The deadly, ongoing bushfires in Australia have been burning for months. Around Christmas, however, the glittering orange flames grew closer to the community of East Gippsland in eastern Victoria, home to more than 46,000 people. Alice Pepper, an indigenous community organizer with the Gunaikurnai people, among them.
Her people are the traditional owners of this land, and some 3,000 indigenous people still call this region home. When the fires came, they fled, just as their ancestors had nearly 200 years ago when European colonizers arrived only to massacre and separate families.
“Some of our people have lost their homes and everything in the fires, which has been very traumatic,” Pepper wrote in a statement to Earther.
The bushfires have become a traumatic event for the entire country as the country’s iconic wildlife suffers and the landscape turns black. But for the Aboriginal peoples, the fire crisis is especially traumatizing. Fire, an element indigenous groups across the continent once lived in harmony with, is now putting their cultural and sacred sites are at risk.
“It’s kind of like this trauma from being ignored and then trauma from the environmental catastrophe, as well ,” Bhiamie Eckford-Williamson, a Euahlayi indigenous research associate at Australian National University’s Center for Aboriginal Policy Research, told Earther.
Around the world, the climate crisis is threatening the very existence of indigenous peoples. In Australia, that’s no different. But the same people most threatened by the flames also hold one of the solutions that could help protect forests in the face of the climate crisis.
Through mid-January, more than 26.4 million acres have burned this fire season in Australia. Though no data exists yet on exactly how many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people have been affected by the fires, Francis Markham, a research fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, told Earther it’s fair to say that these bush fires disproportionately impact indigenous communities in Australia. New South Wales, for example, is where the fires are concentrated, and the state also has the highest number of indigenous people in the country.
“The places where we know a lot of aboriginal people live… have been heavily impacted by the fires,” Markham said. “These impacts are both on people in terms of the kind of direct impacts of fires: property loss and even loss of life. But they’re also about impacts on country and impacts to sacred sites and to heritage sites, and that’s sometimes missed in this coverage.”
For the Yuin people in Mogo, a community southeast of the Australian capital of Canberra, the New Year brought tremendous grief. Strong winds swept up the flames, forcing these residents to flee their homes just as their relatives down south in East Gippsland a week earlier. While residents may have gotten away, the town did not. Much of it was destroyed in the flames.
Five members of the Mogo Local Aboriginal Land Council—an elected body that represents and supports local indigenous groups—lost their homes. They even lost the council building itself where they kept invaluable ceremonial items in addition to ecological data they were collecting to digitally archive along with relevant cultural history.
When forests burn, indigenous people all too often bear the brunt. We saw that in the Amazon last year and Northern California in 2017 to point to just two recent examples where indigenous groups were hit harder and received less help in the face of massive fires. That’s to say nothing of the myriad ways the environmental and climate crises harm indigenous people on top of historical injustices.
And about those injustices. Colonialism and genocide have decimated indigenous peoples around the world, leaving them with insufficient resources to successfully navigate the colonized world or torturing those that opt to stay out of colonized society.
Australia has a particularly fraught relationship with its past and genocide committed in the name of colonial expansion. About 30 percent of indigenous households there live in poverty. Their unemployment rate is more than twice that of non-indigenous people. Compared to other western nations like the U.S., the Australian government has only recently begun to return stolen land to indigenous peoples. The Gunaikurnai were the first to win some of their lands back from the government in 1965. Yet even today, the Australian government fails to recognize Australian indigenous communities as sovereign in the way that countries such as Canada and the U.S. do.
The consequences in Australia have proven destructive to both indigenous communities and the countryside, and the fires are partly a result of that colonial history. When indigenous peoples lost their land, they lost the right to care for their lands. A common technique used by Australia’s First Nations includes using fire as a cultural resource to clear the forest floor and improve the health of the ecosystem, a sacred practice that ended after colonialist land grabs.
“On a large scale, indigenous peoples are still not present in the management of their own traditional lands and waters,” Eckford-Williamson, the researcher at Australian National University’s Center for Aboriginal Policy Research, said. “You’ve got generations of Aboriginal people who have been ignored, whose land management practices and knowledge of the environment has been ignored, and then watch it be mismanaged, and these fires are a result of that mismanagement and that lack of understanding.”
Countless cultural resources and sites exist within the forests of Australia, Eckford-Williamson explained. Indigenous communities chip bark off trees to make canoes and a special type of basket called coolamons. The process leaves pockmarks on the outside of trees while keeping them alive and is why the trees are known as scarred trees. These trees that dot the landscape are considered sacred. They’re a direct connection to indigenous ancestors. Now, many are likely gone due to the fires.
“These fires have obliterated entire forests, and, with it, they’re obliterating the cultural memory of our Aboriginal groups,” Eckford-Williamson said. “The burning of these scarred trees is one very profound example of that [impact].”
Budj Bim National Park, a sacred site to the Gunditjmara people that was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List last year, has been under constant threat from bushfires this season. So far, firefighters have succeeded in keeping the flames away, but the damage to the surrounding area will still impact local tourism even if cultural treasures are saved.
“For many First Nations communities, there can be an immediate economic impact should they have commercial ventures tied directly to Country—through reduced tourism or cultural workshops and wares for sale,” Rob Corrigan, a senior communications officer at Reconciliation Australia, an organization dedicated to restoring justice and equity across the continent, wrote in an email to Earther.
Some sacred sites may be gone or forever altered. But donations have been coming to help communities cope with the loss of income and homes. Neil Morris, an indigenous musician and independent community empowerment advocate from the Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung peoples, set up a GoFundMe to help indigenous communities with temporary relocation costs, repurchasing lost items like clothing, costs to recover damaged property, and whatever else communities decide they need. So far, Morris has raised more than $1 million, far in excess of his initial target of $100,000. Support is still coming in, and Morris said he’s working to coordinate with community leaders to figure out how to allocate funding.
“This belongs to the communities, and at every step of the way, I’m ensuring that I’m speaking to community members,” Morris told Earther. “For our people, stepping up to care for one another is our most trusted way of getting through a situation, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve with this.”
Annick Thomassin, an anthropology researcher at Australian National University, launched a separate GoFundMe for the Mogo community that lost its land council building. She’s worked closely with their rangers to document their relationship with the land and help them develop an app that can record ecological data, including vegetation and animal surveys, with relevant cultural markers. Now that painstaking research and data gathered are most likely lost in the ashes of the Mogo land council building, she said.
What the fires have offered, unfortunately, is a growing realization that Australia needs the ancient wisdom of indigenous peoples more than its leaders like to recognize. Lucky for them, communities have already begun to gift this knowledge to whoever cares to listen. Cultural burning workshops have sprung up throughout the continent. This practice may not save the entirety of Australia from the climate crisis, but it’s an essential tool its people will need if they want even a chance to adapt to rising temperatures and more intense drought that are making the landscape more flammable.
Den Barber, an indigenous member of the Wiradjuri people, used to be a firefighter. He was used to seeing fire and the way it burned through forests. Sometimes, the fires were intentional as part of hazard reduction measures. However, when he first saw a cultural burning ceremony in 2010, he knew there was something special about this method.
“It was unlike anything else that I’ve seen,” Barber told Earther. “It was just magic to watch.”
After the group conducting the ceremony dropped a single lit match onto their chosen point, he watched the flames move out in a 360-degree radius. He was used to seeing lines of fire, but this wasn’t that. Cultural burning is like dropping a pebble in a pond and letting the waves ripple out except, in this case, it’s fire, not water doing the rippling. Barber watched as the fire burned slow and low, giving lizards and insects an opportunity to seek shelter higher up the trees. Birds flocked to the fire, eating a buffet of grasshoppers that were trying to escape. Something about these fires felt right, Barber said.
That’s why he launched the Koori Country Firesticks Aboriginal Corporation, an initiative to conduct cultural burning for private and public landowners. He wants to help bring this burning into the mainstream because this type of burning gets rid of the vegetation that becomes fuel for the monstrous flames we see today. It also encourages new growth of grass, which the animals love to eat. Plus, these fires avoid the canopy, which is meant to be protected, Barber said. It should never burn, per traditional indigenous law.
“In traditional times, you would’ve been punished for that,” Barber told Earther. “If you’re burning the canopy, you’re burning not only the shade that the trees offer, but you’re burning perhaps the seedbed. You’re burning habitat. You’re burning flowers. That’s where all the magic is, where all the things that sustain us are.”
Beyond the metaphysical, non-indigenous homeowners credit cultural burning techniques for saving their property from this season’s fires. And in the Northern Territory, indigenous rangers are using this method of burning as part of a carbon offset program with oil and gas company ConocoPhillips. Since 2006, this slow-burning has offset more than 2 million metric tons of carbon by preventing the types of massive fires that can burn through more vegetation and, thus, release more carbon into the atmosphere.
While I’m no fan of partnering with fossil fuel giants, I am a fan of indigenous-led programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not just what Australia needs, but the world as a whole if we’re going to stave off the worst of the climate crisis. That doesn’t mean efforts should stop at indigenous knowledge, though. Beating the climate crisis will require a lot more than that. It’ll require bringing all the best minds together: scientists, indigenous elders, and community leaders.
The fires in Australia are a warning if we don’t work together. The flames are destroying the lands and treasures of people like the Gunaikurnai in East Gippsland and the Yuin people in Mogo who’ve already lost enough already. Yet despite all that they’ve lost—and all that the world has taken from them—Australia’s indigenous groups still want to share their knowledge. Now is the time to listen.