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Indigenous Savanna Managers in Northern Australia: History, Law & Practice

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Contemporary savanna management and policy in northern Australia rely on scientific studies undertaken over only a few decades. Indigenous ecological and management knowledge can complement the scientific material by providing a substantial long-term knowledge resource for contemporary decision-making, yet has been poorly regarded, under-utilised, and misinterpreted. This thesis explores the published historical material on indigenous ecological knowledge (IEK) in order to provide an analysis of its relevance for contemporary management. It analyses some legal impediments to contemporary application of traditional practices, and examines some contemporary management which utilise traditional practices.Over two centuries, publications on indigenous savanna people showed that they actively managed their resources. The 19th century record showed that Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory lit fires throughout the northern dry seasons. This finding is consistent with findings for the whole northern savannas, and corrects a previous misinterpretation of the data. Fire was observed to be a principal land management tool, but indigenous people also manipulated their physical environments by developing water resources and fisheries to enhance natural resource availability.Historical observations were affected by dramatic social changes to indigenous people, as pristine indigenous societies receded with the advance of the colonisers, decades ahead of anthropologists and other observers. Interpretation of the historical observations must consider, therefore, that observed practices may have been modified by contact with the colonisers.Bushfire legislation in northern Australia prohibits burning for most of the dry seasons, the period when most fires are lit. Legislation and practices present conflicting purposes, as the legislation does not account for applied fire, and may be detrimental to best fire practice. Finally, the debate about the extent to which use of fire by Aboriginal peoples shaped the landscapes and biota is contentious, as are attempts to re-establish customary practice. Aboriginal practice has been dismissed as pyromania, and consequences for management as incidental outcomes. We argue that this view is at odds with available evidence, and suggest that misunderstanding arises from contrasting views of objectives, values and goals of land managers. We illustrate our argument with examples and propose mechanisms for wider application of Aboriginal prescriptions.

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