• Yuin woman Sherrie Nye says the severity of the South Coast fires would have been significantly lessened if cultural burning had taken place. (The Point, NITV)Source: The Point, NITV
For over 60,000 years Aboriginal people successfully managed Australia's environment. After what has been called the most destructive bushfire season ever, Traditional Owners want the Federal Government to hand back control to implement cultural land management methods.
Jodan Perry, Madeline Hayman-Reber

The Point
22 Jan 2020 - 5:29 PM  UPDATED 22 Jan 2020 - 5:29 PM

For months our screens have been flooded by a raft of confronting images, including dead animals, devastated people, and endless pictures of the ashy aftermath as bushfires obliterated millions of hectares of precious green earth.

The Yuin people of the New South Wales South Coast were hit hard by the fires, with many sacred and protected sites feared to have been destroyed.

Yuin woman Sherrie Nye, standing in the ruins of the Mogo Local Aboriginal Land Council building, told The Point of the destruction caused by the mega blaze.

"Mother nature came through and just engulfed my little town with all their fury ... I think she was just cranky about the way that we're doing things in the environment, and she's just made it a point to let us all know that she's pissed,” she said.

"I've seen Elders in my community, and these are strong men in my community, cry. I don't see them cry. I've been here for 41 years, and I've never seen them men cry, in my life. And for them to cry for what's happened to our community is just not right.”

While the climate change debate continues in the halls of parliament and across the globe, many Aboriginal people believe that if their land management knowledge had been utilised post-colonisation, the environmental effects of this bushfire season may have been less severe.

Ms Nye strongly believes that the management of the forests on her country has been inadequate.

"I've been saying for a long time now, certain areas in this bush need to be burnt... It needs to have proper cultural burns gone through, that is not going to make a big impact on the environment, it's going to be better for the environment,” she said.

And no one listens. No one listened. And that makes me angry, because four of the houses that was burnt in this town, are Elders' houses. I've got Elders in my community who are now displaced. They don't have a home, and it's not fair."

Around the country, there are over 100 Aboriginal ranger groups managing over 60 million hectares of Aboriginal land known as Indigenous Protected Areas. But in New South Wales, and anywhere else that isn't classified as an Indigenous Protected Area, Traditional Owners need the government’s permission to practice traditional land management, while farmers are allowed to undertake back burning under strict conditions.

Bundjalung man Oliver Costello from the Firesticks Alliance said that this can do more harm than good, especially when people don’t know what they’re doing.

“We respect that those burns are saving lives and property so we acknowledge that. But all we're saying is now we need to get in and actually start to do some of that restoration burning, so we can start to heal some of the problems that are going to occur because of it,” he said.

“In lots of these landscapes, cultural burning hasn't been happening for hundreds of years. And so there's a lot of work, like a lot of country's really sick now. There are a lot of symptoms of the lack of burning and the wrong way burning.”

In Victoria, a Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Strategy has been produced, which details traditional land management practices to encourage land owners to undertake burning the correct way. It's been described as an "enabling document".

Wurundjeri Elder David Wandin and Dja Dja Wurrung man Rodney Carter were major contributors, and Mr Carter said it's about moving Indigenous knowledge to the forefront.

"It's about trying to revitalise landscape and connect people to a cultural tradition that's been absent for a very long time," he said.

"It tries to explain the achievability of putting traditional owners as the leaders of undertaking planned burning through landscaping and extending to private land to now be an advocate for those that have a responsibility as land owners in their own right to be doing very similar burns is what traditional owners would do."

But Professor Marcia Langton from the University of Melbourne, a Yiman and Bidjara woman, told NITV that it's not a quick fix, and it would take a long time, and a lot of dedication, to properly implement the old ways of burning.

“Aboriginal fire management practices, in the short term, would have had no impact at all. And the reason why I say that is because Aboriginal fire management, traditional fire management, has been practiced for we don't know how long, thousands of years,” she said.

“You can't, in my opinion, take that back to what it was pre-1788 without Aboriginal knowledge systems, full proper living knowledge systems, being applied by knowledgeable people in collaboration with scientists and local traditional owners.”

Working together, they would need to properly understand ecologies, vegetation, communities, the vast geography of Australia, and commit to consistent land management practices, including cultural burning, over a prolonged period of time.

Ms Langton said she believes it will ‘take decades’ to get the country back to something remotely resembling the precolonial landscape.

“We have no hope of limiting these catastrophic fires unless we do precisely this. But the problem is, is that we have to convince land managers and scientists that the vegetation communities that we're looking at now are highly altered by colonisation, which has taken so long.” she said.

While these factors are known and accepted in Aboriginal communities through our cultural knowledge systems, it's up to the government to make the decision on whether or not they will fund and extend the rights of Indigenous people to manage country.

Sherrie Nye said the time for placing blame is over, and a combined effort is needed so that the extent of the damage from this bushfire season is not seen again in the future.

“We need to come together. We need to work together on this. We’re over the blame game. We're not blaming anybody. But now, this has happened to our community, and we need to work together,” she said.

“It's not just Mogo. Anybody who's been following these fires knows half of New South Wales is cooked.”

For more discussion on Australia’s national identity, our shared history, identity and truth-telling, tune into NITV’s special episode of The Point, Wednesday January 22 at 8:30pm, or stream it on SBS On Demand.

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