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Traditional indigenous fire management techniques deployed against climate change

Carbon credits bring millions for new jobs in indigenous communities; Australian project a model of opportunity, especially for Africa

A landmark Australian project that mitigates the extent and severity of natural savannah blazes by deploying traditional Indigenous fire management techniques is being hailed as a model with vast global potential in the fights against climate change and biodiversity loss, and for protecting Indigenous lands and culture.

The enterprise is expected initially to generate at least 1 million tonnes worth of carbon credit sales annually, creating over 200 new jobs in traditional Northern Australia Indigenous communities.

Proponents heading to the December climate change talks in Copenhagen say similar projects can be adopted in the savannas of Africa, where the potential for reductions is very high.

Supported today by modern technologies like satellites, Indigenous fire management involves controlled early dry season fires to create fire breaks and patchy mosaics of burnt and un-burnt country. Pioneered centuries ago, the practice minimises destructive late dry season wildfires and maximises biodiversity protection.

In the last three years, the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project has reduced CO2-equivalent emissions in Northern Australia by 488,000 tonnes -- an annual average of 140,000 tonnes that can be sold as credits on the carbon exchange market, valued today at A$10 per tonne.

The WALFA project led to a landmark greenhouse gas offset agreement between ConocoPhillips, the Northern Territory Government, Northern Land Council, and Traditional Owners in west Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia.

Traditional Owners from West Arnhem have agreed to generate 100,000 tonnes of carbon credits annually through traditional fire management employing Indigenous Rangers, to offset greenhouse gas emissions from ConocoPhillips' liquefied natural gas plant in Darwin Harbour.

For its part, ConocoPhillips agreed to pay A$1 million per year into the project over 17 years. The offsets will be recognised under the proposed Australian Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

Building on the WALFA pilot, the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) has raised $7.8 million from the Australian government towards $30 million required to develop and administer four additional projects using Indigenous land managers with the goal of creating over 1 million tonnes of carbon credits annually.

"The many compelling side benefits of the initiative include the protection of biodiversity, cultural heritage and landscapes of global importance," says CEO Joe Morrison.

"Benefits for local communities include greater employment, the inter-generational transfer of traditional knowledge, and cross-cultural confidence essential to developing tourism and other sustainable business activities."

"In time, as the carbon market matures and world prices per tonne rise, these credits will more than pay for the costs of the fire abatement projects," adds Joe Morrison.

Project costs beyond labour relate to scientific monitoring and measurement of emissions, capacity building, community consultations and governance.

Landuse and biomass burning (including savanna wildfires) accounts for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a large portion of which comes from Africa and northern Australia.

NAILSMA, in partnership with United Nations University, is looking to share its experience with local communities and other stakeholders around the world through workshops, guides, video material and other sources.

The experience is directly applicable to other savanna areas worldwide. And many experts consider successful carbon projects vital to saving the world's tropical rainforests through.

Says UN Under Secretary-General Konrad Osterwalder, Rector of UNU: "This experience is the best example in the world of indigenous and local communities using the emerging carbon market to develop culturally appropriate livelihoods. The lessons learnt from this experience are invaluable, especially now that there are billions of dollars available to local communities worldwide to help them take climate change mitigation and adaptation measures."

Professor Chris Justice from the University of Maryland USA and the NASA MODIS Fire Lead says global satellite data sets show extensive savannah fires throughout Africa.

"Some 37% of global carbon emissions by biomass burning come from Africa, mostly released by human induced savannah fires," he adds. "Indeed, the vast majority of all savannah fires globally occur on the African continent. The ground-level ozone, smoke and accompanying gases and particulates create a public health hazard during an area's burning season."

"The WALFA Project demonstrates a valuable, alternative way to help Africa's poorest not only play a role mitigating climate change, but also to develop sustainable livelihoods to tackle their main issue – poverty."

In April, UNU helped convene a major conference on ways of using traditional knowledge to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Hosted in Alaska by the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change was also designed to help strengthen the communities' participation in and articulate messages and recommendations to the Copenhagen conference, at which a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol will be negotiated.

At the Summit, Indigenous Peoples from every world region shared observations and experiences of early impacts in their part of the planet, as well as traditional practices that could both ease climate change and help all humanity adapt to its anticipated consequences.

Over millennia, Indigenous Peoples have developed a large arsenal of practices of potential benefit in the climate change context, including:

Traditional methods of shoreline reinforcement, land stabilization and reclamation;
Protecting watersheds with Indigenous farming techniques; and
Fostering biodiversity and the growth of useful species through planting, transplanting, and weeding techniques, the benefits of which have often gone unappreciated outside Indigenous communities until traditional peoples are relocated or their practices restricted.

Traditional drought-related practices used to hedge against the impact of climate variation include:

Sophisticated small dam systems to capture and store rainfall;
Planting simultaneously diverse varieties of crops; and
Using alternative agricultural lands, food preservation techniques, hunting and gathering periods and wild food sources as required.

"The importance of local and individual efforts to tackle this global problem cannot be overstated," says research fellow Sam Johnston of UNU's Yokohama-based Institute for Advanced Studies. "Leadership will come from the ground not the top."

Says Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, Chair of the peak UN body on Indigenous Issues "The clear voice of Indigenous Peoples needs to be heard by rest of the world community and their insights honoured in critically important climate change discussions now underway. When it comes to implementing mitigation and adaptation strategies, the world would gain greatly from proven ancient approaches built on profound respect for the Earth."

United Nations University

Established by the U.N. General Assembly, UNU ( is an international community of scholars engaged in research, advanced training and the dissemination of knowledge related to pressing global problems. Activities focus mainly on peace and conflict resolution, sustainable development and the use of science and technology to advance human welfare. The University operates a worldwide network of research and post-graduate training centres, with headquarters in Tokyo.

Terry Collins | EurekAlert!
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