and community councils to provide long-term, stable income streams to these remote people. Strong, respectful partnership is vital to keep these projects running for years to come.
One project in Cape York, Raak Nguunge – Pormpuraaw, is a successful collaboration between the Pormpuraaw Aboriginal Shire Council and the Pormpuraaw Land & Sea Management Rangers. Thanks to the emission reductions achieved by controlling and preventing large intense bushfires, the programme benefits from carbon finance. This provides long-term, stable income streams to the remote Indigenous community by creating local employment opportunities.
The project has a specific Junior Rangers program to engage young people in environmental activities and traditional cultural practices to ensure that knowledge continues to be passed down through generations.
As isolated communities are hit hardest by the pandemic, these projects are more important now than ever before. Where the local economy is at risk of harsh repercussions, carbon finance will sustain employment and fund these vital land management techniques that the Traditional Owners carry out for all our benefit.
To quell the rightful cries of "our house is burning", it is vital to support, nurture and celebrate this indigenous knowledge and respect for the Australian landscape. These Traditional Owners are setting the standard for wildfire management across the rest of the world.
This article was written with the support of Harriet Stallibrass.