Cultural burning and the Australian landscape


The devastation caused by the 2019-20 bushfires is a reminder of the importance of cultural burning as part of Australian landscape management. Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher, lecturer in the Bachelor of Science, explains the history and impact of this longstanding tradition.

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The recent Australian bushfire season saw the loss of life, property and environmental damage reach monumental proportions. The widespread destruction also highlighted the power of fire to reshape enormous landscapes overnight.

“Climate determines where things are, where they grow and what kind of organisms live there. The next most important factor, globally, is fire,” explains Professor Fletcher.

In addition to having a powerful influence over the landscape, fire has also played a crucial role in influencing human development.

“Humans have been using fire for around about 2 million years. Fire has been fundamental in shaping human thought processes, human physiology and human behaviour since that time.”

As the nation came to terms with the scale of loss, the Australian Government established a Royal Commission to assess how we prepare for, mitigate the risk of, and respond to such natural disasters. One of the key emerging themes is the essential role of cultural burning, a millennia-old Aboriginal tradition which involves the strategic application of controlled fires to manage the environment

There is extensive evidence of cultural burning across Australia since long before the invasion of the British in the 18th century. The subsequent forced dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people not only disrupted the practice, but in turn triggered dramatic changes to the Australian landscape.

“Cultural burning, Aboriginal burning, traditional burning, Aboriginal land management with fire, is a deeply sophisticated cultural practice that is performed for a whole series of reasons” explains Professor Fletcher. “One thing we do know is that areas subjected to Indigenous or Aboriginal cultural burning today experience less catastrophic bushfire”.

The return of Indigenous land management in northern Australia has distinctly reduced the impact of bushfires in recent years, providing contemporary evidence of its enduring effectiveness. The response to the latest bushfire season presents an opportunity to extend the practice more broadly and contribute towards the prevention of similar disasters.