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The challenge

Re-instating traditional land management

Ngadju people, from the country centred around Norseman in south-western Australia, have recently had their native title rights and interests recognised across a large part of the Great Western Woodlands.

Buldania Rocks. Ngadju showing researchers a rockhole that needs to be cleaned out.

Traditionally Ngadju used fire as a cultural tool for keeping the country clear around rock holes, for encouraging grasses in open grasslands and mallee, and to smoke out animals when hunting. These fires were often small, around one hectare. Fire was also used to protect important cultural sites and special plants, such as water trees, and to maintain access along walking tracks and in coastal shrublands.

Other activities such as firewood collecting around the edges of woodlands and rock holes, and sweeping and scraping up litter around individual trees, were undertaken to help control wildfire. Together this mosaic of Ngadju fires and related activities may have helped to slow wildfires across large tracts of country.

In recent years, the Great Western Woodlands has experienced a seemingly unsustainable frequency of large, intense wildfires. Because mature woodland trees such as gimlets (Eucalyptus salubris) and salmon gums (E. salmonophloia) are usually killed by fire, this is causing old-growth woodlands to be lost at an alarming rate.

Opportunities for Ngadju engagement in fire management has been limited in past few decades owing to 'white man laws'. The challenge for the Ngadju was to consolidate their traditional knowledge of fire management and consider how to combine this with new opportunities.

Our response

Working with the Traditional Owners

We partnered with Western Australia’s Ngadju Conservation, Goldfields Land and Sea Council, and Western Australia Department of Parks and Wildlife to document Ngadju knowledge in regard to planned fires and wildfires associated with different Great Western Woodland ecosystems, plant and animal species, and maintaining cultural assets.

The project, Ngadju Kala: Ngadju fire knowledge and contemporary fire management in the Great Western Woodlands, was undertaken through a series of workshops and field trips with Ngadju.

Our aim was to further enhance Ngadju opportunities to inform and contribute to ecological management of the Great Western Woodlands. We collaborated with over 40 people from the Ngadju nation to document their knowledge of fire in the five million hectare Ngadju native title area centred on Norseman.

We also worked with the Ngadju people to document their traditional seasons calendar and assist them to pursue their aspirations for cultural activities and working on country in a changing climate.

The results

Fire management for the future

The Ngadju emphasised a desire to 'combine the best of old and new ways' in managing the land and fire. This requires Ngadju to draw on their knowledge for looking after country but also work with fire authorities and new technologies in fire management.

The convergence of legislative changes, native title decisions, and increasing momentum in both Ngadju and non-Ngadju communities has already led to significant community participation in partnership with agencies.

A number of key steps towards building leadership, opportunities and capacity were identified in the Ngadju Kala Fire Knowledge Report, and some are now underway.

These include:

  • preparing a Ngadju Healthy Country Plan
  • establishing an Incident Response Protocol
  • engaging with other agencies in longer-term planning
  • participating in on-ground fire management through training, volunteer brigades and ranger-type positions
  • reclaiming rights to light fire on country
  • providing cultural awareness training to non-Ngadju.

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