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Keywords:

  • benchmarking;
  • Indigenous fire regimes;
  • Indigenous livelihoods;
  • monitoring;
  • tropical savannas

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project
  5. Need for biodiversity and social benchmarking
  6. Activities to date and future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Summary  Much of northern Australia’s tropical savannas are subject to annual intense and extensive late dry season wildfires, much of this occurring on Aboriginal land. Based on the successful West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) model, which has resulted in significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions, fire abatement programmes are planned for other significant regions of northern Australia. This study offers an introduction to the ideas behind a proposed environmental and social benchmarking project that aims to evaluate the potential benefits of expanding the fire abatement program in northern Australia, under the leadership of NAILSMA and its partners. Gaining a better understanding of the biodiversity, social and cultural outcomes of these fire abatement activities is an important component of demonstrating multiple benefits of these programmes. We emphasize the role of both biodiversity and cultural mapping to establish benchmarks and baseline states, with the involvement of Indigenous communities being a key element to optimize social and biodiversity benefits. Consultation with Traditional Owners and ranger groups to establish an agreed set of targets, indicators and sampling protocols and methodologies are critical component of this process. Examples of preliminary work to date are provided.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project
  5. Need for biodiversity and social benchmarking
  6. Activities to date and future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Currently, an average of 350 000 km2 of Australia’s 1.9 million km2 sparsely settled northern savannas are burnt annually, mostly by relatively intense and extensive late dry season wildfires. Following widespread disruption to customary Indigenous (Aboriginal) fire management practices associated with European settlement, contemporary savanna fire regimes are recognized as having globally significant impacts on biodiversity (e.g. Woinarski et al. 2011), soil conservation (Townsend & Douglas 2000; Russell-Smith et al. 2006) and emissions of greenhouse gases (Russell-Smith et al. 2009). Developing economically viable solutions for implementing ecologically sustainable landscape-scale fire management for these vast, remote, biodiversity-rich regions is a significant challenge. This task is founded on the rich and diverse Indigenous cultural landscapes of the north and growing appreciation for the knowledge and skill of Indigenous land owners and managers. Indigenous knowledge of fire in the landscape and how to manage it is embedded in complex customary relationships and a site-based ontology (James 2009). Despite relative success with what some have called the ‘two tool box’ approach to land and fire management (i.e. using customary and modern approaches), there is limited understanding by non-Indigenous people about Indigenous fire knowledge across the north (but see Yibarbuk et al. 2001; Russell-Smith et al. 2009). This is part of the challenge being taken up by the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), ranger groups and project partners (Kimberley Land Council, Northern Land Council, Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation), with other partner organizations from the science and conservation sectors. This builds on foundational efforts by Indigenous groups, government agencies and scientists in some of these northern Australia regions (e.g. Russell-Smith et al. 2009).

In this paper, we outline the biodiversity and social benchmarking components of the proposed monitoring for the broader Northern Australian Fire Abatement Program, an initiative that is still under development. By ‘benchmarking’, we refer to the process of identifying common standards or criteria by which future qualitative and quantitative monitoring could measure the success or otherwise of six proposed regional fire management projects, as well as comparing changes over time within each case. As the ‘benchmarking’ programme is only in its early stages and the final design is yet to be fully developed, we do not present here the details of the experimental design of the biodiversity or social benefits monitoring or the ways the monitoring and evaluation will evaluate implications. Nor do we, owing to space constraints, address in detail here other important components of that programme such as governance arrangements and the carbon economy.

The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project
  5. Need for biodiversity and social benchmarking
  6. Activities to date and future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project has been developing since 1996 to address chronic fire management problems in Aboriginal-owned, high-biodiversity savanna landscapes of western Arnhem Land. In particular, the essential problem has involved depopulated landscapes and a subsequent increase in annual wildfires occurring late in the 7-month dry season period. Prior to European settlement, Aboriginal people burnt the landscape throughout the year, but with a strong emphasis on early- to mid-dry season burning (Garde et al. 2009). For example, over the 10-year pre-WALFA project baseline period, an average of ∼40% of the 28 000 km2 WALFA region was burnt annually, with 32% of this annual average occurring in the late dry season. Nearly the entire amount of this burning has been attributed to human (anthropogenic) ignitions, although lightening was also a factor (Russell-Smith et al. 2009).

To reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, the key objective of the WALFA project has been to re-establish customary Indigenous fire management regimes, particularly to increase the extent of early season burning using strategically prescribed fires. It was considered that such a focus would enable the WALFA project partners to manage for and limit the extent of late season fires and thereby reduce both the area and amount of fuels which are burnt. In the first 6 years of operation (2005–2010) of the project, WALFA partners have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by ∼50% relative to the established 10-year (1995–2004) pre-project baseline (WAFMA project reporting, unpublished data).

This research led to a landmark greenhouse gas offset agreement between ConocoPhillips, the Northern Territory Government, Northern Land Council, and Traditional Owners and Indigenous land managers in west Arnhem Land. This agreement recognized that significant greenhouse gas abatement could be achieved through savanna fire management carried out by Indigenous ranger groups as an offset to some of the greenhouse gas emissions generated at ConocoPhillips’ liquefied natural gas plant in Darwin Harbour. Under the arrangement, around $1 million a year is paid into the WALFA project for 17 years to provide this fire management service.

Importantly, the WALFA project provides first, extensive employment for Indigenous people in an environment where few if any other culturally appropriate, non-government subsidised opportunities exist, and second, a long-term contractual foundation for other forms of natural and cultural resource management and for associated community and regional infrastructure development (Whitehead et al. 2009).

Building on ‘WALFA’ across the north

Building on the success of WALFA, the NAILSMA partnership has identified a number of other high-priority areas which would significantly benefit from the restoration of customary burning regimes. These regions are the North Kimberley, central Arnhem Land, the Gulf of Carpentaria, western Cape York, and the Daly River-Port Keats area (Fig. 1). The intention is not to replicate all aspects of WALFA. For example, governance arrangements for the fire programmes are likely to vary because of the differences in culture, land ownership, tenure and legal environments. In many areas, especially where legal land tenure arrangements have enabled good access, local Indigenous people remain or have re-engaged in fire management (e.g. Fisher et al. 2004). There is significant extant customary knowledge and skill in fire management in regions outside of WALFA, although its deployment and coverage is limited owing to a range of current social factors including, among other things: limited visitation opportunities with a history of depopulation from and disenfranchisement of ancestral land; lack of requisite familial cooperation; lack of operational resources; and, poor land access infrastructure. Further, there are lessons from the WALFA experience which would also inform the establishment of fire programmes in other regions. For example, Lendrum’s (2007a,b) assessment of WALFA in relation the various benefits achieved was that the market driven resource management approach had prioritized the environmental and economic outcomes over the social and cultural outcomes.

image

Figure 1.  Fire abatement regions of northern Australia.

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Need for biodiversity and social benchmarking

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project
  5. Need for biodiversity and social benchmarking
  6. Activities to date and future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

There has been significant investment in fire and greenhouse gas emissions science in the WALFA region (Russell-Smith et al. 2009), which has enabled accurate assessments of amounts of greenhouse gas abatement from changes in fire regimes. However, just as importantly there are also likely to be important biodiversity benefits arising from implementing more traditional fire regimes (such as more heterogeneous habitat for fauna at a landscape scale, more food resources; e.g., Fitzsimons et al. 2010; Radford 2010), as well as employment, social and cultural benefits for Indigenous people (including improved health by working on country; e.g., Burgess et al. 2009; Garnett et al. 2009; Weir et al. 2011). In addition to current voluntary (as per the WALFA agreement) and mooted Australian regulatory carbon offset opportunities, such additional biodiversity and social benefits are likely to be especially attractive for potential investors, including the philanthropic sector. However, to be able to refer with any certainty to benefits in these fields, internationally accredited and recognized benchmarking and monitoring programmes are essential. In this case we are seeking to measure the performance and impact of fire abatement projects against criteria that are in the process of being established (i) by the Indigenous land and project owner group and (ii) by the regulatory and market environment into which land managers will seek to trade the products of their work and expertise.

This initial biodiversity and social benchmarking project being undertaken through the NAILSMA partnership is largely field based. It is built on maximizing engagement with and building the capacity of Indigenous landowners in collaboration with management, technical, and research expertise from a range of institutional partners across northern Australia. Key components are outlined below.

Foundation mapping activities

For both biodiversity and social foundational mapping activities, a combination of desktop data collection, field-based participatory planning, modelling and field testing will typically be undertaken during the benchmarking and monitoring programme. The integration of biodiversity and social benchmarking is an innovative and important element of this project. Understanding the specific linkages between biodiversity conservation and social and cultural values in northern Australian savannas is critical for the development of economically and ecologically sustainable natural resource management and self-determination outcomes over the longer term (see Schmidt & Peterson 2009 on developing countries).

Biodiversity

Vegetation, biodiversity and fire mapping layers and tools are fundamental to undertaking the benchmarking and monitoring project, as well as contributing more broadly to natural resource management planning across the north. For each project area, a first task is to develop detailed vegetation structure and fuels mapping, where these do not already exist, as a core input into the savanna burning emissions accounting methodology. For biodiversity benchmarking purposes that mapping needs to be further refined to map habitats, key seasonal water sources, ongoing mapping of fauna and flora records, habitat condition, and where appropriate, sites and assets of cultural significance (e.g. Russell-Smith et al. 2009). In most cases, this is likely to use a combination of techniques and approaches. For example, the methods and techniques used for vegetation mapping may be driven more by western science and undertaken by research institutions, but with the involvement of Indigenous rangers and Traditional Owners in site selection and field validation being an important component. On the other hand, biodiversity assets (such as species and habitats) which are culturally significant will be identified by Indigenous rangers and Traditional Owners as part of participatory planning and form an important component of planned long-term monitoring activities (see examples from the Kimberley outlined below). From this, ‘benchmark states’ will be identified against which future monitoring of the condition of the landscapes will be measured. Evaluation of improvement from current states will be informed by a monitoring plan.

Social and cultural

Local Indigenous ownership of fire/emissions abatement projects is considered to be an important element in the success of projects. This means that the degree of actual and perceived ownership is, in its own right, an important benchmark against which to evaluate the success of future projects. Identifying other benchmarks of relevance to local Indigenous owners therefore requires project developers to capture local values and aspirations in a participatory process with owners, bridging cultural differences.

Another identified benchmark is the extent to which customary knowledge is deployed in the future projects. The baseline state is that there is much extant customary knowledge of fire and related skills that is not currently being deployed in many parts of northern Australia. Local Indigenous people are keen to reconstruct customary relationships, local languages, protocols and means for cooperation. A basic premise of the fire management project is that Indigenous stewardship of the on-ground programme can provide such a purposeful context. Altman (2009) makes this point more broadly on Indigenous environmental stewardship and cultural diversity. Local cultural mapping activities manifest land managers revitalizing their connection to country (e.g. Moorcroft et al. 2012). These activities are being undertaken by various groups to, for example: (i) help clarify who ‘speaks for’ which land area, (ii) get public consideration for sacred and significant site locations, (iii) negotiate boundaries and encourage cooperative planning amongst families, (iv) provide instruction for young people about the many layers of meaning in the customary landscape including ancestral creation, and (v) plan for multiple land use interests. Although a common ethnographic tool, this type of mapping is in its early stages as a formal process in the fire project. Mapping in this sense may not be a public or open process, often involving sensitive issues such as: local interpretations of ancestral law; familial conflicts; gaps in local knowledge; leadership; and, claims to ancestral country. Understanding and addressing sociocultural variables as expressed in these activities, often influenced by historical circumstance, is challenging but important in strengthening foundational governance (Cernea 1991).

Integrating biodiversity and cultural mapping

The processes described above show that mapping tools – whether cultural or biodiversity focused – can not only be useful in identifying benchmark indicators but are also useful in describing the baseline state and trends for social/cultural attributes. Baseline information mapping may also include land use and interest, tenure type/extent, cultural and economic resource values, demography, infrastructure, and cultural and heritage site identification and condition where change and impact can be visually tracked over time. The mapping of stakeholders’ current and potential land use interests, social, cultural and economic resource values, and institutional arrangements will be important to develop baseline information for (i) monitoring the impact of the project in the long-term, (ii) informing the direction and management of the project, and (iii) gaining a comprehensive understanding of all interests and values attached to the resource. Mapping can also be a useful communications and management tool in this challenging management space at the interface of customary interests and market engagement (see Tobias 2009).

Benchmarking activities – proposed project design

A range of benchmarking activities focused on social and biodiversity issues will be brought together and synthesized across the six proposed regional projects. A key component will be the integration of social and biodiversity benchmarking activities with the involvement of Indigenous groups in both cultural and biodiversity mapping processes.

The lessons that will be learnt through these early phase assessments are likely to have far-reaching implications for: (i) the sustainability of Indigenous-owned natural resource management enterprises; (ii) the integration of scientific and sociocultural processes in natural resource management research methodologies and project design and management; (iii) the undertaking, assessment and auditing of Australian national cultural and natural resource management programmes and activities; and (iv) the testing of evidence-based criteria and frameworks for informing development of ‘biodiversity credits’ and ‘social and cultural credits’ associated with savanna burning. These ‘credits’ may be described as units of monetary value credited to a project proponent for measurable amounts of benefits (in this case biodiversity and social and cultural) that are delivered by the project or set of activities as additional to any benefits that may be created under normal circumstances (i.e. without that project). Realizing income from credits for delivering measurable beneficial outcomes depends on there being a market mechanism in place.

The biodiversity benchmarking component will specifically address:

  •  efficacy and appropriateness of selected biodiversity indicators, condition targets, and associated assessment regimes for landscape-scale benchmarking;
  •  critical cost-benefit assessments of management activities to guide ongoing development, refinement and investment in savanna biodiversity management; and
  •  exploration of international standards, frameworks and investment opportunities concerning ‘biodiversity credits’

The social benchmarking component is at an early stage and has adopted a bottom-up approach to address project monitoring and evaluation requirements for customary land owners and managers, and monitoring and evaluation requirements for enterprise level engagement with external partners, regulators and markets. This is being developed initially through field-based participatory activities with land owners and managers aimed at:

  •  eliciting values and aspirations held by customary land owners and managers in land and fire management, with careful reference to income potential and enterprise qualities of the projects (e.g. equity and resource distribution);
  •  developing these into project targets, relevant indicators, monitoring, reporting and project management strategies for adaptive management; and
  •  accountability to the customary land owners and managers

These activities are complemented by a desktop and institutional level participatory research approach to include targets and measures relating to co-benefits assessments, market regulators and relevant industry standards accreditation. For example, monitoring and evaluation of social benefits may be required to achieve premium ‘Indigenous Carbon’ credits under Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative (http://www.climatechange.gov.au/cfi) or registration with the International Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance Standard (http://www.climate-standards.org/) – so the terms required for these various accreditations will be considered in the initial design.

The benchmarking and monitoring process aims to complement existing community-based management approaches with practical tools for enhancing the efficacy and sustainability of Indigenous project ownership and collaborative management. Significant questions about the costs, relative stages of regional project development and differences in governance arrangements have been raised by land management groups and their representative organizations across the project as a whole (NAILSMA 2010a). To help address such issues, relevant to this northern savanna-scale market opportunity, critical cost-benefit assessments to guide regional and trans-regional development, investment in social capital and operational capacity are being discussed. The benchmarking programme will help capture this and provide an important description of development and change to assess against baseline values and aspirations.

Field consultations have confirmed the need for an ongoing ‘two way’ communications strategy and the development of local and project scale management tools and governance arrangements. The benchmarking process will serve these two purposes (see also Taylor 2004 on regional planning). It is anticipated that at the local level, articulating key relevant values in cultural and natural resource management, identifying practical indicators, and establishing monitoring and project management accountability will enhance Indigenous project ownership and build capacity to govern (see also Ens et al. 2012).

It is recognized that efforts to integrate socioeconomic and biophysical data in natural resource management can be challenging (e.g. Curtis et al. 2005), and there are many complex elements to the benchmarking process outlined above. Whilst this programme is unique there are challenges identified elsewhere that are of relevance here. For example, the geographic size and shape of project regions will not be the same for biodiversity interests as they might be for Indigenous interests. Defining (conceptually and geographically) discrete project regions will impact the measurability of indicators across all project regions (Taylor 2004). Further, the diversity of Indigenous languages raises issues of continuity of meaning and data collection over the whole region (see also Buzzard 1990 on social analysis in developing countries) manifesting the broader issue of multiple perspectives and goals in the relationship between Indigenous land management and biodiversity conservation; a self-determination issue for land managers and policy makers worldwide (Schmidt & Peterson 2009). There are also logistical, financial, policy and seasonal complexities over this multi-jurisdictional northern savanna region.

With Indigenous people increasingly articulating the need to keep track of (contemporary) fire management impacts, their engagement in the fledgling benchmarking process has been strong and should allow longer field testing time and scope to review and deal practically with the challenges ahead.

Activities to date and future directions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project
  5. Need for biodiversity and social benchmarking
  6. Activities to date and future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

There is an identified need for a programme of regional on-country workshops as a starting point for the benchmarking programme. A key component of this is consultation with Traditional Owners and ranger programmes to establish an agreed set of targets and indicators is a high priority along with a set of sampling protocols and methodologies that are culturally appropriate.

Most biodiversity benchmarking to date has focused on vegetation mapping at various scales. In the Kimberley, fire history and structural vegetation mapping has been completed, while fine scale habitat mapping is currently underway in the Mitchell Plateau and Pantijan (a collaboration between NAILSMA, the Kimberley Land Council, the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, Curtin University, ranger groups and Traditional Owners). On the Arnhem Plateau, mapping of fire-sensitive Allosyncarpia ternata rainforest patches has been completed, and an assessment of their condition is underway in association with mapping projects for upland wetlands (a collaboration between Charles Darwin University, NAILSMA, The Nature Conservancy, and Manwurrk Rangers).

A workshop that included field activities, held in September 2010 at the Ngaliyindi Outstation in north-east Arnhem Land, sought to progress biodiversity and social benchmarking in the Central Arnhem Land Fire Abatement area. The workshop was hosted by Gurruwiling rangers, SE Arafura Rangers and the people of Ngaliyindi and focused on the remote Arafura Swamp and surrounds, which has high biodiversity and cultural values (Weston et al. 2012). While only preliminary, activities undertaken in this area by Traditional Owners, rangers and other experts include local surveys of the condition of fire-sensitive rainforest patches and Northern Cypress Pine (Callitris intratropica) stands and three nights’ trapping for small mammals associated with a perennial rainforest spring system close to the Ngaliyindi Outstation (NAILSMA 2010b).

At the North Kimberley site, a large on-country workshop was held at Hann Gorge, Gibb River Station, in July 2010 bringing together Traditional Owners and Indigenous rangers from four large native title claim areas to discuss the principles of biodiversity and social benchmarking. Local monitoring was introduced by NAILSMA and partners through semi-structured interviews recorded using voice recorders and later turned into multimedia products together with photographs.

Fauna such as macropods (e.g. Macropus spp.) and Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) along with edible fruit-bearing trees have been identified as culturally important species whose health is linked to fire regimes (e.g. Vigilante & Bowman 2004; Vigilante et al. 2009). This was also articulated by Traditional Owners in the Wunambal Gaambera Healthy Country Plan (Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation 2010, Moorcroft et al. 2012) and at the Hann Gorge workshop. As part of the vegetation mapping field programme at the Mitchell Plateau and Pantijan, Traditional Owners and Indigenous rangers, with the assistance of the Kimberley Land Council’s Land and Sea Unit, have begun to identify and document the locations of culturally important species and some initial long-term monitoring points are being established and methods trialled for these species in relevant habitats. This has included vehicle-based transects for macropods and Emu (Fig. 2) and plot-based monitoring of fruit tree species starting with Buchanania and Vitex species (Figs 3 and 4).

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Figure 2.  Uunguu Rangers undertaking vehicle-based transects for walamba (Antilopine Wallaroo, Macropus antilopinus), julwun (Common Wallaroo, M. robustus) and other species at Ngauwudu (Mitchell Plateau). (Photograph: James Fitzsimons).

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image

Figure 3.  Undertaking vegetation cover assessments in sandstone country containing fruit trees Buchania obovata on the Mitchell Plateau, north Kimberley. Fruit trees are identified as culturally important for the Wunambal Gaambera and their persistence is influenced by ‘right way fire’ management. From left to right Gavin Goonak (Uunguu Ranger), Tom Vigilante (Kimberley Land Council), Terrence Marnga (Uunguu Ranger). (Photograph: James Fitzsimons).

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image

Figure 4.  Uunguu Rangers Gavin Goonak and Terrence Marnga recording data for guleyi (Buchanania obovata) trees (in foreground) along a bushtucker tree transect at Ngauwudu, Mitchell Plateau. (Photograph: Tom Vigilante).

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The benchmarking programme is still a work in progress, and there is still much consultation and ‘bottom-up’ planning to be conducted. Over the next couple of years, we will be seeking investment buy-in for the various northern Australian fire project areas. Achieving standardized baseline sampling across all fire programme areas is a high priority to feed into monitoring, reporting and verification of carbon agreements across the north.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project
  5. Need for biodiversity and social benchmarking
  6. Activities to date and future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Comments by two referees led to significant improvements in the manuscript. Thanks to Nate Peterson for preparing the map. Numerous scientists, rangers and representatives of land councils, fire agencies, research institutions and environment departments have contributed ideas around the formation of this project as well as financial input, and they are thanked.

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  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project
  5. Need for biodiversity and social benchmarking
  6. Activities to date and future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
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