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Listen to the people.

Indigenous Australians hold the answer after a summer of fires.

By Mauragh Scott

After raging on for 242 days, the fires in South-West Australia have finally, officially been brought under control due to heavy rain (however bushfires do go on around the whole country). Despite the majority of the catastrophe being over, this issue is far from fixed. For one, bushfire season is an annual occurrence in Australia and so this is not a one-time event and secondly, these fires are just one of many physical examples of the environmental effects caused by destructive human actions, that needs to stop.

Ultimately, the current absence of these fires should not allow us to ignore the very clear message that they represented; that the Australian government should change its approach to the environment and allow Indigenous knowledge to come to the forefront of this discussion in order to protect the environment long-term.

Despite these bushfires being a yearly occurrence in the Australian environment, this past year has been reported to have seen the worst bushfire on record, with 33 people dead, habitats destroyed, and an estimated 1 billion animals killed. This is an event which has had huge significance in Australia - an environmental genocide. However, just because bushfires are natural does not mean nature is fully to blame. There is no doubt that without human interference on the environment that this would have led to the same results.

In the case of Australia, it is not just climate change causing an increase in devastating natural disasters, but the continual dismissal by their government of Indigenous ecological knowledge that is right under their nose. Since the colonialization of Australia, Indigenous knowledge has been dismissed in the discussions held by the majority, despite Indigenous Australians living within this land for 60,000 years. Colonisers have dismissed and forbade Indigenous ecological practices, such as Indigenous fire management, through the implementation of ‘Burning laws.’ These laws excluded Indigenous Australians from their later farming practices, as well as their culture. The cultural genocide of Indigenous Australians still has an enormous effect today, both socially and ecologically.

However, hopefully the Australian government has learnt from this summer’s bushfires, that not all environments are meant to be treated in the same way. It’s time to retire such ill-fitting colonial outlooks on the Indigenous Australians fire management schemes, and listen. Indigenous fire practices are complex and require great skill; such as reading trees, soil types and wind conditions to gain an intimate relationship with their landscape, far better than the current approach. Environmental management is a region-specific art so turning to Indigenous communities for their knowledge is naturally the right way forward.

In fact, many Indigenous Australians are making these important arguments to the Australian government right now. They argue the importance of not just putting out these fires after they start, but that they need to prevent them from occurring to such a severity, altogether. Despite the evidence, the Australian government has been extremely limited in their approach to appreciate or even to acknowledge Indigenous ecological knowledge. This needs to change. The government needs to appreciate these practices, as well as apologise and make amends for the horrific treatment the Indigenous Australians have endured during and since colonisation. This should be the start of the long and much needed journey to recognize Indigenous communities’ contributions, knowledge, and a chance to make retributions to right previous wrongs.

Ultimately, there is an urgent need to act now. These fires have shown that the way the Australian governments past, and present treatments of the environment is failing drastically. Indigenous Australians have always been and continue to be the most knowledgeable on looking after their home land. Listening and embracing Indigenous environmental knowledge, whilst also giving these communities more rights will contribute to finally saving the environment.