The Aboriginal people in Australia have kept and cared for the country for over 60,000 years. When they were colonized by Europe in 1788, it marked a huge change in their lives. On January 26, the same day Britain’s First Fleet landed in Sydney Harbor, Australia celebrates new citizens receiving their Australian citizenship. However, this isn’t how the Aboriginal people see it.
January 26, 1788 was the date when an unimaginable pain began for the Aboriginal people. Historical accounts show that with European colonization came land theft and environmental degradation. This also led to the “Stolen Generations,” when at least one in three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and the 1970s. According to Vox, a liberal-leaning American news and opinion website owned by Vox Media, this practice was meant to confine children in institutions or raise them in white families, or what they call “breeding out the color” — an act of “biological and sociocultural genocide.”
Australia’s Aboriginal people also experienced different forms of oppression from the colonizers such as houselessness, mass incarceration, murder, sexual violence, and many more. All of these still happen. The Overview of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Status in Western Australia reported that the death rate for Indigenous people in Western Australia was 2.1 times higher than non-Indigenous people between 2015 and 2017. They were 2.6 times as likely as non-Indigenous people to feel high levels of psychological distress as reported between 2012 and 2013.
“We just don’t have the resources in this country to deal with the mental health issues, let alone the issues around respiratory illness within our communities,” Larissa Baldwin from the Widjabul clan of the Bundjalung nation and the First Nations justice campaign director of the movement GetUp said.
Aside from those, the climate crisis is also threatening the very existence of indigenous peoples in Australia.
Bushfires Heavily Affect Aboriginal People
Bushfires in recent years have heavily affected the indigenous people of Australia. According to Earther Gizmodo, an environmental news website, more than 26.4 million acres have burned in January 2020 alone. Francis Markham, a research fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, said that while no data exists yet on exactly how many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people have been affected by the fires, he believes that these bush fires disproportionately impact indigenous communities in Australia.
For instance, New South Wales, where the fires are concentrated, has the highest number of indigenous people in the country. “The places where we know a lot of aboriginal people live… have been heavily impacted by the fires. These impacts are both on people in terms of the kind of direct impacts of fires: property loss and even loss of life. But they’re also about impacts on country and impacts to sacred sites and heritage sites, and that’s sometimes missed in this coverage,” Markham said.
A recent study found that more than 84,000 Indigenous populations in New South Wales and Victoria live in a fire-affected area. While Indigenous people only comprise 2.3% of the total population of NSW and Victoria, they make up nearly 5.4% of the 1.55 million people living in fire-affected areas of these states. What’s more, 36% of the total Indigenous population in fire-affected areas are younger than 15 years old. However, their experiences are not always heard.
According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, in some critical processes such as the McLeod Inquiry, which followed the 2003 Canberra bushfires and the 2009 Black Saturday Royal Commission, references to Aboriginal people were almost completely absent. This only shows that these people, together with their cultural practices, ways of life and land management techniques, are relegated to the past.
“You’ve got generations of Aboriginal people who have been ignored, whose land management practices and knowledge of the environment has been ignored, and then watch it be mismanaged, and these fires are a result of that mismanagement and that lack of understanding,” Eckford-Williamson, the researcher at Australian National University’s Center for Aboriginal Policy Research, said.
Fighting Australia’s Devastating Bushfires
Many authorities have tried and launched efforts to address the problem with bushfires but none of it seems to work as more and more bushfires are reported across the country. But, the solution lies in the hands of the Aboriginal people: 50,000-year-old cultural fire management. This is an Aboriginal tradition that goes back thousands of years: using fire to stop a fire.
Indigenous people have been using this kind of practice long before European colonizers settled in Australia. They have been setting their own lands ablaze as a fire management technique using carefully controlled low flames and the power of the wind to clear grasses and kindling. Many Indigenous people see their techniques could be the solution for these devastating bushfires.
Historian Bill Gammage, an emeritus professor at Australian National University who studies Australian and Aboriginal history, said that Aboriginal people had a deep knowledge of the land. According to CNN, an American news-based pay television channel owned by AT&T's WarnerMedia, they can feel the grass and know if it would burn well; they know what types of fires to burn for what types of land, how long to burn, and how frequently. They do this in a controlled manner to reduce the potential of the leaves, old grass and branches to act as fuel for an uncontrolled fire later on.
While many current firefighters on the ground still use some fuel control and hazard reduction techniques, Gammage said that their efforts are not enough. "Some of it is being done, but not skillfully enough. We don't really take into account plants and animals that might be endangered by fire. And secondly, we don't really know what's the best time of year, how much burn, how to break up a fire front,” he said.