As a young bloke, Terrah Guymala remembers being on a mission station and seeing wildfire smoke on the horizon. He recalls the “old people” on the mission talking about the smoke haze. It was rising from their land. Their country was burning.
“Old people started getting worried,” he said. “They were worried that we were going to lose the land so we came back.”
In returning, the Warddeken people of the remote west Arnhem plateau reversed a trend which began after World War II when the missions, towns and cattle stations pulled the populations from their country with promises of work and education. During their three-decade absence the vast 1.2 million hectares of orphaned Warddeken country 230 kilometres east of Darwin started burning with increasing intensity. Without small-scale burning early in the dry season, lightning strikes ignited larger, hotter wildfires.
Even now the rainforest with its grand anbinik trees, some dating back 600 years, is a threatened ecosystem. Fire is an inevitable force in the dry season. It will never be eradicated. So it needs to be managed.
Indigenous rangers from Warddeken Land Management, supported by Bush Heritage Australia, are combining traditional knowledge with Western science to care for their country. Terrah, a senior member of the Bordoh clan and director of Warddeken Land Management, calls it his “two tool box” approach. One virtual tool box contains traditional knowledge and land management skills, the other Western science, which includes the use of helicopters and satellite imaging. It’s a combined approach to fire management which is getting results.
In 2006, 40 per cent of the Warddeken indigenous protected area burnt in the dry season – more than half of the fires occurring late in the dry season, between August and December. Last year, 23 per cent of the land burnt with 19 per cent of the fires occurring early, between May and July.
“This is and has always been an anthropogenic landscape,” says Warddeken Land Management chief executive Shaun Ansell. “People here see burning as like mowing the lawn. It’s how they maintain and manage their land.”
Part of the challenge is to keep introduced plants such as the African gamba grass out. Currently Warddeken’s average fuel burn per hectare is two to three tonnes. If gamba grass takes hold, it could be up to 10 times that. The precious patches of unspoilt forest are unique. The anbinik tree is found only on the sandstone escarpment country of western Arnhem Land and the Alligator Rivers. It is one of 200 plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world.
“This is like a garden for us. We need to look after it,” Terrah says. “There’s birds, mammals and reptiles. And they are all important. They connect us to the land.”
But the landscape is changing and the biodiversity is being challenged. Despite its remote location, invasive species have moved in. About 200 feral pigs and 2000 buffalo are shot each year. A recent arrival is the black rat. Ecologists like Terry Mahney from the Northern Territory government’s flora and fauna division are unsure of the impact it will have on small mammals in the region, which are declining at an alarming rate. Inside a wire cage trap just a bit longer than a shoebox, an anxious rodent flits from corner to corner. Terrah kneels down to take a closer look.
“It’s got a long tail,” he says. “If you look, the tail is longer than the body so it’s not a native.”
A discussion ensues as to what to do with the rat.
“If it’s not a native rat then destroy it. Kill it,” says senior indigenous ranger Keith Nadjamerrek.
Keith is among those who returned to country, pulled back after the death of his father whose rock art still adorns the nearby cliffs and caves. The rock art galleries capture the culture and evolution of an ancient country – from a time when djarnkerrk, or thylacines, roamed the stone plateaus and gorges to the arrival of the Asian water buffalo in the 1820s. A member of the Mor clan, Keith has reconnected with his culture and performs ceremonial duties. His welcome to country, delivered in the kunwinjku language while ankle-deep in a cool spring, is both reassuring and gentle.
“I ask the ancestors to look after everyone and to guide you wherever you go,” he says.
Loosely holding an enamel camping mug, Keith bends to scoop up some clear water. After speaking to his ancestors, its contents are poured over the visitor’s bowed head.
“The water is part of the land and it’s spiritual; it’s part of our ways of living.”
Read this article at The Age.