Aboriginal Fires Fight Climate Change

Australian aborigines use ancient fire practices to slash greenhouse gases

Fire Sticks

Aborigines once commonly used fire-stick farming to establish a patchwork of habitats in different stages of growth, and to continually create new environments for small game that could be hunted. The practice died out as European colonization swept the continent.Image courtesy of g_kat26 via Flickr.com

Brushfires killed 173 people in Australia earlier this year, and scorched over 115 square miles of land, after suspected arsonists set several blazes. But even natural causes have inflicted plenty of wildfires on the tinder-dry Australian continent throughout its modern history – at least since native aborigines were forced to stop their traditional fire-stick farming that kept such uncontrolled fires relatively contained.

Corporations such as Conoco-Phillips have begun paying aboriginal rangers millions of dollars to reestablish their fire regime practices in the western Arnhem region of northern Australia. It's part of a system that allows companies to buy carbon credits to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

Aborigines once commonly used the practice of fire-stick farming, an agricultural technique where fire is used to clear large tracks of land, to set controlled fires. That established a patchwork of habitats in different stages of growth, and continually created new environments for small game, like wallabies and kangaroos, that could be hunted.

Over thousands of years this process created an environment where fire-resistant species of plants prospered. Since constant burning robs the soil of nitrogen, fire-stick farming, combined with the continent's increasing aridity, may have encouraged the development of Australia's vast inner deserts.

The practice died out as European colonization swept the continent.

Now the same types of fire breaks ensure that brushfires don't burn as wildly uncontrolled as before – the first year of the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project saw just 16 percent of Western Arnhem land burned, compared with an average of 37 percent burned over the past previous years. That prevents roughly 441,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being released by uncontrolled fires.

The deal, set up by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the Aboriginal Northern Land Council has allowed the aborigines to sell $17 million worth of carbon credits to companies so far. Project managers estimate that the number could rise to $10 million per year.

This success was highlighted at the Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change, a UN-affiliated conference held in Anchorage, Alaska that included a look at using traditional practices to cope with climate change. It just goes to show that there are some low-tech solutions that can still get it right, even thousands of years later.