A djandak wi (“Country fire” or “healthy fire”) burn on Dja Dja Wurrung Country, Victoria, in April 2018. Photo courtesy of Timothy Neale  

Building equitable partnerships with Indigenous people, starting with future bushfire management

The research  seeking  to  understand how bushfire management partnerships benefit  the  social and ecological resilience  of  Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.   

The work of a  social scientist  at Deakin University will support meaningful future partnerships with Indigenous leaders in southern Australia around bushfire management techniques. 

As part of their collaborative  research, Dr Timothy Neale and his  colleagues  are investigating how best to build  intercultural,  natural  hazard management partnerships  between Indigenous peoples and others.

 This work will contribute to policy on  how  natural hazard  risks are  managed by government agencies and  the wider community.

 The research  is also  seeking  to  understand how bushfire management partnerships benefit  the  social and ecological resilience  of  Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Decolonising experiments

Dr Neale says understanding how best to engage in respectful partnership with Indigenous peoples will be crucial in supporting the development of public policy that reduces and protects against natural hazard risks.    

“We have to understand that, in Australia and elsewhere, many Indigenous peoples’ past and present experiences of sharing their knowledge have frequently been negative and exploitative,” Dr Neale says.

“It’s pretty galling, if you think about it, to follow up centuries of dispossession by asking for more. 

“As Aboriginal scholars and activists have been saying for a long time: non-Indigenous peoples have to give up some of their power and control if they want to work together.

“We have to start from the premise of their rights, as the First Peoples of this place, to speak authoritatively about Country.”   

During  one of the  project’s  case  studies, Dr Neale  conducted long-term fieldwork with  Dja  Dja  Wurrung people  on  Dja  Dja  Wurrung  Country – which  mostly  overlaps with the Murray Goldfields  region – to  learn  about  their ongoing  bushfire management  partnership with government agencies.

There,  several  djandak  wi  burns (sometimes called ‘Country fire’ or  ‘healthy fire’ burns)  have been  led by  Dja  Dja  Wurrung peoples  since  2017.

Significantly, these burns are believed to be among the first Aboriginal-led burns on public lands in southeast Australia since settlement more than 180 years ago.

As Dr Neale and several  Dja  Dja  Wurrung colleagues have  contended, such collaborative partnerships can be understood as “decolonising experiments”, in the sense that they involve progressively testing how to create more equitable relationships between people and Country.   

Respecting knowledge  of Indigenous bushfire management 

According to  the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the bushfires experienced in the 2019-20 season have burned more than 10 million hectares of land in southern  Australia, greater than the combined area burned in the 2019 Black Saturday  and 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires. 

The ancestors of contemporary Aboriginal peoples applied fire to shape  their surroundings for more than 65,000 years and now Indigenous fire management practices are increasingly identified as a potentially beneficial tool for mitigating  fire hazards over future fire seasons.

Typically, Aboriginal peoples  have been marginalised from  contemporary bushfire management  since colonisation  in southern Australia.

 One  key way  to reduce this inequity, and more fully  support Indigenous fire management,  is  the development of strong partnerships with Indigenous groups.

For instance, ongoing collaborations between Dja Dja Wurrung peoples and the Victorian Government  began with  the signing of the Recognition and Settlement Agreement in 2013.

The first of its kind, the agreement was key to the  creation  of  partnerships between  Dja  Dja  Wurrung peoples  and  government agencies.     

Using this and other examples, the research team is aiming to understand  the  past and  current  experiences  of diverse Aboriginal groups  working with settler government natural hazard management agencies. 

This will lead to the development of better frameworks that  support  equitable partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals and organisations.  

‘Walking together’ to reduce bushfire risk

The research project is providing  crucial  advice to research partners including Indigenous communities and government agencies about the opportunities and challenges for expanded and enhanced collaborative natural hazard management.  

Key successes for the project include publications, further research funding from the  Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and submissions to several government inquiries.

In 2020, Dr Neale was called as an expert witness to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster  Arrangements and provided evidence based on this research.

Dr Neale’s evidence was subsequently cited in the Royal Commission’s recommendations that all levels of government should engage further with Traditional Owners as fire and land managers.   

Dr Neale explains  that there is an encouraging trend of  government agencies and others beginning to treat Indigenous peoples as partners with self-determination, not one stakeholder among others.

 Projects and programs are becoming more supportive of Indigenous people’s aspirations to  heal and bring people back to  Country, focusing less on  just managing  natural hazard  risk  or some other calculable policy goal.   

In a recent paper,  Dr Neale and several  Dja  Dja  Wurrung colleagues  reflected on the ideals of past  Dja  Dja  Wurrung elders which encourage  ‘walking’ or cooperating with non-Indigenous people.

 As  one interviewee explained: “…at the end of the day we’re better off walking together.

The last 50 years, we could have walked away [from the government], but like Uncle Doug [Nicholls] and all them said ‘we’re going to walk together’.’’ 

For more information on cultural burning, read on at Inside Story.  

Dr Timothy Neale is a DECRA Senior Research Fellow within the Alfred Deakin Institute. 

Image: A djandak wi  (“Country fire” or “healthy fire”) burn on  Dja  Dja  Wurrung Country, Victoria, in April 2018.  Photo courtesy of Timothy Neale   

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