COOINDA, Australia – At a time when large parts of Australia are on fire, Violet Lawson is never far from being a match.
In the forests surrounding your home in the far north of the country, light hundreds of small fires a year, literally fighting fire with fire. These traditional aboriginal practices are attracting new attention as Australia suffers a disaster and faces a fiery future.
Over the past decade, fire prevention programs, primarily on aboriginal lands in northern Australia, have reduced destructive forest fires by half. While the efforts are based on ancient forms, they also have a completely modern benefit: organizations that practice defensive burning have earned $ 80 million under the country’s cap and trade system, as they have reduced greenhouse gas emissions of forest fires in the north by 40 percent.
These programs, which generate important scientific data, are presented as a model that could be adapted to save lives and homes in other regions of Australia, as well as in fire-prone parts of the world as different as California and Botswana.
“Fire is our main tool,” Lawson said while inspecting a newly burned patch where the pastures had turned to ashes but the trees around them had not been damaged. “It is part of the protection of the land.”
Fire prevention programs, which received government licenses for the first time in 2013, now cover an area three times larger than Portugal. Even when the southern cities burned in recent months and the smoke mist covered Sydney and Melbourne, the wildfires in northern Australia were much less severe.
“The Australian government is now beginning to see the benefits of having indigenous peoples take care of their lands,” said Joe Morrison, one of the pioneers of the project. “The aborigines who have gone through very difficult times are seeing that their language, customs and traditional knowledge are revitalized and celebrated with Western science.”
In some ways, Aboriginal methods resemble Westerners practiced throughout the world: one of the main objectives is to reduce weeds and other fuels that accelerate hot and harmful fires.
But the old approach tends to be more comprehensive. Indigenous peoples, using fires programmed with precision and low intensity, burn their properties in the same way that a suburban homeowner could use a lawnmower.
Aboriginal practices have been so successful in part because of a greater cultural tolerance to fire and the smoke it generates. The sparsely populated north of the country, where aboriginal influence and traditions are much stronger than in the south, is not as affected by Political debates and concerns of residents about the effects of smoke on health.
The landscape and climate of northern Australia also make it more susceptible to preventive burning. The wide open spaces and the distinctive seasons (a dry and warm season followed by monsoon rains) make burning more predictable.
However, despite these regional differences, those who have studied aboriginal techniques say they could adapt to the most populated parts of the country.
“We should certainly learn to burn Aboriginal style,” said Bill Gammage, a professor at the National University of Australia in Canberra. “Our firefighters have very good fire fighting skills. But to prevent them, they are far below what the aborigines could do. ”
Last week, Victor Cooper, a former ranger in northern Australia, lit a bundle of hairy bark to demonstrate the type of fire that burns at temperatures low enough to prevent damage to sensitive plants that are crucial foods for animals .
Preventive fires, he said, should drip, not be enraged. They must be timed according to the air temperature, wind conditions and humidity, as well as the life cycles of the plants. Aboriginal traditions of the north revolve around the monsoon, with burnt land patch by patch as the wet season gives way to the dry.
“We are not afraid of fire,” said Cooper, who burns regularly around his house on stilts nestled in forests. “We know that the sooner we burn, the more protection we have.”
This year, you will be certified to join the carbon credit program. The money earned through this system has encouraged land administration and has provided hundreds of jobs in Aboriginal communities, where unemployment rates are high. The funds have also financed the construction of schools in underserved areas.
NASA satellite data is used to quantify the reduction of carbon emissions and computer modeling to track fires. Modern technology also complements the defensive burning itself: helicopters throw thousands of incendiary devices the size of ping-pong balls over large areas of territory at times of the year when the land is still wet and fires are unlikely to break loose. out of control.
Those who participate in the program say they are frustrated that other parts of the country have been reluctant to adopt the same types of preventive burns. Inaction is long-standing: a major federal investigation after deadly fires more than a decade ago recommends a broader adoption of aboriginal methods.
“I have many friends in other parts of Australia who cannot understand that fire is a useful tool, that not all fire is the same and that you can handle it,” said Andrew Edwards, a fire expert at Charles Darwin. University in northern Australia. “It is difficult to communicate to people that fire is not a bad thing.”
Nine years ago, Mr. Gammage published a book that changed the way many in Australia thought about the Australian countryside and how it has been managed since the arrival of Europeans in the late 18th century.
The book, “The Biggest Estate on Earth,” uses documents from early settlers and explorers to show how the landscape had been systematically shaped by aboriginal fire techniques.
Many forests were thinner than those that exist now and were more resistant to burning fires. Early explorers described the landscape as a series of gardens and reported seeing near constant traces of smoke from small fires throughout the landscape.
When the Europeans took control of the country, they banned burning. Jeremy Russell-Smith, an expert in forest fires at Charles Darwin University, said that this cancellation of traditional fire techniques occurred not only in Australia, but also in North and South America, Asia and Africa.
“The European mentality was to be afraid of fire,” Russell-Smith said.
As fires continue in the south, Aboriginal people in northern Australia say they are deeply saddened by the loss of life: some 25 people have died and more than 2,000 homes destroyed. But they also express confusion over the fact that forests were allowed to grow to become fuels.
Margaret Rawlinson, Mrs. Lawson’s daughter, who does preventive burning on her property in the far north, recalls traveling a decade ago to the south of Sydney and being alarmed in the fields of long, dry grass.
“I was terrified,” Rawlinson said. “I couldn’t sleep. I said: we need to go home. This place is going to go up, and it’s going to be a catastrophe.”
The area you visited, around the city of Nowra, has been a focal point for fires in recent weeks.
The pioneering defensive burning programs in northern Australia joined in the 1980s and 1990s, when aboriginal groups returned to their native lands after having lived in settlements under the stimulus, or in some cases the order, of the government.
Depopulated for decades, the land had suffered. Huge fires were decimating species and damaging cave paintings.
“The land was out of control,” said Dean Yibarbuk, a park ranger whose indigenous elders encouraged him to seek solutions.
Aboriginal groups finally joined with scientists, the Northern Territory government and the Houston-based ConocoPhillips oil company, which was building a natural gas facility and was required to find a project to offset its carbon emissions.
In the decade before the program began, from 2000 to 2010, forest fires in northern Australia burned an annual average of 67.5 million acres, according to Mr. Edwards’ calculations. Last year, by contrast, they burned 28.9 million acres, a 57 percent reduction.
Mr. Yibarbuk, who is now president of Warddeken Land Management, one of the largest participating organizations, employs 150 aboriginal rangers, part-time and full-time.
“We are very fortunate in the north to be able to maintain our traditional practices,” said Yibarbuk. “It is a pride to return to the country, manage it and make a difference.”