Wildfires and Indigenous ways to stop them

Firefighters from Mexico march along a fire guard as they battle wildfires near Vanderhoof, British Columbia, Canada July 13, 2023

Firefighters from Mexico march along a fire guard as they battle wildfires near Vanderhoof, British Columbia, Canada July 13, 2023. REUTERS/Jesse Winter

Indigenous peoples' knowledge of halting wildfires should be tapped more often as climate change stokes blazes from Canada to Australia

Michael Shank is the director of engagement for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance.

Wildfires are on everyone’s mind these days (and in everyone’s lungs it seems, too). Whether it’s the recent and ongoing wildfires in Canada – which are still generating severe and extreme air quality alerts all across the United States – or the all too common bushfires in Australia, these kinds of uncontrolled burns are becoming more common due to climate change-induced droughts and heat waves.

These wildfires are incredibly dangerous and devastating to our health and to our built and natural environments. The more common they become, the more lives and infrastructure we risk losing. In the US between 2022 and 2023, for example, wildfires were responsible for $3.2 billion in damage. And in Australia, between 2019 and 2020, the bushfires caused an estimated $4-5 billion in damage and economic losses for farmers and the food sector. 

It doesn’t have to be this way, however.

Yes, we should be doing everything we can to reduce emissions and cool the planet – in order to decrease the amount of heat drying out these forests, prairies, and savannas. That’s the necessary long game. But in the near term, we can prevent some of these fires from becoming so intense in the first place.

There are Indigenous methods already in place to help here.

A general view shows damage in the fire-ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 15, 2023. REUTERS/Mike Blake
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For example, take the large, hot, and intense fires of Australia’s northern savanna, which produce a lot of greenhouse gas emissions and burn critical organic matter. They most often occur in the late dry season. But by better managing the savanna, with controlled fires in cooler, moister conditions and earlier in the summer season, we can reduce the frequency and intensity of these fires.

This cultural burning practice is what Indigenous communities and rangers have been utilizing for centuries and what the Firesticks Alliance, an Indigenous-led network, is reinvigorating. Nonprofit organizations like the Aboriginal Carbon Foundation are now helping to coordinate, support, and scale out this work across Australia.

It fits within the body of climate work called carbon farming. Not only does it help reduce greenhouse gas emissions – by preventing the larger and hotter uncontrolled burns – but it helps capture and hold carbon in vegetation and soils.

This cultural burning practice also brings myriad social, cultural, economic, health, and political benefits to Indigenous communities. Benefits like economic independence and equal opportunity employment, increased control and confidence, retention of language and identity, protection of native species, improved nutrition, increased exercise, and more. 

There are so many benefits. As Rowan Foley of the Wondunna clan of the Badtjala people, Traditional Owners of Fraser Island (K'gari), and CEO of ACF noted, “We're here to create jobs on Country, address the bushfires through cultural burning, and tackle climate change.” Aboriginal peoples often use the term “Country” to describe lands and waters to which they are connected. 

So how do we support Indigenous communities in scaling out this work?

The City of Sydney has been purchasing fire carbon offsets for years to support these kinds of cultural burning projects in savanna country in northern Australia. The Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, of which Sydney is a member, recently added to this support with funding for additional Indigenous-led approaches like biodiverse plantings on Aboriginal owned or managed land and projects in the south that will look after Country and restore healthy forests.

Importantly, these investments are helping to create a carbon farming market in Australia based around these Traditional Owner knowledge and environmental services. And, going forward, given the prevalence of greenwashing in the carbon offsetting space, it’ll be critical to protect the integrity of these carbon farming markets.

As the carbon farming market gets more crowded and potentially confusing for buyers, accurately identifying and lifting up legitimate and local Indigenous-led practices and projects will be paramount. And as more national and subnational governments – and even organizations and individuals – consider credits to reach their carbon neutrality goals, Indigenous-led cultural burning practices, like the ones facilitated by the Aboriginal Carbon Foundation, need our support more than ever. Whether it’s a purchase of a cultural credit or community or farmer credit, there are multiple marketplaces to support this important climate work.

There’s been a lot of talk in the climate community – and at almost every global climate or biodiversity summit – about supporting Indigenous communities in climate mitigation, adaptation, and reparation work. Often, there’s too much talk but not near enough commensurate action.

The good news is that we know how to do this – by supporting organizations like the Aboriginal Carbon Foundation. It’s what Sydney has done and other cities within the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance are considering. It’s time to walk the talk, climate community, and support Indigenous-led carbon farming. It’s been here for centuries, it’s about time we support it.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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  • Indigenous communities
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