Traditional Fire Management Helps Fight Climate Change

australia wildfire photo

Image credit: cytoon/Flickr

Australia is no stranger to traumatic wildfires. Climate change is the likely culprit for the continent's exceptionally severe blazes, but the indigenous people of Australia have been dealing with fire—indeed, managing it—for centuries.

Among Australia's indigenous communities, fire is actually considered a positive thing: a force of creation, not destruction. Now, the government is mining this local knowledge to help fight climate change.

Fighting carbon with fire - Arnhemland, Australia from UNUChannel on Vimeo.

Hired by the government as fire managers, these experts are providing new approaches to reducing the risk of large-scale fires using methods that reduce carbon emissions. Members of the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) program have produced real results: already reducing CO2-equivalent emissions in Northern Australia by 488,000 tonnes.

WALFA, which will create more than 200 jobs in indigenous communities in Australia, is expected to generate 1 million tonnes of carbon credit sales every year.

Joe Morrison, CEO of the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance, explained that "in time, as the carbon market matures and world prices per tonne rise, these credits will more than pay for the costs of the fire abatement projects."

But it's not all about making money. In addition to creating and selling carbon credits, the program fosters biodiversity and protects important landscapes. It also benefits for local communities by creating "greater employment, the inter-generational transfer of traditional knowledge, and cross-cultural confidence essential to developing tourism and other sustainable business activities."

Perhaps the best part of this program, however, is that organizers believe it can serve as a model for mitigating emissions from fire in regions of savannah around the world. Chris Justice, a professor at the University of Maryland and the NASA MODIS Fire Lead, explained that, "some 37% of global carbon emissions by biomass burning come from Africa, mostly released by human induced savannah fires," and went on to say that the project in Australia "demonstrates a valuable, alternative way to help Africa's poorest not only play a role mitigating climate change, but also to develop sustainable livelihoods to tackle their main issue—poverty."

Addressing the problems brought on by global climate change will continue to be a challenge. Sam Johnston, a senior fellow at the United Nations University said that, "the importance of local and individual efforts to tackle this global problem cannot be overstated...leadership will come from the ground not the top."

Building knowledge and systems on the ground, however, can be difficult. Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, chair of the UN body on Indigenous Issues, explained: "the world would gain greatly from proven ancient approaches built on profound respect for the Earth." WALFA may help solidify those approaches on the ground so that they can influence decisions being made at the top.

Read more about wildfires:
A Scorched Earth Shows its "Fire Scars"
'Earth Under Fire' Photograph Exhibit Comes to DC, Just in Time for Senate Debates
What Turns Fires into Disasters? Politics and Planning

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