THE Tiwi Islands (Bathurst and Melville) are off the north coast of Australia. They are mostly covered with grassy savanna, much like that in parts of southern Africa. In Africa, this savanna is the result of thousands of years of burning by humans.
If burning is interrupted, then woody shrubs thrive, and the savanna turns into thickets. Due to lightning, fires will still occur, but they will be at longer intervals, and much fiercer, potentially lethal to both humans and wildlife, as in Kruger National Park (http://ag.arizona.edu/oals/ALN/aln54/govender.html ).
I have never been to the Tiwis, but I suspect that they are very similar in this respect to Africa, or Madagascar, where Dr Kristian Kull (Isle of Fire 2006) has eloquently described the political ecology of regular burning by humans.
My attention was caught recently by a television news item about the ‘Tiwi Carbon Project’, in which CSIRO is working with the Tiwi islanders to reduce the carbon released by their fires, and so win them large amounts of cash as ‘carbon credits’. I pursued this back in time, and found a few events which may relate. In 2006, the ABC’s Catalyst program carried a story about a similar scheme in the Northern Territory. The then Northern Territory Environment Minister, Marion Scrymgour (a Tiwi woman), seemed to be working with several Aboriginal Elders, and Dr Jeremy Russell-Smith, a scientist at the CRC Tropical Savannas Management, to promote mild traditional burning, early in the season, to avoid fierce fires later on – wonderful.
According to Dr Russell-Smith, the Australian Greenhouse Office considers such burning technically feasible for carbon credits. The narrator said that ‘A hectare burnt in May releases half the greenhouse emissions of a hectare burnt in a hot November wildfire’ (www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/s1769056.htm).
Further searching found that Marion Scrymgour, in June of this year, left the Labor Party, removing the Henderson government majority. I don’t know the details, but the rift seems to have been over Aboriginal policy. In August of this year, Marion Scrymgour suddenly rejoined the Labor Party, and, as far as I can determine, the Tiwi Carbon Project was announced soon after.
A few questions occur to me:
• Does the Rudd Government now recognize the merits of traditional mosaic burning, as opposed to uncontrollable megafires?
• If so, can state government departments and local government Bushfire Volunteers, now claim carbon credits for any prescribed burning they do?
• As Federal Environment Minister, was Mr. Peter Garrett involved in the Tiwi matter?
• If so, how about a press release from his office, setting out the environmental benefits of regular, early burning, as done by Aborigines in southern Australia for thousands of years?
• Was there any connection between Marion Scrymgour rejoining the Labor Party, and the approval of the Tiwi project?
• Is there a connection between funding for the Tiwi project, and the recent axing of funds to the Bushfire CRC, established after the 2002 NSW bushfires?
Green Davey lives in Perth, Western Australia
The 2009 Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission has today handed down its Interim Report: http://www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au/getdoc/9d5fb826-b507-4fed-a7f7-86bab961992f/Interactive-Version . I have not yet read the report, but flicking through I can’t see a heading that relates to prescribed burning.