The Australian Government-spearheaded International Savanna Fire Management Initiative (ISFMI), in partnership with the Botswana Government, recently launched its Botswana pilot project, centered around two pilot sites currently experiencing a high frequency of destructive wildfires.
We had the honour of facilitating, and logistically supporting, an important component of the ISFMI crew's activity schedule last month: the first-ever cultural exchange between Aboriginal Australians and Southern Africa's San (Bushmen), which took the form of a visit by Aboriginal "fire rangers" and their supervisors from the Kimberley region of Northern Australia, to the remote Ju/hoansi San community of /Oabatsha, west of Tsodilo Hills (Northwest District).
Although living worlds apart, the Aboriginal people of Australia and the San of Southern Africa, are connected to one-another by virtue of their hunter-gatherer cultural origins and their traditional fire management knowledge. And interestingly, their techniques for making fire by friction are virtually identical. Indeed it is such shared ancient knowledge that is fundamental to the effectiveness of the ISFMI.
The ISFMI has achieved global success in its project areas by reducing wildfire-related carbon emissions by up to 50%, thereby rehabilitating the biodiversity of the affected areas, improving food security, and creating opportunities for local employment through carbon market opportunities.
Now rapidly gaining recognition as an important intervention in efforts to combat man-made climate change, the ISFMI has essentially modeled its approach to fire suppression on the ancient knowledge systems of the Aboriginal hunter-gatherer communities of Australia. For thousands of years, the Aboriginal people of Australia - just like the San of Africa - have implemented rotational early winter burning ("cool fires") between April and June. This is done to reduce combustible dry fuel loads, thereby suppressing the conditions that lead to the outbreak of large and very intense, late dry season "hot fires" (September to December). Many deciduous plants redistribute their energy reserves in the late dry season towards the exposed outer growing meristems (e.g. flower and leaf buds), which may be activated before any rains fall, thus rendering them particularly vulnerable to heat damage. The emerging trend in recent years in Northern Botswana of heat extremes coupled with delays in the start of the rainy season has exacerbated the level of damage being done to Botswana woodlands.
Once also plagued by frequent, destructive wildfires, the Australian Government has only in recent years realized that conventional methods for fire suppression, centered around complete intolerance of all forms of fire, have failed dismally to bring wildfires under control. It has come to light that the revival of traditional Aboriginal burning practices, which it had outlawed decades ago following the colonization of Australia, is in fact essential to maintaining the health and vigour of savanna landscapes. These landscapes have long adapted to the presence of hunter-gatherers and their rotational land use systems and the anthropogenic effects span many thousands of years. The territorial land use systems implemented by the hunter-gatherers also included the use of fire to maintain the diversity and productivity of the biotic components on which their survival ultimately depended.
In a similar sense, the ISFMI project will also be reviving the traditional knowledge systems of the San as a key strategy in guiding burning programmes that will reduce the frequency of the intense, destructive fires that have become common-place. It represents a vital opportuntity to start reversing many years of progressivley accumulating environmental damage, characterised widespread loss of tree cover, decline in spevies richness, and deterioration in the wild plant food supplies on which the San and others still depend for their health and well-being.