Environment

Dry season burning

In the top end of the Northern Territory there are officially two seasons – the Wet and the Dry. A ‘clean and green’ southern temperate standard to go with the linear concept of Developing the North has tried to change this to the Green Season and the Fire Season.

Local Aboriginal people know that there are several seasons but for our simplistic ‘civilised’mindset, they have brought it down to seven. Larrakia seasons have been mapped out beautifully online beginning with the Monsoon season – Dalay – which we are in the middle of.

In Dinidjanggama, from mid July to early August, traditional fire management takes place to open up woodlands for people and large animals to settle – in between hunting and grazing in the grasslands.

Late August into early September, ground birds begin to nest. Burning should end.

Unfortunately, as often happens with societies that like things easy and uncomplicated, the days of traditional fire management (of experienced fire custodians walking around small areas with grass-stemmed fire sticks and burning only those areas that will produce food sustainably)  has given way to a white-man version driven by large-scale petrol-power. Toyota and helicopter incendiaries.

Now, fire is out of control. The most vulnerable areas of rainforest and closed savanna forests are under fire every Dry season.

Fire-Scars 1999

European settlement and pasture grasses for the live cattle trade have destroyed traditional fire-stick farming and , as the above map shows, has increased high-intensity fires to unsustainable levels.

As per Alan Anderson of CSIRO: ‘Following European colonisation, most Aboriginal people moved off their clan estates to larger settlements. As a result, fire is now largely unmanaged in vast areas of northern Australia’.

While Aboriginal land managers across northern Australia are concerned about the destruction of native species and habitat, what should be a strong sense of cultural responsibility to protect biodiversity has become a culture of ‘job opportunities in Australia’s most disadvantaged sector, which has few other opportunities for engaging in the mainstream economy’ (as per Dr Anderson above).

When an economic value is put on the environment and native vegetation and habitat is on private or indigenous communal property, there is more certainty that owners and firefighters will protect it. Bushland (or ‘scrub’) on public land is generally not equally valued.

The Northern Territory does not have a fire ecologist or psychologist as part of its Bushfire Council or Bushfires NT training program. It is the only jurisdiction in Australia that doesn’t. Professional firefighters go through a stringent psychological process to establish their attitudes to protecting life and property from fire and levels of stress when confronted with life-threatening fire situations.

The ‘authorised’actions of volunteer fire fighters in local bushfire brigades give them hero status. But -when does a firefighter become a fire setter? Brigade members are paid by the NT Government to burn public land annually and a study on bushfire arson shows that ‘to many rural firesetters, government land does not constitute property’ (page 93)and is therefore open to constant burning. Volunteer brigade members enjoy the comaraderie of their collective ‘burns’. They are encouraged in this by horticulturalists who blame the ‘Bush’ for spreading weeds and fire. This is, however, not backed by evidence – especially when pasture grasses like Mission and Gamba are concerned.

Changes to the Bushfire Act and government property holders (PowerWater, Crown lands) are needed to prevent unnecessary environmental destruction of otherwise highly-biodiverse tropical woodlands and forests. RRRG has contributed changes that respect Country and traditional fire management practices. We are concerned that there are very few effective ways to rein in inappropriate fire practices in the NT.

And so – back to Larrakia seasons. As the calendar shows, the intense fire season is also the heavy mist season. Traditional fire management was carried out in late afternoon/ evening and fires died down with the mists in the early morning. With high intensity introduced pasture grass fires lit over large areas in the heat of the day, Bush biodiversity suffers. Using fire as a weapon against weeds in the natural environment is not widely condoned by ecologists but as a precautionary tool of last resort, may help restore a healthy balance.

Mangarrayi Rangers at Red Lily Lagoon. Photo © Roper River Landcare Group

Biosphere Reserves

Several places around the world have Biosphere Reserve Plans in place.

RRRG would like a local biosphere reserve for the Litchfield Council area. This could operate similarly to the Noosa Reserve Plan .

Biosphere Reserves involve all members of local communities in their functioning. As with Noosa Biosphere, planning aims are ‘to put in place a truly community owned framework to continue to realise the community’s aspirations for a sustainable future’.

A Litchfield Biosphere would recognise the unique attributes of our natural and built environment, cultural heritage and rural amenity.. As per Noosa Council: ‘Biospheres help us to work together to build sustainable economies, communities, and knowledge and to ensure our natural ecosystems and biodiversity is valued, cared for, improved and conserved’. [Photo: jabiru at Fogg Dam].

jabiru at Fogg Dam

As with the Noosa Biosphere Reserve, a Litchfield Biosphere Reserve would encompass thousands of hectares of  freshwater/tidal and terrestrial ecosystems.

We need proposals that will reduce environmental impacts, ensure sustainability, and enhance the Litchfield Council region’s environmental credentials. We need improvements to the way things are done in the region, or to fix problems created in the past, and we hope the eclectic Litchfield Council regional community will be the engine room for these big ideas.

While planning and setting up biosphere reserves may initially involve government funding, the reserves become a valuable asset involving all community members. On-going community participation in planning and management of reserves ensures that high standards are maintained that allow evolutionary change to happen while preserving heritage and built environments of significance.

A Litchfield Biosphere Reserve would pave the way to other local government biosphere initiatives here and elsewhere in the NT.

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