a man tending a controlled burn on a grassland
Fire Down Under An aboriginal ranger starts an early dry season controlled burn on the Arnhem Land of Australia's Northern Territory. This fire was set during the early part of the dry season so it would burn cooler, emit less carbon, then a similar fire during the late dry season would produce. The fire is also set to remove fuel from areas close to traditional aboriginal rock art sites. The Nature Conservancy is working with and supporting both Australian government and non-government organizations in assisting the indigenous people of the Northern Territory to preserve and manage their native homelands. © Ted Wood

Climate Change Stories

Fighting fire with fire

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The smart use of fire for huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions

Sounds weird, doesn’t it?  Burning off to reduce emissions. But that’s exactly what’s going on across many parts of Australia.

For tens of thousands of years, Australian flora and fauna evolved in the presence of fire, indeed they depend on it for regrowth and regeneration. Much of this fire was lit by Indigenous Australians who – for at least 50,000 years – lit small fires as they moved around the landscape. This helped them hunt for food, clear pathways and regenerate the bush.

With European settlement came a change to the traditional Indigenous way of life, and burning was interrupted. These fire regimes in concert with waves of invasive species resulted in the dramatic decline of small mammal species as well as some bird, reptile, amphibian and plant species.

Without regular people-lit fires in the cooler months, dry grass builds up and provides fuel for much bigger bushfires caused by lightning at other times of the year. These hotter, larger fires have a devastating effect on vegetation and animals in their path, and they release huge volumes of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. This is a very bad outcome for climate change.

Fighting Fire with Fire See how we’re working with the Kimberley Land Council to restore traditional fire practices on country.

Indigenous partnerships

We recognise that Indigenous people own or have rights over 70% of the land in northern Australia. The Nature Conservancy is helping establish a resilient and inclusive conservation economy that supports long-term sustainable land management and the wellbeing of people that depend on their land.

Working with Indigenous partners, we combine traditional ecological knowledge with the latest in fire science to help deliver fire programs across vast areas of Australia. Indigenous rangers in northern and central Australia set strategically placed smaller fires at the right time of year, which burn cool and low. This recreates the mosaic pattern of burning that occurred prior to European settlement, which supports a wider diversity of wildlife and quells raging hot season wildfires.

We work across the vast tropical savanna landscapes of northern Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, covering more than 130 million hectares. This area of high biodiversity has more than half of Australia’s bird species and around one third of its mammal species.

The Nature Conservancy's fire program history

The northern Australian program was largely focused on scale-up of successful initiatives. Fom 2003, our aim was to build conservation partners’ capacity and resources to achieve common conservation objectives. We co-funded the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Bush Heritage Australia to purchase and manage eight properties across northern Australia, including properties such as Wongalara Station and Yourka Reserve.

Then in 2007 we shifted our focus to provide more support to Indigenous groups, triggered by a workshop with Indigenous leaders from across northern Australia. We supported several groups to establish and manage Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs), in combination with Australian Government funding. These initial programs of property acquisition and declaration of IPAs helped achieve better representation of protected areas and local conservation outcomes.

Managed correctly, fire can have huge benefits for people and nature, including tackling climate change.

Outback Manager

Creating conservation dollars from carbon

Through this improved burning, Indigenous groups can demonstrate that they reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. This generates what’s called a ‘carbon credit’ where one less tonne of carbon dioxide emitted equals one carbon credit.

In 2018 we have helped take the equivalent of 183,000 cars off the road for an entire year through Indigenous Ranger programs to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions.

If another organisation wants to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions but can’t, it can instead purchase these carbon credits off someone else. The Australian Government also acquires these credits through the Emissions Reduction Fund to help meet Australia’s 2020 emissions reduction targets. The sale of carbon credits by Indigenous groups thereby generates income, which is applied to conservation land management. It’s a win for everyone.

This work has prevented hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere by changing fire management across many millions of hectares—the equivalent of taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road—while generating millions of dollars in revenue for ongoing conservation work at locations like Fish River Station.

Places we help protect

Supporting Indigenous people to manage their land for conservation.

  • celebrating the launch of the Walalakoo Healthy Country Plan

    Fitzroy River, Western Australia

    Tucked in the Kimberley region of far north Western Australia. Fitzroy River runs through the rugged and beautiful traditional Country of the Nyikina and Mangala people. Learn more

  • These birds benefit from our work in northern Australia including at Fish River Station.

    Fish River Station, Northern Territory

    A vast 180,000 hectare property with exceptionally diverse habitats including savanna woodlands, rain forests and floodplains. Learn more

  • is an endangered species surviving in small isolated populations in Australia

    Western Desert, Western Australia

    A past project in Martu Country. It's a place of global conservation significance, rich in biodiversity and cultural value, spanning an area twice the size of Tasmania. Learn more

  • Outback South Australia

    Arabana Country, South Australia

    A past project to help protect the springs in Arabana Country. An oasis for local wildlife and migratory birds. They’re also extremely important to Indigenous people for many thousands of years. Learn more

We would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Land we help to conserve and pay respect to the Elders both past and present.