Indigenous people impacted by bushfires

Megan Neil
Indigenous Australians were impacted greatly by the Black Summer bushfires, a royal commission heard

Almost 100,000 Indigenous people have been directly impacted by the Black Summer bushfires, says an expert who argues they have been ignored and often relegated to an historical footnote in previous fire inquiries.

The royal commission into the unprecedented 2019-20 bushfires has been told there is a growing recognition of the value of cultural burning and land management practices used by Indigenous Australians.

Australian National University researchers say the commission and governments should acknowledge that Aboriginal people have been erased and marginalised in previous bushfire disaster responses and inquiries.

"The reality is that this is an area that has been ignored and overlooked by consecutive post-disaster commissions and inquiries," Bhiamie Eckford-Williamson told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements on Thursday.

"They are often relegated to a historical footnote in the natural history of a landscape or spoken about through the specific and restrictive lens of cultural heritage management."

Research conducted by Mr Williamson and his colleagues focused on the bushfires that impacted NSW, Victoria, the ACT and the Jervis Bay Territory, where he said 96,000 Indigenous people were directly affected.

That represented 29 per cent of the combined Indigenous population of each state and territory, or 12 per cent of Australia's entire Indigenous population.

Mr Williamson said Indigenous people in the four jurisdictions were twice as likely to be impacted as non-Indigenous people.

It deeply affected their unique attachment to country, he said, noting Aboriginal people were inherently and forever tied to particular lands and waters.

"The impact of disasters such as the bushfires disrupt the attachment to lands and waters and deeply impacts the existence of Aboriginal peoples," Mr Williamson said.

"The destruction of landscape features, whether that be plant species, native animals or cultural heritage sites such as scar trees, rock art or stone arrangements, threatens Aboriginal groups as distinct cultural beings attached to the land."

Mr Williamson said cultural land management and the tool of cultural burning must be controlled by Aboriginal people.

It was not an add-on to the practices of non-Indigenous land management agencies, he said.

Academics and Indigenous land and fire practitioners argued there needs to be increased recognition of cultural land management, which were combining traditional practices with modern technology.

"Coming together now we're using obviously helicopters, leaf blowers, drip torches, all this new technology, but it's all founded on the principles of traditional knowledge," Kimberley Land Council deputy CEO Tyronne Garstone said.

"There really has to be an acknowledgement of this traditional knowledge and how that's brought to the forefront."

Deakin University researcher Timothy Neale said there are multiple ecological, social and economic benefits from cultural land management, and fuel load management was only one.

"Many land and fire agencies currently lack policies around cultural burning or partnership with Aboriginal groups," Dr Neale said.

The majority of cultural burning occurs in northern Australia, with 70 per cent of projects occurring in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia.