Savanna Fire Management Initiative COP18

La Trobe Institute for Social and Environmental Sustainability

Blog No.12 – Day 11, COP18. Doha, Qatar.  Thursday 6 December

By Simon Molesworth 

Australia’s Savanna Fire Management Initiative

Simon Molesworth with Mark DreyfusYesterday at COP18 I attended a briefing by the Australian delegation of Australia’s initiative “Savanna Fire Management: Mitigation and Sustainable Development Opportunities for Developing Countries”. The lead speaker was the Hon. Mark Dreyfus QC MP, Cabinet Secretary, Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and Innovation. With this initiative the Australian Government has been working with the United Nations University (UNU) and the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance Ltd (NAILSMA). Mr Peter Yu, the Chairman of NAILSMA, spoke at the launch together with Mr Sam Johnson, the Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, UN University, who has been working on the project as part of UNU’s Traditional Knowledge Initiative.

This initiative is part of Australia's $599 million fast-track finance package to fund climate change programes in developing countries. The Savanna Fire Management initiative is based on the reintroduction to northern Australia of traditional-style patchwork "cool" burning of savanna early in the northern dry season. The indigenous aboriginal people of this region have traditionally carried out slow burns for thousands of years until Europeans intervened and stopped it during the last century. Now the age-old tradition is being reintroduced. The Australian Government is keen to "market" this traditional knowledge land management practice to the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and South America. They believe it will have application in many parts of the world where the traditional way was to "slow burn" grasslands to stimulate regrowth.

The key point is that slow patchwork burning early in the dry-season can limit the scale and intensity of late dry season fires, thus reducing carbon emissions. The indigenous communities are now returning to the lands included in the project and by following this practice are reducing emissions and concurrently generating sustainable incomes through the Australian carbon market.   

The Minister’s media statement released after the briefing quoted from the presentations.  Mr Dreyfus said: “The initiative builds on the pioneering savanna fire management methodology recently approved under Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI). The Australian Government is now working with the UNU and the NAILSMA to share Australia’s experience of savanna fire management mitigation projects with developing countries. Countries in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South America share similar savanna environments and traditional knowledge with regard to their management. As in Australia, traditional fire management practices elsewhere have been interrupted, resulting in uncontrolled and destructive wild fires which emit large amounts of greenhouse gases ” said Mr Dreyfus.

NAILSMA Chairman Peter Yu said: “Indigenous land managers have been leading the development of the Carbon Farming Initiative methodology for savanna fire management in Australia”. He explained there are two savanna fire management projects underway in north Australia: the award-winning West Arnhem Land Fire Management (WALFA) Project and the Fish River Fire Project, which has recently been approved as a carbon emission offset project under the CFI. This means the project can generate carbon credits that can be sold into the Australian carbon market.

Mr Yu said: “These projects have the potential to generate sustainable livelihoods in remote communities, where few other opportunities for earning an income exist. …. But more importantly, they strengthen ties to culture and country and provide an opportunity for Indigenous people to stay on their ancestral lands.” As he said at the briefing, “It is keeping people on country” explaining that the WALFA project has been the driving force to get the traditional owners to reconnect with their country.

Mr Yu made some personal observations that sadly outlined dispossession and dislocation that has occurred amongst the aboriginal people in the region. He said that the job is to get people back to “country” and that the first step is to light fire. He said the essence of being is to sustain these people’s dignity. Wellbeing of the country and the people coming back to country provides a real co-benefit.

Adding to the international dimension is the United Nations University’s Traditional Knowledge Initiative, which has worked with Indigenous people on climate change issues around the globe, Sam Johnson said: “Australia’s approach to savanna fire management might be applicable in a number of developing countries. That is what the new Savanna Fire Management Initiative aims to explore”.

Using the knowledge and experience of Australia’s Indigenous land managers, the initiative will develop resources to document and communicate results and lessons learned and provide practical guidance on project design and implementation.  Sam explained that traditional fire management controlled carbon emissions. Examples of people who carried out these practices were in countries as diverse as Namibia, Venezuela, Mozambique and the Congo. He stressed that the proven knowhow from this project created a great opportunity for the Australian experience to be showcased worldwide wherever traditional savannah management existed.

“This is an exciting initiative. It will allow interested groups around the world to benefit from the work done by Indigenous land managers in north Australia, assisting them to reduce emissions from savanna fires and generate sustainable income through participation in the global carbon market,” said Mr Dreyfus.
If the questions from the floor during the briefing were anything to go by, Australia would seem to be “on a winner” with the promotion of this initiative, as I heard questions from people from Mozambique, Uganda, Nicaragua, Kenya, the US, Zaire and Botswana.