Culture, Ecology and Economy of Fire Management in North Australian Savannas. Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition


Culture, Ecology and Economy of Fire Management in North Australian Savannas. Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition Russell-Smith J., Whitehead P. and Cooke P. , CSIRO Publishing , Collingwood , 2009 . 416 pp. ISBN 978-0-64309-402-4 . Paperback . Price AU$99.95 .

This truly multidisciplinary work explores an ‘ancient garden from which the gardeners have gone’ and the collaborative efforts being undertaken to return people to their country and country to its people. The wurrk tradition referred to in the subtitle encompasses the fire management practices of the bininj kunwok speakers of the Arnhem Plateau.

The book consists of a series of papers publishing the results of collaborative projects in western Arnhem Land brought together through the Tropical Savannas Cooperative Research Centre. This project acts as a case study, and many of the lessons learnt are applicable to fire-prone savannas across northern Australia and in similar landscapes internationally.

The authors compiled the book to communicate that savanna fire management issues warrant national attention; collaborative regional approaches are underway (delivering environmentally, culturally and economically sustainable solutions); and such solutions provide a useful case study in other savanna contexts.

Dealing with the complexity, interactions and interdependence of the ecological and social challenges of the savanna country can only be achieved through a multidisciplinary approach such as described in this book – combining traditional knowledge, culture and language with remote sensing, sociology, policy, ecology and greenhouse gas accounting.

The first six chapters of the book establish the history of fire, climate, vegetation and people in western Arnhem Land over millennia. They explore the importance of fire in the traditional societies of the northern savannas and clearly illustrate the devastating impacts of the loss, through depopulation, of traditional fire management regimes on the flora and fauna indigenous to the area.

From this sombre point – endangered species, lost languages and displaced people – the remaining chapters go on to discuss the 10 years of research and collaborations to understand and wrest back control of fire in western Arnhem Land.

The project detailed in the book is an extremely complex one. To briefly and inadequately sum it up, the traditional fire management of the Arnhem Plateau resulted in a landscape-scale mosaic of burning – with patches of vegetation varying in fire frequency, intensity and seasonality. This mosaic meant that wildfires were rarely extensive, tending to peter out in areas that were regularly, or recently, burnt. Species of plants and animals evolved that were sensitive to frequent fire, and they could exist within this mosaic.

Depopulation of the plateau means loss of this burning mosaic. High-biomass annual grasses build up across the landscape and late dry-season wildfire burns hot and unhindered across the landscape, destroying areas that had formerly been protected by the traditional burning regimes. These big, hot fires also result in increased emissions of dangerous greenhouse gases (Chapters 12–14 explain how that works).

Thus, there are compelling environmental and economic reasons for attempting to ‘rekindle the wurrk tradition’. But that is only part of the story. The other part of the story is about re-empowering the guardians of that tradition to once again manage their land.

Unlike many of the stories we read these days, this one has a remarkably positive ending – greenhouse gas offsets are funding Indigenous ranger groups to re-establish traditional fire practices on country. This provides employment, values cultural knowledge and rebuilds connections with country that may have otherwise been lost. It will provide a template for rolling out similar programmes across the northern savannas.

Although the story is compelling, this book is largely an academic publication. When you take into account its multidisciplinary nature, almost no-one who reads it will be at home with every paper contained within. By the same token, however, there is something in it for everyone, and everyone will learn something new.

While I found myself floundering several times in unfamiliar fields of study, it was certainly an interesting experience to observe how other areas of expertise interact with my own comfort zone – such as the interplay between linguistics and land management (Chapter 5), in which linguistic nuance and complexity reveal ecological complexity. I also found the ins and outs of carbon accounting described in the later chapters almost overwhelming and have a renewed awe for those who work in that field.

In detailing the work of scientists and Traditional Owners, this book will be an invaluable resource for exploring similar issues and establishing similar programmes in fire-prone savannas elsewhere. I highly recommend it to those who are working in similar cultural and ecological landscapes. The book provides insight into a complex interaction between culture, ecology and the modern world. To whet your appetite with the highlights, the first chapter provides an excellent summary of the book or visit the Northern Savannas CRC website at

The project explained through this publication shows that the many challenges facing Aboriginal people in Australia belong to all of us. Depopulation, disempowerment and loss of culture, language and traditions affect everyone through biodiversity loss, altered landscapes and even the global climate.