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Aboriginal Australians Managed the Forest Better than Europeans

Aboriginal Australians Managed the Forest Better than Europeans

Australia’s notorious bushfires are often international news, but close to home, they’re less newsworthy than they are terrifying for Australians with painful memories of homes and lives lost. Much of the country can become a tinderbox thanks to its location and climate conditions — and don’t jump to assume climate change is only reason, because evidence suggests that fire has played a critical role in the ecological history of Australia for thousands of years.

Many plants native to Australia have adaptations that indicate they’ve been coexisting with fire for a very long time. Some have seed pods that only open in fires, an nifty trick that allows them to wait until competitors are cleared and the soil is richly fertilized with ash before attempting to germinate. The blue gum eucalyptus, on the other hand, is practically an incendiary device — and these trees have evolved that way. The rich oil they secrete, combined with the papery bark they slough, creates a highly flammable mixture that can create extreme fire conditions in seconds as sometimes the very air itself catches fire. When the flames finally recede, green shoots of eucalyptus start appearing almost immediately.

Yet, Australia has also been inhabited by humans for thousands of years. These humans clearly had a functional relationship with the fires that raged across the continent, or they wouldn’t have been able to survive. How did they do it? Australia’s Aboriginal community, and the historical record, provide the answer: controlled burns. They employed a careful forest management practice that included burns to create open pastureland for hunting, as well as to protect their communities.

When Europeans reached Australia, they encountered a highly managed landscape, but they didn’t realize how managed it was, and how important that management had come to be, until it was too late. Members of the Aboriginal community were killed, driven away from their land and forced out of areas they’d been caring for over the millennia, in a tragic repetition of other encounters between Indigenous people and Europeans. As they retreated from their ancestral lands, though, fire licked at their footprints, because Europeans allowed trees and shrubs to grow wild, creating Australia’s famous bush.

The bush is beautiful, but how natural is it? This is a key subject of debate as conservationists, ecologists, public safety officials and other members of the Australian community argue over how to deal with fires. Blue gums are thoroughly protected in Australia, so much so that you need a permit to chop one down, even if it’s sitting on your own property. This is the result of a belief that Australia’s natural state is one of uncontrolled bush — which may well be the case for many of the plants of Australia, but that state wasn’t the case for thousands of years.

As with other Indigenous people, the Aborigines shaped the land around them, and their caretaking changed the landscape of Australia forever. The insistence on allowing the bush to grow unfettered combined with fighting all fires that appear may not be the best practice — a better option might be controlled burns to allow periodic fires at much lower temperatures. The high temperature firestorms that fixate the globe and worry Australians aren’t natural either, after all: they’re the result of fire suppression combined with uncontrolled growth in the bush, much like the severe wildfires the United States struggles with.

It’s clear that Australia needs a better forest and fire management policy, because while climate change isn’t the root cause of the region’s terrible fires, as the global climate shifts, Australia’s fire situation may become more dire.

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Photo credit: lin padgham.

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8:16PM PDT on Mar 16, 2014

Indigenous people usually do know better. It is the people who come in after that muck it up.

9:37PM PDT on Mar 13, 2014

This article makes some valid points but can be seen as misleading because of its somewhat inaccurate emphasis on various points.
1. Fire IS endemic to many Australian habitats but hardly 'raged' across the continent- merely across limited parts of it at any one time - one problem now is that fires tend to be more frequent and more intense (global warming and human activities). If fires are too frequent in a given area then it will not easily recover as the trees etc do not sufficient time to recover adequately for reproductive purposes.
2. Aboriginal communities did employ fire management - thereby altering forest cover and species frequencies (cedars, for example, became less frequent). However not all the fires caused by Aborigines would have necessarily been deliberate landscape management - some would have been accidental 'escapees'. Quite a few fires would also be lightning fires (although rain often followed these). Indeed initially, in Australia, the European squatters with their large also used to burn off, following Aboriginal customs - it was when fencing became more common that controlled burns became less common.
Furthermore the Aboriginal population of Australia was very low compared to today's population and there was much more uncleared country than we have now. Fires effected a lower percentage of 'bush'.
3 Controlled burns are used all across Australia but there is some debate about when it is useful. To quote:

"PRESCRIBED burning in forests away from

9:41AM PDT on Mar 11, 2014

thank you

6:30PM PDT on Mar 9, 2014

Hmmm - not surprising - just look at the damage any "non-native" plant or animal can do.

5:43PM PDT on Mar 9, 2014

Thanks for great comments

1:05PM PDT on Mar 9, 2014

Me thinks we've interpreted 'civilized' bass-ackwards!

Nature is so abundant, and generous! People often think I'm silly when planting my spring garden, that I sit quietly with the baby plants & wait for inspiration as to where to plant them. Maybe it is, but what a joy to both sit quietly and share the constant extraordinary bounty & beauty.

11:36AM PDT on Mar 9, 2014

The indigenous peoples who live with nature are always going to manage it better than the "civilized" societies that just want to conquer it and make it serve their purposes or eliminate what gets in their way.

Pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

11:18AM PDT on Mar 9, 2014

News Flash..........

Our American Indians, managed the Buffalo better than we did.

Well Duh!

3:33AM PDT on Mar 9, 2014

Not in the early days of settlement..they were still organic gardeners..just didn't know the climate and the old fragile soils..they were dealing with...shame the set out to kill the very people that could save the..or make their life easier

8:02PM PST on Mar 8, 2014

The Indians in North and South America, as well as the aboriginal peopled of Australia knew how to live off the land and survive White Europeans only knew how to steal the land and destroy it Using chemical pesticides and fertilizers as well as CAFOs and polluting factory slaughter houses White Europeans have destroyed this earth It is long past time to practice the wisdom of the indigenous peoples of this earth and stop destroying it.

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