Booting Indigenous Australians off their land wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Cultures and traditions are like forests. Their big, structural elements need to be left undisturbed for long periods, with small, frequent changes here and there to stimulate renewal and growth.
The British settlers who came to Australia in 1788 boasted the world’s most advanced science and technology, but they were handicapped by a culture damaged by centuries of disputation and war.
Australia’s Indigenous culture was everything theirs was not: truly ancient, contiguous and robust. Whereas European traditions span a few thousand years at most, Australian traditions were 50,000 years or more in the making.
Venturing out of their Australian settlements, British explorers reported landscapes resembling Europe’s cultivated parks and gardens. Rural settlers, encouraged by their leaders to regard the continent as being uninhabited, chose to ignore the possibility that humans had a hand in this.
Eight years ago I wrote in these pages about The Biggest Estate on Earth, a detailed, thoroughly-documented study of pre-colonial land management practices by historian Bill Gammage.
Other studies since then have strengthened the view that living on this land for more than a thousand generations, Aboriginal people developed a deep knowledge of it and sophisticated techniques, including fire, to manage it.
Fire Country, a 2020 book by Victor Steffensen, an Indigenous Australian from Cape York Peninsula, picks up that theme and runs with it – literally. Essentially, he describes how traditional fire knowledge and practice, applied continuously year on year, makes a healthier forest while also keeping fuel loads in check.
As Steffensen explains, Aboriginal fire is applied prescriptively to “fire country” at specific locations and times of the year depending on geology, animal habitats and plants, with the aim of renewing understorey vegetation and avoiding year-on-year accumulation of unburnt vegetation.
For me, reading this book has been both refreshing and nostalgic, taking me back beyond formal education to my infancy in the bush, when everything I knew about the living world – about how plants and animals live together, and how humans interact with them – came via personal experience, what I could see and hear and feel around me.
Steffensen undoubtedly understands a lot of science that I didn’t back then, but he has learned more from doing than from reading and writing. For decades he has striven to revive his people’s traditional knowledge, born of experience and passed down through the generations by example and the spoken word.
His story moves between two very different worlds: the natural world of his Cape York people and the highly structured world of institution and authority.
Apart from the land on which he grew up, his inspiration has been his mentors, tribal elders George Musgrave (“Poppy”) and Tommy George (“TG”). Like the rest of us, they had to learn to deal with authority. That was not an attractive proposition for Poppy and TG, whose childhoods were severely disrupted by government arrogance, indifference and ignorance.
Nor was it for Steffensen. As Poppy and TG handed over to him their fire knowledge and authority (Poppy died in 2006 and TG in 2016) and he became a leading voice in the fight for wider recognition of Indigenous fire expertise, he saw clearly what he was up against.
It isn’t hard to picture the scene, described many times in Steffensen’s book, when a ranger, fire officer or bureaucrat tells the would-be burners that, sorry, the law won’t allow you to do that. With some lateral thinking Steffensen often found ways around such obstacles, but it has remained a battle.
The Indigenous fire management implemented by Poppy, TG and Steffensen has been shown to work effectively right across northern Australia. Application of similar techniques in southern parts of the continent and Tasmania have been questioned because of differences in climate, vegetation and population.
But two hundred years without active human oversight and care has left our forested lands far more vulnerable to the devastation we witnessed last summer. In our planning for a wildfire-prone future, the full-time, low temperature, ecosystem-specific regimes practised in the tropical north deserve a permanent place at the official table.
Steffensen’s story is a sobering reminder of where our British-based administrative systems fail us. Facing an unprecedented environmental crisis, all of us, governed and governors alike, must seek to rediscover Earth’s natural rhythms and learn to work within them.
Each summer, waiting in our European cities for the next megafire, it’s worth considering whether pushing Indigenous people aside and pretending they don’t exist was – or is – such a good idea. Especially today, the day the British landed their version of civilisation on Australian shores.