29 May 2017

Indigenous fire management

Indigenous knowledge and practices are increasingly recognized and incorporated by non-Indigenous governments, businesses, and others into their own projects. While these engagements may often take the form of cultural appropriation or theft, we also see collaborations that generate benefits for allproduce new shared knowledge and opportunities, as well as new questions and tensions.

Prescribed Burn in High Park, Toronto, Canada
In the news recently we read about local governments in Australia and Toronto, Canada incorporating Indigenous fire-management into forestry management. Known in forestry management as "asset burns" or "prescribed burns," these selective and controlled burns of dried vegetation in savannah ecosystems help to reduce dry-season wildfires. In Australia, "Indigenous rangers are collaborating with Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife rangers in Nitmiluk National Park to manage its savanna burning program, in an Australian-first agreement." This collaboration helps park and Indigenous rangers protect cultural artefacts like rock art in these areas, as well as creating carbon credits.

Historically, in the area that is today the City of Toronto's High Park, "Indigenous groups maintained fires when hunting and clearing riparian areas. European settlers suppressed the fires from the 1870s to 2000 due to safety concerns as houses were built in closer proximity to the park." In recent years, prescribed burns have been reincorporated into the human-plant relationship in this park, opening up space for anthropological interrogations of these relationships.

Anthropologist Natasha Myers's current project with Ayelen Liberona, "Becoming Sensor in Sentient Worlds" explores the possibilities of decolonizing ecology in urban park sites like Toronto's High Park. They write
Fire is of course not just a “natural” force; people all over the world use fire to sculpt lands. Oak savannahs depend on people with knowledge of fire and the skills to care for the lands. Toronto’s remnant black oak savannahas, including those in High Park, are millennia in-the-making.  These lands are the traditional territories of the Wendat, the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe Nations. Toronto stands on the lands of the Mississauga’s of the Credit River. Indigenous peoples cared for this land with fire for millennia before colonization. Many thousands of Indigenous and M├ętis peoples live and move through this region today.
Oak savannahs do not survive without people. After years of settlers’ grazing sheep and lawn mowers, Toronto’s Urban Forestry team have brought back the fires in an effort to save the oak savannahs.  Here “nature” is valued more than the Indigenous cultures that gave this land its contours and significance. In this sense, restoration efforts participate in an ongoing colonial project that continues to enforce the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands. Can we do ecology otherwise?
How do these examples of Indigenous ways of caring for the plant-people relationship suggest other ways for thinking about "nature" and "natural environments"? How might these examples contribute to or provoke classroom discussions about systemic inequality, epistemology, and decolonization?

Quick links and further reading: