The global potential of indigenous fire management: how ancient practice is contributing to emissions reductions, biodiversity and sustainable development worldwide

The global potential of indigenous fire management:  how ancient practice is contributing to emissions reductions, biodiversity and sustainable development worldwide

Sam JOHNSTON (Australia)

United Nations University

Wildfires affect every region of the world.   Reported losses generated by wildfires over the past decade (2002–2011) were on average US$2.4 billion per year.   NASA predicts that global fire activity could increase by between 5 and 35% by 2100 and that most of these increases will take place in these fire dependent landscapes (see   The history of fire dependant landscapes around the world is remarkably similar.  Originally all of these landscapes were dominated by fire regimes that were actively managed by the indigenous people by lighting low-intensity, early dry season fires to create fire breaks and prevent the build up of fuel, which minimised later dry season destructive wildfires.  With colonisation by Europeans of these landscapes the fire management activities of indigenous people were supressed for a variety of reasons.   In Northern Australia, Aboriginal people have managed land for generations by using traditional fire management (TFM).  The first project to use TFM to generate carbon credits was the Western Arnhem Land Fire Agreement (WALFA) that started in 2006.  There are now over 35 TFM projects that have been approved in Australia, with 14 either indigenous owned or have significant indigenous involvement.  The application of TFM has also generated substantial additional or co-benefits including creating market based jobs in remote and vulnerable communities, improving biodiversity, reinvigorating culture, improving food security and health. With support from the Government of Australia and a range of partners, UNU has undertaken a two year detailed assessment of the feasibility of transferring savanna burning “technology” to Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Initiative has concluded that methodology for measuring the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions could be adapted to many other fire dependant landscapes around the world and could lead to reductions of wildfire emissions by as much as a half, reducing global greenhouse emissions by more than 1GtCO2e/year.   It also concluded that this technology represents an important – in many cases the only viable – adaptation mechanism to the increased wildfire predicted to occur as a result of climate change. The Initiative confirmed strong interest in the technology in many key countries, including in Indonesia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, Myanmar, Cambodia, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Madagascar, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala and Belize. Indigenous people, philanthropic organisations and companies such as ConocoPhillips, INPEX and BHP Billiton are also interested in this technology.  In many of these countries there is interest, readiness and a strong desire to begin immediate on the ground practical work.



Head of the Traditional Knowledge Initiative and Senior Research Fellow, United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability

Other positions I currently hold are:-

• Senior Fellow, Faculty of Law, University of Melbourne;

• Member of the Advisory Board of the Centre for Resources, Energy and Environmental Law, University of Melbourne;

• Member of the IUCN Environmental Law Commission;

• Member of the Indigenous Experts Forum on Sustainable Economic Development; and

• Member of the Panel of Experts for the Benefit-sharing Fund of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic resources for Food and Agriculture.

I have previously been an Expert Reviewer of the Synthesis Report (SYR) of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5); a member of the International Reference Group of the World Indigenous Network; Advisory Board of the Indigenous Knowledge Forum, University of Technology, Sydney and a Senior Visiting Fellow at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo, Japan.

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