The convoy of Toyotas bounces through red desert sand and shocks of flowers, while Mary Gibson looks out her window, searching for a good place to start a fire.
The cars pull over and the group gets out, led by Gibson and Pantjiti McKenzie – senior Aboriginal women from this central Australian region. Most wear orange vests, a nod to workplace safety at odds with the many rubber thongs and bare feet.
Each woman stands over a mound of spinifex and casually throws in a match, waits for a moment to check that it’s caught, then walks to the next. Soon the air is thick with smoke from the hot, fat, fires that burn out as quickly as they started.
In less than an hour the ground is charred and dotted with large black clumps of ash and charcoal. Attention moves to digging up dozens of witchetty grubs from the roots of nearby Maku trees.
Small animals escape the flames but can’t evade Gibson, who catches two goannas to roast up later. She throws the carcasses in the back of the car next to our feet and an uninterested dog named Bibi, and we head to another site to do it all again.
I have joined a group of Indigenous men and women from across this remote desert region to observe traditional fire management in action. The group has made camp somewhere well north of Docker River, in the Katiti Petermann Indigenous protected area, which covers more than 5m hectares in the south-west corner of the Northern Territory.
IPAs are designated through an agreement between the federal government and traditional landowners. The owners take land management responsibility in return for federal support and the land becomes part of the national reserve system, of which IPAs now make up about 43%.
The nearest settlements to our camp are a few hours drive away, and the only attention paid to the vehicles, tents and campfires comes from passing camels. The group consists of land managers, senior community members, council staff and anthropologists, plus a few children, a journalist and a helicopter pilot.
It’s the end of winter, and the rangers and land managers are lighting a mosaic of small fires to reduce the fuel load and vary the grass levels.
There are large swaths of land here that haven’t burned in more than a decade. Any fire sparked by a summer lightning strike into thick grass could mean a larger, hotter blaze that kills trees and animals.
Aboriginal land rights in the NT allow for traditional owners to have more control over burning, and they must demonstrate commitments to requirements set out in the Bushfires Act.
Different environments require different approaches to hazard reduction – heading out in the cars with matches is closer to the traditional practice of Indigenous people setting small fires as they walked across country.
But it’s not efficient when there is just a handful of people for such a big place, so Katiti Petermann has joined other IPAs in conducting aerial burns from helicopters.
‘They get to see the country quicker’
Everyone in the camp wants a go in the chopper, but there are limited flying hours in the four days that it’s available. It’s supported by a tri-state fire management committee with federal funding, and costs a small fortune.
Each morning’s negotiations carefully navigate the competing interests of camp members, as well as the politics of gender, seniority and personality.
The men get first run for a “lookaround”, prompting the women, bored and restless, to head out in the four-wheel drives.
Indigenous rangers, supervised by the Central Land Council’s environmental management coordinator, Ben Kaethner, burn from the air in the afternoon. It is incomparably more scientific than the bush bash with matches.
A device roughly the size of a milkcrate is strapped into the back of the helicopter, with a roll of pellets containing potassium permanganate, or Condy’s crystals.
Ranger Patrick Reid is given a quick refresher course before takeoff and the helicopter tracks over an area hundreds of kilometres wide, directed by Kaethner chasing “dark patches” in satellite imagery on a GPS-tracking iPad.
It’s Reid’s first time, and he squints into the distance, concentrating hard. He hits start on a remote control and the pellets feed into the machine, where they are injected with ethylene glycol and dropped out of a tube. Well after the package has hit the ground, the elements inside react and ignite.
As far as pyromania fantasies go it’s … underwhelming.
“When there are helicopters involved you want it as unexciting as possible,” Kaethner says.
Back at camp, as the helicopter blades whirr to a stop behind us, I ask Reid which type of burning he prefers.
“Helicopter,” he says, a little breathless and smiling. “It’s a long way, you know. Just a quick ride and come back. We were going low, and it’s a good one, isn’t it?”
Reid says the fire-starting machine is easy to learn and he is confident he could do it alone the next time.
Over the course of the week I ask people if they mind such high-tech solutions being favoured over the old ways.
“It’s a good thing,” says Steve Mitchell, a senior man from Jameson. “And people like flying in the chopper, they get to see the country quicker.”
Pantjiti McKenzie laughs and says she likes the helicopter but she’ll keep burning from the ground. Angela Lyons, from Tjukurla, says she prefers going out in the cars because she can walk around her grandmother’s country.
Technically the priority is fire management but caring for country doesn’t just mean physical work – it’s also the act of visiting traditional lands and sacred sites, and this seems more important to those who have come along.
“At the end of the day I think they are mutually beneficial. One couldn’t happen without the other,” Kaethner says.
“If we were just trying to meet cultural objectives we wouldn’t have money to have the helicopter, and if we were just doing the fire objectives we wouldn’t have approval to do the work because we weren’t meeting cultural objectives.”
Kaethner says it’s “easy enough” to merge the two as fire management is one of the cultural reasons for getting out into traditional lands, but he does need to keep an eye on proceedings.
“People get very focused on visiting the sites. We need to ensure the fire management objectives are met, and I think we managed that very well.”
‘I want to teach them properly’
It’s Camilla Young’s first time on her father’s country, and she says was moved to tears visiting a sacred site she had grown up hearing about.
“My grandmother used to go there as a young one and look after ‘the two boys’ [a sacred site based on a feature of the land], and she showed [my father] Joe before she passed away. I just cried. I touched them for first time,” she says.
Young is from Kintore, a remote community to the north that is desperately short of work. This was her first time on a fire management trip and she enjoyed learning from the older women.
“There’s nothing much there. I ask for a lot of work. That’s why I tell Joe, you gotta ask so we can get rangers in Kintore. All the young fellas doing nothing, just wandering around in the community.”
Joe Young, Camilla’s father, says he watches the young people of Kintore struggle without employment or engagement, and he is campaigning for a ranger program.
“I’m really concerned about this because talking with the young people, they don’t listen to us, they don’t go visit their country, they don’t look around, anything like this,” he says. “They just stop in the town area, doing nothing.”
Joe Young says getting people out into their country is good for the mind. The suicide rate among Indigenous Australians, particularly in remote communities, is one of the highest in the world. Few, if any, places are unaffected by the epidemic.
“Aranda area, Pitjantjatjara, Warlpiri people, everywhere, we’re trying to stop these bad things. They’re killing themselves. We’re trying to make it better.”
Young believes a ranger program would deliver both work and culture. He gestures at the men’s camp across from where we sit.
“This mob, I can see the old fellas they’ve got their young fellas with them and they know the countryside. I want to teach them properly, teach them youngest ones.”
Kintore sits about halfway between the Katiti Petermann and Tanami IPAs, and is home to a number of endangered species, including bilbies and great desert skinks.
“If you had more rangers managing the country, it would have conservation benefits, and having a ranger program would allow them to deal with emerging weed problems,” Kaethner says.
“But the one big issue Kintore has is camels, particularly out in the sand plain country. It would be great to see land managers at Kintore doing camel control themselves.”
Patrick O’Leary of the Pew Charitable Trust says it has been shown that Indigenous communities can deliver “a sophisticated, modern, management regime that combines the best elements of traditional knowledge, a local commitment people have, and the fact that they’re on country … with the best science we can bring to bear”.
“Ranger programs and Indigenous protected areas are the perfect catalyst to bring those things together to deliver consistently on environmental outcomes and then have all the social and economic benefits you get from people having jobs and retaining that connection with culture.”
The program’s detractors suggest ranger roles are not real jobs, and a recently leaked document sparked fears it would be rolled into the federal remote work-for-the-dole scheme.
The Central Land Council has been working with Kintore people for one week a month on fire management, to demonstrate the enthusiasm for any future project.
It applied for funding under the Indigenous advancement strategy but was unsuccessful – the scheme is oversubscribed and underresourced.
A spokeswoman for Nigel Scullion, the federal minister for Indigenous affairs, says he is open to further discussions about funding.
“The Coalition has been a strong supporter of the Indigenous ranger program since it established funding for the program for the first time under the Howard government,” she said.
Much confusion surrounds the future of the ranger program, now funded to 2018 with about $70m annually. Scullion surprised many in August when he told a joint land council meeting at Wave Hill the program had guaranteed funding to 2020 but applications must still go through the IAS, with no specific allocation for ranger groups.
Coming together across the white borders
By the end of our week in the desert everyone seems happy with the flight time and site visits they got.
Some have left early for Kintore to watch Hawthorn play their AFL semi-final against the Bulldogs. Others stay for one last visit to a sacred site, or to set a few more fires in their last chance before summer. They won’t get back to care for this country for months at least.
On the final day, the men are keen to share “worldwide” their enthusiasm not just for the work achieved but also the significant gathering of senior people visiting long-lost sites and caring for country together.
They have come from communities across the jurisdictions officially known as the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia.
“There is no states for Aboriginal people,” says Ian Newbury from Warakurna. “White men made the states, separating the people, but before that there was no borders.
“We’re families, all coming together. We’re teaching them land and stories that tie in with the land.”
Bernard Newbury says: “We want to share knowledge with whoever comes across with us. We are part of the land and the land is part of us, we can’t separate it.”
Read this article online at The Guardian