At the height of the fire crisis over the New Year an Aboriginal elder, who had evacuated from Lakes Entrance to Bairnsdale in Victoria, joined other evacuees in registering for emergency relief. But he was told by a St Vincent de Paul staffer that the agency had “helped enough of your people today”, given a $20 fuel voucher and told not to tell other Aboriginal people about it. The elder walked out, humiliated, and asked his niece to return the voucher.
The racist incident first emerged in a Facebook post by a young Aboriginal man, Philip Stewart. Other First Nations people have reported other experiences of racism from welfare agencies. St Vincent de Paul has since apologised to the elder’s family.
The unprecedented bush fires across several states over the New Year period have burnt at least 8.4 million hectares and many are still burning out of control. Indigenous communities have been hard hit, losing homes and community service centres.
Oppressed and marginalised communities always suffer disproportionately from such catastrophes. In this one, First Nations’ communities not only have to deal with racism in seeking emergency relief, they will have less private resources with which to recover.
But these communities also have, and are continuing to play, a powerful role in fighting the fires and organising relief. The Wreck Bay Rural Fire Service (RFS) Brigade on the NSW South Coast is one example. All but two of their 28-person crew are First Nations people, according to an ABC interview with brigade officer Kaylene McLeod.
Indigenous firefighters have also been active on fire fronts in the Blue Mountains and the NSW RFS has recently created two new all-Indigenous firefighting crews based in the state’s west.
In Victoria, an all-Indigenous, all-woman Country Fire Association brigade has been defending the Lake Tyers peninsula. The brigade is headed by Charmaine Sellings, a 52-year-old grandmother of three. According to the January 7 Women’s Weekly, the women are also the “backbone of the remote Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust, a self-governing Aboriginal community”.
Another volunteer Aboriginal firefighter, who has been fighting the fires for weeks, is author Bruce Pascoe. His best-selling book Dark Emu, which explores how racist colonial writers buried information about sophisticated Indigenous land management and farming and fishing technologies, has radically reshaped our understanding of pre-colonial Aboriginal societies.
The fire crisis has prompted more people to look to traditional Aboriginal land management practices, including cultural burning, for clues about how to ameliorate future fire emergencies.
There is a growing understanding that First Nations communities’ strong traditions of collectivity and working with country shows a way forward.
However, right-wing commentators and ideologues are hell-bent on rolling this progressive development back and they have picked on Pascoe, viciously attacking his book and Aboriginal identity.
Right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt is playing a key role, as is conservative Aboriginal lawyer and businesswoman Josephine Cashman, a member of PM Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National government's hand-picked Indigenous advisory group. Cashman wrote to home affairs minister Peter Dutton last December asking for an investigation of Pascoe for “dishonesty offences” because she disputed his claims to Indigenous ancestry. Dutton has now asked the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to investigate.
While the AFP has yet to contact Pascoe, the News Corp empire has been pushing the slander against Pascoe as part of its new climate culture war over how to understand and respond to the fire emergency.
Climate culture war
Behind this are powerful corporate interests that want Australia to continue its criminal role as the third largest fossil fuel exporter in the world.
They have been desperately trying to convince us that the fire emergency is not a result of climate change, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. They are deploying a social media campaign — #ArsonEmergency — to blame the fires on “arsonists” and racism to propagate this lie.
The right’s new culture war is also about justifying the push by state and federal Coalition governments to allow logging in national parks and the roll-back of ecological land clearing regulations.
Murdoch columnist Miranda Devine opined that the fire emergency could have been avoided with more land clearing. “I’m sorry, but I lived in Australia through the past two decades of escalating fire crises and it’s not climate change that has caused today’s disaster, but the criminal negligence of governments that have tried to buy green votes by locking up vast tracts of land as national parks, yet failed to spend the money needed to control ground fuel and maintain fire trails.”
First Nations fire management experts, such as the Firesticks Alliance, are arguing for a different approach to managing fire. “Cultural burning can include burning or prevention of burning of Country for the health of particular plants and animals such as native grasses, emu, black grevillea, potoroo, bushfoods, threatened species or biodiversity in general. It may involve patch burning to create different fire intervals across the landscape or it could be used for fuel and hazard reduction. “
Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen said last November that he been warning about a bushfire crisis for years, and it was due to long-term land mismanagement.
Oliver Costello, chief executive of the Firesticks Alliance, explained to PA Media journalist Megan Baynes that, while traditional Aboriginal fire management does involve setting fires at regular intervals, these are smaller and cooler burns than the standard official hazard reduction practices.
“New methods of hazard reduction involve planned burns that remove as much vegetation as possible. However, although this method is reminiscent of Aboriginal fire practice, unlike hazard reduction burning, cultural burns are cooler and slower-moving — usually no taller than knee height. Tree canopies are left untouched and animals are given time to take refuge from the flames.”
“Cultural burning”, however, also requires practitioners to have strong cultural connections to the land including being on country, learning by observation and sharing information to understand best when is the right time to burn. This has to take into account the breeding seasons of animals and plant cycles, not just the weather.
This approach does not fit with the private ownership of land, a system which allows nature to be pillaged. From the point of view of powerful vested interests, this approach is unacceptable and this is why the right’s new culture war has traditional Aboriginal land management in its sights.