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Monday, 18 May 2020

Bushfires and Colonial Mismanagement

The Australian bushfires that raged from late December to mid-January were the most destructive on record, destroying 8.5 million hectares of forest, farmland, town and residential country in the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. If that number is hard to get your head around, my dear North American readers, think of an area the size of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island combined, then add a little bit more.  In some places, the fires burned so hot that stone structures melted and even the biomatter below the surface of the ground was utterly obliterated. Ecologists are now saying that in such places, nothing will ever be able to grow again. Even where this is not the case, in parts of the forest where regeneration is possible, whole ecosystems – millennia in the making - have been utterly laid waste. It is also estimated that over 1 billion native animals perished in the fires, many of them belonging to species already close to extinction such as koalas and mountain pygmy possums. A large portion of those animals apparently died either because the fires were travelling too fast or because they could not make their way through fences erected by property owners.

So how did the fires start and why did they burn so hot?  The short answer is that the continent of Australia is on the front line of the battle over climate change. Increasingly mild ‘cold’ seasons and increasingly hot ‘warm’ seasons over the past thirty years have left the driest continent on earth (after Antarctica) even drier. Periods of drought, always an issue in this sun-burnt continent, have become progressively more severe over time to the point where even the wettest places on the continent - temperate and tropical rainforests - are becoming tinderboxes. When dry lightning comes along, therefore, there is little to stop entire forests, along with any farms and towns on their perimeter, going up in flames. And once the fires start, even the world’s most prepared and well-resourced firefighting services cannot stand in their way.  There is little to be done except to evacuate residential areas and pray for rain.

But how did we get to this point? How did an apparently ‘developed’ nation such as Australia, allow the situation to get so out of hand, possibly to the point of no-return?  Obviously climate-change is a global issue. Even if Australia had a progressive government which takes climate-change seriously (which it does not) the only possible mechanism that will make a difference to global policy is international treaty. And the world’s largest polluters have not yet signed any of the protocols generated by UN conferences such as Kyoto or Paris. Notwithstanding this fact, I believe it is incumbent upon nations such as Australia to recognise that we find ourselves in these catastrophic circumstances primarily because we have failed to recognise the wisdom of our indigenous peoples.

I am an Indigenous survivor of what some of us are calling, in Australia, ‘the apocalypse’.  Before the British arrived on our shores in 1788 CE, over 500 nations were already living here, and we had done so for more than 100 000 years. 100 000 years is a very long time by anyone’s estimation. When you’ve been in a place for that long, you get to know it very, very, very well. You get to know the moods and cycles of land and seascape. You get to know the seasons, the animals, the plant-life. You get to know the ecological systems which bind that land together and cause it to flourish with life. You get to know how to find food and shelter, and how to sustainably access those resources over many hundreds of generations. The other thing that you do when you’ve lived that long in one place is find a way to preserve the knowledge of previous generations and pass it on to your children. Doing so is crucial to survival. My people preserved their wisdom in a large body of knowledge we now call, collectively, our ‘dreaming’, which consists of songs, dances, paintings, stories and rituals which, together, show us how to live successfully and well in the lands and seascapes we call home. When the British arrived, they apparently did not see the value of our lore – indeed, after only a little while, they devised policies and practices specifically designed to destroy it - and this was the beginning of our apocalypse. During the 230 years of British occupation much of our lore has been destroyed and possibly lost for ever. Certainly we have been systematically murdered or separated from the specific places in which our various ‘dreamings’ belong. And that has meant, worst of all, that most of us are no longer able to fulfil the vocation given us by our creator-ancestors to look after and manage our homes in such a way that future generations may continue to enjoy and live from their bounty.

Of the many skills our ancestors learned and passed on was the management of landscapes and resources through fire-farming. When the British arrived, they thought that the land was ‘virgin’, empty of human presence, cultivation and influence. But nothing could be further from the truth. For thousands upon thousands of years, my people had been modifying the landscape on an epic scale. We had been using fire to create agricultural fields in which we could plant crops, fields where the soil was permeable by both air and water. We had been using fire to create grasslands which would attract game which could then, in turn, be harvested. Crucially, for the current discussion, we also set small fires in order to prevent wildfires. These would be set within large stands of trees, as well as in open fields, on a seasonal basis. The fires would be managed by burning small areas of grassland or forest undergrowth in a circle-pattern, with a large group of people lighting fires at the perimeter and then following the fire into a centre of convergence. The seasonal nature of the burning kept fuel loads under control, but also caused many of Australia’s native plant species to regenerate and therefore provide nourishment for a local ecosystem to survive.

By contrast, the British clearly did not know how to manage our lands sustainably. Within the first 50 years of annexation, they cleared the grasslands of its people, agricultural systems and animals, and replaced them with millions upon millions of cattle and sheep which compacted the soil and made it relatively impermeable to air and water. The soil, which could no longer breathe, became progressively less nutritious over time and, when it rained, less able to hold moisture. More grasslands for sheep and cattle were created by cutting down forests, but those stands that remained were poorly managed so that ‘bushfires’ became a feature of the ‘Australian’ experience. Today’s Australia not only has to content with wildfires, but also with deeply unwell river systems, dying coral reefs and fisheries, alarming levels of drought and desertification, as well as one of the world’s most mismanaged native animal populations.

Some policy-makers are becoming interested in the land-and sea management practices of our First Peoples. But they are few and far between. And so we pray to our creator for mercy, and for a change of heart and mind that is able to reverse at least some of the damage. And we do so, some of us, in the name of the one who loved even the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.

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