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Facing a fiery future, warnings on failure to enlist Indigenous expertise

As the bushfires Royal Commission prepares to report its findings, expert submissions reveal deep concern that the lessons of the past will not be heeded. They urge an increased focus on the capacity of cultural burning to manage future fires. The Citizen team investigates. 

Facing a fiery future, warnings on failure to enlist Indigenous expertise

A report by the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy submitted to the Royal Commission suggested that bushfire-related public inquiries tend to “erase, marginalise, and subsume the presence, concerns, and roles of Aboriginal people”. Image: Shutterstock

Indigenous community leaders and experts fear that the Royal Commission on natural disasters, which is due to report today, will repeat the mistakes of history and exclude Indigenous voices from its findings and recommendations on future bushfire prevention and management.

The Royal Commission’s interim report, published on 31 August, did not mention the history of Indigenous  exclusion from bushfire management.

The 140 preliminary statements in that document exploring the most pressing issues to be addressed in the final report included just four references to  Indigenous people and cultural bushfire practices.

Cultural burning represents a key method to “mitigate against catastrophic bushfire and help address the inequity indigenous people face in our country”, Geographer and Indigenous burning expert Dr Michael Shawn Fletcher told the royal commission. Picture: Jack Banister

Cultural burning represents a key method to “mitigate against catastrophic bushfire and help address the inequity indigenous people face in our country”, Geographer and Indigenous burning expert Dr Michael Shawn Fletcher told the royal commission. Picture: Jack Banister

A report by the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy submitted to the Royal Commission suggested that bushfire-related public inquiries tend to “erase, marginalise, and subsume the presence, concerns, and roles of Aboriginal people”.

“The response to the 2019–2020 bushfires must be different,” the ANU report said, “specific measures need to be put in place to avoid repeating this silencing of Aboriginal people in the inquiry.”

The report was submitted to the Commission by one of its co-authors, Bhiamie Williamson, a research scholar at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy and an Euahlayi man from north-western New South Wales. He argued that the Royal Commission must “acknowledge that Aboriginal people have been erased, made absent and marginalised in previous post-bushfire enquiries”.

The report highlights the frustration of experts like Victor Steffenson, a Tagalaka man from the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation: “Just once in this nation’s history can you just listen to Aboriginal people, our knowledge system?”

“We’re not being tapped into, and it’s so frustrating.”

The ANU report, produced by Mr Williamson and his Centre colleagues Francis Markham and Jessica Weir following last summer’s bushfires, outlined a history of Aboriginal people being largely “ignored in these important fact-finding and policymaking forums” across the last two decades.

Aboriginal peoples have been “primarily relegated to an historical footnote, rather than featuring as contemporary residents, as First Peoples, as land and rights holders, or as part of contemporary fire management”.

It references the 2003 ACT Government McLeod Inquiry and the 2009 Royal Commission following Victoria’s Black Saturday, and argues that the capacity of Australia’s governments, agencies, and communities to respond to bushfire events is impoverished by the neglect of Aboriginal people in bushfire responses.

Associate Professor Michael Shawn-Fletcher, a Melbourne University geographer and authority on Indigenous burning, told the Royal Commission in evidence that cultural burning represents a key method to “mitigate against catastrophic bushfire and help address the inequity indigenous people face in our country”.

Tyronne Garstone, the deputy CEO at the Kimberley Land Council, told the Royal Commission he was optimistic about the role Aboriginal bushfire management could play in Australia and across the world.

A combination of mainstream fire practices and Indigenous-led cultural burning was essential for future of fire management and tackling climate change, said fire expert Dr David Bowman. Image: UTAS

A combination of mainstream fire practices and Indigenous-led cultural burning was essential for future of fire management and tackling climate change, said fire expert Dr David Bowman. Image: UTAS

Mr Garstone said that Indigenous peoples are five per cent of the global population yet are “custodians for about 25 per cent of the land mass”.

Professor David Bowman, another leading national expert on Indigenous burning based at the University of Tasmania, told The Citizen that a combination of mainstream fire practices and Indigenous-led cultural burning was essential for not only the future of fire management but for tackling larger issues like climate change.

“Bushfires are as much social and cultural as they are biophysical. Cultural burning shines a light on this complexity,” he said.

Dr Bowman said that there was a growing awareness in bushfire-affected communities to the role that cultural burning could play in mitigating future bushfires.

However, Dr Bowman said there was still “a gap between that awareness and incorporating Aboriginal perspectives into mainstream fire management”.

The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Hon Kenneth Wyatt, MP, was approached for comment but did not respond.

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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