The South-east Australia Aboriginal Fire Forum was held over three days last month in Canberra, where 130 people gathered to exchange and share knowledge, and participate in panel discussions and group activities around cultural burning. ANTaR ACT member Julian Brown caught up with two of the organisers after the forum to find out more about cultural burning in the ACT. Dean Freeman is a Wiradjuri man and the Aboriginal Fire Project Officer in ACT Parks and Conservation Service (PCS), and Darren Chong is a Waanyi man and the Aboriginal Natural Resource Management (NRM) Facilitator in ACT NRM. They belong to a network of Aboriginal staff within the ACT PCS known as the Murumbung Rangers.
According to Dean and Darren, cultural burning is complex and can be hard to define. Part of the purpose of the fire forum was to facilitate dialogue about what it is today and what it might look like in the future. For thousands of years fire was used for a range of purposes (e.g. to manage bush tucker and clean Country) by a diversity of people throughout Australia. Fire connected people to Country; fire was used to care for Country, and Country told you when to burn. European arrival disrupted these sophisticated systems of land management through both dispossession of land and large-scale ecosystem transformations that altered the way fire behaves in the landscape. Despite these changes, the philosophies of Aboriginal fire management remain. The ACT PCS now attempts to incorporate cultural burning in its fire management operations by involving Traditional Custodians, supported by the Murumbung Rangers, in designated burns. This is a step in the right direction as it ensures the right people are on Country when it’s burnt.
Dean recently led a burn at Gubar Dhaura Ochre Quarry in Franklin (see photos below). He stood alongside Ngunawal Elder Wally Bell while he set light to the dry grass for the first time since European arrival. Dean said “being entrusted to undertake cultural burns on another person’s Country is a privilege. I felt very proud as I know I am attempting to re-introduce an ancient system into a modern world. That is exciting to me as a lot of this has been ‘lost’.”
There are obstacles to cultural burning. Dean and Darren believe that if it can work in the ACT it can work anywhere, primarily because the Traditional Custodians have no formal ownership of land. They stress the need for land ownership for Traditional Custodians, and support initiatives where Traditional Custodians have better access to Country, can drive their own development, and have greater decision-making powers when it comes to managing Country including fire management. They both see a need to involve more young people to ensure inter-generational knowledge transfer continues and to help build leadership skills.
The need for cultural burning is clear. Dean and Darren have seen peoples’ self-esteem grow with the knowledge they are continuing their culture through landscape burning. The research of the Mayi Kuwayu Research Project at the Australian National University is starting to demonstrate this on a large scale. A landscape burn can be an opportunity for community to come together and for cultural knowledge to be passed on to the next generation. Acknowledging and reviving traditional forms of land management is one part of the journey toward Reconciliation.
The above three images show the recent cultural burn at Gubar Dhaura in Franklin. The first image shows Wally Bell and Dean Freeman starting the fire. The second image shows the traditional way of lighting fires with small ignition points (as opposed to the continuous lines of ignition typically used today). The third image shows the fine-scale mosaic of burnt and unburnt patches that results from the traditional ‘cool’ burn approach.
This image shows delegates at the South-east Australian Fire Forum.