International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire

Customary use of fire by indigenous peoples in northern Australia: its contemporary role in savanna management

Peter J. Whitehead, D. M. J. S. Bowman, Noel Preece, Fiona Fraser and Peter Cooke

International Journal of Wildland Fire 12(4) 415 - 425
Published: 28 November 2003


The extent to which use of fire by Aboriginal peoples shaped the landscapes and biota of Australia is a contentious issue. Equally contentious is the proposition that attempts should be made to support and re-establish customary practice. Some dismiss Aboriginal practice as little more than culturally endorsed pyromania, and consequences for land, vegetation and wildlife management as incidental and unintended outcomes. We argue that this view of Aboriginal practice is at odds with available evidence regarding motivations for use of fire, and detailed and sophisticated descriptions of the consequences of poor fire management for the maintenance of important resources. We suggest that misunderstanding arises, at least in part, from the contrasting views that (i) objectives of Aboriginal land managers and the values they seek to extract and maintain in savanna landscapes are or should be similar to those of non-Indigenous land managers; or (ii) the notion that their goals are inherently and entirely incompatible with those of non-indigenous interests. We illustrate our argument with examples that include assessments of ecological consequences of 'prescribed' Aboriginal practice, statements from Aboriginal people regarding their objectives in applying those prescriptions, and the level of active organisation required for their effective implementation. Finally, we propose mechanisms for wider application of Aboriginal prescriptions in tropical landscapes to meet a range of land management objectives.

Keywords: adaptive management; biodiversity conservation; fire management objectives; community involvement.

© IAWF 2003

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