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Traditional burning protects land, water and the Great Barrier Reef

Words Bianca Barling-Seden | Photo Andrew Hartwig

In recent years, traditional land and fire management has received widespread recognition, capturing government and private-sector interest.

Instructed by an Awu-Laya Elders fire management project in Cape York in 2004, traditional burning has flourished through the National Indigenous Fire Workshop, a community-led initiative supported by Cape York Natural Resource Management.

The flow-on effects of traditional burning are seen from soil conservation and estuary protection through to reef health.

Over recent years, Cape York has been prone to extensive, intensive, late dry season wildfires which expose country to erosion and sediment runoff and transport into rivers and other wetlands, and then into the Great Barrier Reef Basin, with impacts on reef health and integrity. The challenge is to both minimise wildfire occurrence, and maintain/rehabilitate biodiversity through improved, knowledge-based fire management and monitoring

What is traditional fire management?

Traditional burning techniques have been practised for thousands of years to reduce the risk of extreme and catastrophic events. Using detailed knowledge of country, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people use ‘cool’ burns to manage wildfire risk and revitalise the landscape. If traditional burning knowledge is lost, land and water quality will deteriorate.

Today, Indigenous land management enriches agency-based fire reduction plans with knowledge developed on-country. Traditional methods are combined with modern technologies to play a role in maintaining and restoring biodiversity and fighting climate change. Rangers skilled in fire management care for the land with manifold benefits to pastoralists, government land management agencies and the broader community.

Benefits of traditional burning

By reducing the frequency and severity of wildfires, traditional burning methods can be harnessed to reduce carbon emissions. ‘Carbon burning’ has recently been recognised as an industry in the Northern Territory with 25 carbon farming projects producing carbon credits that bring in economic opportunity for remote communities.

Over recent years, land-use change, poor grazing and inappropriate fire management have left Cape York prone to extensive late dry-season wildfires. These fires increase the erosion and sediment runoff that feeds into rivers and wetlands and flows into the Great Barrier Reef Basin, damaging the health of the reef.

Cape York NRM has established on-ground monitoring sites to show the link between good fire management and improved water quality. Working with various stakeholders, these projects on horticultural, grazing, Aboriginal freehold and Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land (CYPAL) draw on traditional knowledge shared by Indigenous groups to create tools such as tailored fire management monitoring apps.

Greater awareness of traditional ecological burning leads to land managers adopting sustainable agricultural management practices that improve water quality and reduce impacts on the Great Barrier Reef. This work also contributes to regional catchment modelling and fire management and water quality improvement plans.

About Cape York NRM and the Fire and Water Quality Project

The Cape York NRM region covers 1,533 kilometres of Australia’s Eastern coastline from the south - east of the region to the tip. Cape York NRM work with land and sea managers, traditional custodians, growers, graziers and ranger groups on a wide variety of programs that enhance Cape York’s wetlands and soils - and offer protection to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Fire and Water Quality Project continues to build relationships with Indigenous and non-Indigenous land managers in Cape York east flowing catchments, focussing on developing fit for purpose management interventions and monitoring methods.

The project established an increase in on-ground water quality monitoring sites to assist in documenting the poorly understood risks to water quality in Cape York such as inappropriate fire management, sediment loss from gully and surface erosion, and to quantify nutrient loss from agriculture.

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