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Savanna burning, greenhouse gas emissions and indigenous livelihoods: Introducing the Tiwi Carbon Study

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Abstract

Savanna burning for greenhouse gas abatement presents an opportunity for remote Aboriginal communities of northern Australia to engage with the mainstream economy while fulfilling cultural obligations for land stewardship. The recently established Tiwi Carbon Study aims to identify the biophysical and economic potential of fire management for greenhouse gas abatement on the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin, as a basis for possible livelihood opportunities for the Aboriginal Tiwi people. Recent (2001–2010) fire history for the Tiwi Islands based on AVHRR satellite imagery shows that on average 35% (187 700 ha) of its savanna woodlands and open forests are burned every year, with 72% of burning occurring late in the dry season (August to November). Non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions from Tiwi fires average 68 000 t CO2-e year−1 and we discuss scenarios for greenhouse gas abatement through management of these fires by Tiwi people, consistent with the savanna burning methodology approved under the Federal Government's Carbon Farming Initiative. Changed fire management scenarios produced emissions abatement of up to 46 000 t CO2-e year−1, with highest savings under a change in both fire frequency and intensity. In addition to abatement of non-CO2 emissions, fire management has the potential to alter rates of carbon sequestered in soil and vegetation. Current ecosystem C stocks (excluding roots) on the Tiwi Islands range from 60 to 160 t C ha−1. The Tiwi Carbon Study features a long-term, landscape-scale fire experiment for informing full carbon accounting in relation to different fire management options, and for understanding their implications for biodiversity. We discuss potential co-benefits and trade-offs of fire management for greenhouse gas emissions abatement in relation to biodiversity and Tiwi cultural requirements and livelihood aspirations.

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