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From legless tigers to a new carbon economy

Dr Luke Preece gives a personal account of his conservation journey.

The Nature Conservancy’s Dr Luke Preece grew up in the Northern Territory, where he developed a strong passion for nature and the environment. With a PhD in forest conservation strategies in the Lower Mekong, Luke has extensive experience in natural resource management. Here he turns his hand to storytelling, inspired as much by a memory from a decade ago in Southeast Asia, as his current experiences as TNC’s Northern Australia Conservation Officer.

October 2007, Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, western Cambodia

Stopping at a spectacular viewpoint on the side of a bumpy hillside road, we looked over what appeared to be a pristine beautiful forested mountain. A forest, I heard, that still contained tigers, elephants, primates and a high diversity of plants. As I stepped out of the car to take a photo, my guide, a local ranger employed by the Ministry of Environment said to me, “Just don’t step off the side of the road – there are land mines.”

Yikes! “Ok,” I told myself, “that’s worth noting.” I’d heard of the horrible atrocities that had happened in this part of Cambodia. Just eight years earlier, our guide had been fighting with the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese in the hills nearby. The remaining land mines from that war are just as likely to blow the legs off a tiger as a local villager trying to eke out a living in the fields or the forest. It’s a sobering reminder that this landscape –  and all of its inhabitants – have been irrevocably changed by human conflict.

A photo Luke took while standing next to land mines (in Cambodia)

Wild youth sows the seeds for a lifetime love affair with nature

Growing up, I always had a strong connection with nature. As a kid, I frequently travelled to remote and wild places with my parents while they worked. I’d been to the deserts of central Australia, the savannas and wetlands of northern Australia, the reefs of the Indian Ocean and the rainforests of Southeast Asia. I learnt how important these places are; how beautiful and fascinating they are to scientists and tourists alike; and how deeply spiritual they are to the indigenous people who live there.

So on leaving school, I decided to study botany and ecology at university, to learn more about the natural world. At the time, I didn’t understand why the places I loved were being lost or why they were changing. Being an ecologist was fun, but that wasn’t enough for me – I needed to ‘do’ something to make a difference. So I took up studies in International Development, which eventually merged into a PhD on the relationship between biodiversity conservation and livelihoods development in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

In my time in these Lower Mekong countries I learned about the enormously complex and fascinating role that history, culture, politics, social relationships, governance and global economic forces play in conserving nature and the things that people value. I found that nature conservation is a social, cultural and political endeavour as much as it is ecological. The environment itself is moulded by the relationship that people have with nature, and this relationship is changing.

Northern Australia – a decade later

Stepping forward to northern Australia in 2016, these forces are no less important. Indigenous people have a deep connection to country, along with cultural relationships, beliefs and an understanding of the intricate ways that plants and animals respond to management. These cultures and knowledge systems themselves are threatened in many places, having been the victim of colonisation and massive social change over the past couple of hundred years.

Not only do Indigenous communities have a disrupted past and culture, they live with huge disadvantage compared to metropolitan Australia. Statistics tell us of the limited literacy and numeracy skills and negatively impacted wellbeing of the people of remote northern Australia. What statistics don’t mention is the enormous will, drive and in-built skills these people have to manage their country. Yes, funds are needed to help them put these skills to use, but more than that, a change in approach is needed too.

Luke and his son inspect a cool season burn in northern Australia

Connections are everything

It’s inspiring to see how much people value natural places and for so many reasons. Outside Indigenous-managed country, people travel from far and wide to see Australia’s natural landscape and connect with the people living there. Students head out to volunteer on country to connect with and research nature. Donors and corporations provide money to enhance ecosystem services and protect plants and animals. Each of these groups do a lot better when partnering with Indigenous groups to manage country.

But country is changing and change can be frightening. People fear change in their comfortable ways of life, their long-standing practices, their knowledge or in the loss of species and ecosystems that we all depend on. While change is inevitable and at times natural, the change in climate that is happening so quickly (in ecological terms) has devastating potential effects for northern Australia that are truly frightening.

Credit where (carbon) credit’s due

As countries seek to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to combat this climate change, a new opportunity has emerged in northern Australia in the form of carbon farming.  For thousands of years, Indigenous Australians moved through the savannas of northern Australia, burning as they went, helping them to travel, hunt and gather, and creating effective fire breaks.  These smaller, cooler fires early in the dry season help to prevent large hot fires later in the year.

Traditional fire management also helps to solve a very modern problem:  cooler burns release much less nitrous oxide and methane, which are potent greenhouse gases.  By reducing these emissions Indigenous groups can create carbon credits, which are sold to generate a source of sustainable finance to manage their lands. The funds are of benefit to the groups by enabling them to get out on country, share their knowledge of the land, build relationships and improve their organisations.

Success in new economies such as this require new – and sometimes unusual – partnerships between Indigenous people, governments, philanthropists and corporations.  An example is the leading global private bank Credit Suisse, which is supporting this new economy by investing in measures to help communities test, evaluate and improve their land management activities.

Out of fear comes opportunity

So with the fear of a global change in climate and the environment, comes a positive opportunity. An economy built around a low-carbon future can provide funds to Indigenous people to manage fire on their lands. This innovative arrangement has attracted investment in the science and social capacity building to enable this new economy to flourish. The added finances provide an opportunity to connect people to the invaluable places that they manage, and give hope to enhance their culture and the environment in a new conservation-oriented economy.

So while Indigenous rangers are demonstrating that they can manage fire and their lands for the benefit of their communities and others, it begs the question: what other environmental services could Indigenous land managers be paid for? What other sources of sustainable funding might be found for Indigenous communities to look after their country for benefits we can all enjoy?

Exploring this question is one of the great thrills for me in working at The Nature Conservancy.

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