"My Uncle always said, fire isn’t death; fire’s the start of life."
Our 3 days in the Top End so eloquently summed up by Peter Christopherson, the larger-than-life local Aboriginal land manager. Peter helps his family to manage the flood plains of the Yellow Waters area we stood on.
Indeed it neatly captured the trip’s essence, a brisk 3-day sally of 5 balandas (whiteys), under the warden-ship of NAILSMA's Joe Morrison. There was no pre-prescribed, or ordained outcome, but the typical Igniting Change “come and have a gander, then let’s chat.”
The itinerary was crafted to expose the contrasts facing Aboriginal existence in the Top End. From the urban community of Bagot, a par 4 distance from Darwin’s casino, to the
remoteness of Maningrida township on the far north tip of Arnhem land, a common theme emerged: hope through fire.
Fire makes country. Country makes us. I am Country.
To look after you, us, me, them, Country must be looked after.
And fire, or its management by experienced indigenous rangers and TOs, looks after the land. Flora, fauna, man all dance the fire dance, choreographed to perfection over millennia. Fire encourages new growth; flushes out prey for food; and is the centerpiece of cultural identity.
In the last few decades, government managed burning was carried out at the expense of the culture and ecology known to local mobs. New-age science had neglected the wisdom of locals, burning large tracts of bush at the expense of delicate, at times invisible goings on. How could the policy-approving man in the white coat know such things from his plush, centrally heated lab in freezing cold Canberra?
Ironically, this ham-fisted bureaucracy has opened the door to the Kakadu mobs reclaiming their land physically. Whilst native title was established decades ago, resettlement had been a slower process. But with the injurious effects of the Parks’ burning policy plain to see, TOs and local rangers have been tasked to “nurse the country back to the way it’s meant to be”, reestablishing the lost harmony.
No where is this more apparent than Kakadu, where balanda burning left fallow lands lie next to the verdant paddocks of success of Aboriginal-controlled patchwork fire programs. Non-indigenous grasses have been largely destroyed, inviting back native flora which in turn brings the grubs, insects et al. These see the mass repatriation of wild birds.
This cycle is repeated in the waters of the park.
In the impossibly harsh backpost that is Maningrida, the 20-year Djelk Ranger program is testament to success of the old and new conjunct. With over 30 indigenous rangers on its books, armed with powerful i-tracker units, the men, women and junior rangers are able to manage their country using not only their innate knowledge, but record and archive the same for future generations on their hardy PDAs.
Be it feral animal control, planned burning, documenting rock art or ecosystem analysis, local youth (in the new Junior Ranger program) and men are being educated as stakeholders in their country.
And their remit extends offshore, where Djelk Rangers often do joint ops on Border Protection Command vessels against drug, animal and people smugglers. A recent capture of a shark fin vessel netted over 35 fins and little flesh, a travesty for the Bawinanga mob who believe in hunt-to-eat.
The contrasts littered our journey. From the impeccably clean and air-con’d offices of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (looking after the interests of the Mirra clan in Jabiru region), run by the alabaster-toned, ginger-haired Justin O’Brien, to the middle-of-nowhere border cafe serving Thai tucker. Not just any thai tucker, but perhaps the best this world-traversed scribe has eaten outside of Thailand itself.
Just beyond this Jabiru corporation’s shiny headquarters, the
local mob have built a shiny new upscale holiday park.
Employing local men learning new skill sets, the other takeaway from our trip is apparent: all good projects have a social agenda too.
Outcomes are measured in people, not just moolah.
In Maningrida the Babbarra Women’s Centre churns out an array of printed garments of elastic quality, but they’re learning & earning. And passing on the story, in art.
Likewise the rangers were, until the creation of the Djelk program, recognised passively as custodians of their country. With a little of aforementioned science, a lot of the traditional skills, their worth is not only measured by the health of their Bawinanga country, but the socio-profit of them mentoring the next generation.
Like all stories, there are dark underbellies in the region, rancid images of alcoholism, subterfuge and decay whose shadow eclipses all the good being done up here. I, a known half-empty, was overwhelmed by this good. Folk like Joe Morrison are getting on with it in their quiet, outcome-driven way. Mixing education and a healthy respect of the ways of the elders is reaping material and social rewards, the pinnacle of which is the Carbon Program where TOs burn country and get
paid for it!
There’s an importunate will to succeed driving the programmes, and it’s across all parties, from NAILSMA, to local members and TOs. And they know time’s on their side, because this country’s been here for eons and nursing it carefully will pay back plenty-fold.