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The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project (WALFA)

The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project represents an important new way that skilled Indigenous fire managers in Australia’s fire-prone tropical savannas can work with the broader community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect culture and biodiversity on their country, and bring in social and economic benefits to their communities.

The project is a partnership between the Aboriginal Traditional Owners and Indigenous ranger groups, Darwin Liquefied Natural Gas (DLNG), the Northern Territory Government and the Northern Land Council. Through this partnership Indigenous Ranger groups are implementing strategic fire management across 28,000 km2 of Western Arnhem Land (yellow area in picture below), in Australia’s Northern Territory, to offset some of the greenhouse gas emissions from the Liquefied Natural Gas plant at Wickham Point in the city of Darwin.

WALFA overview map

The Arnhem Land Plateau (in yellow and orange) rises from the savanna lowlands (in green). Kakadu National Park covers part of the Western edge and the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project (outlined) covers most of the remainder of the Plateau.

The project is now reducing greenhouse gas emissions from this area by the equivalent of over 100,000 tonnes of CO2 each year. It does this by undertaking strategic fire management from early in the dry season to reduce the size and extent of unmanaged wildfires. Such practices are also helping to conserve environmental and cultural values in the project region - values equivalent to those in the adjacent World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.

In return Darwin LNG is paying the Indigenous fire managers around $1Million a year to provide this service – with this funding also bringing in new jobs, networks and educational opportunities to the region.

Cultural Heritage of Global Importance

The project is helping to revive Indigenous culture on the Arnhem Land Plateau. This is a living tradition involving various aspects of culture including rock wall painting and customary land management that extends back over tens of thousands of years. The thousands of rock art sites alone likely represent the world’s oldest continuing record of artistic endeavour – and the project is helping to protect some of these sites and other sites of cultural significance from the ravages of wildfire. To find out more see A rich culture in the menu at left.

Plant and animal species of international significance

The project is also helping to safeguard habitats of a rich assemblage of species of plants and animals – many of them unique to the plateau. Over millions of years the sandstone country has provided a stable environment that has allowed many species to evolve with adaptations. To find out more see Refuge for plants and animals in the menu at left.

Exodus and the age of wildfire

The destructive pattern of frequent wildfires in the plateau appears to date from several decades ago when Aboriginal people had largely left the region and the newly emptied landscape started being swept by large fires that had their origins in the more settled areas in the surrounding lowlands. This new fire pattern has had significant and severe consequences for cultural sites and plants and animals. It also has consequences for greenhouse gas emissions as this new fire regime likely emits significantly more of these gases than the fire patterns of the past. To find out more see The impact of wildfire in the menu at left.

Burning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

In these extensive, sparsely peopled landscapes that are naturally prone to burn every dry season, the most effective tool to prevent fire is fire itself. Aboriginal people have known this for a long time, and the idea of burning patchy fires and fire breaks in the early, cooler part of the dry season to prevent uncontrollable wildfires in the late, hotter part of the dry season is still a practical solution to managing wildfire today. Reducing the incidence of wildfire in this way can be shown to also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the region. To find out more see  Fire and greenhouse gases in the menu at left.

Reviving the Plateau using two tool kits

Traditional Indigenous methods of fire management worked well in the past when there were many groups on the plateau, today however, there are far fewer people who work in Indigenous Ranger groups, and the wildfire threat they need to manage is probably greater than it was in the past. To help them, modern Indigenous fire managers have added some useful items from the western tool kit: helicopters and aircraft help them put in fire breaks quickly over large areas and close-to-real time satellite data on the location of fires can be accessed over websites. Nor did Indigenous people in the past have to measure the amount of greenhouse gases abated because of their fire management, so today researchers are contracted to do this job. To find out more see Reviving the plateau in the menu at left.

What’s been achieved?

The first four years of the project have been remarkably successful, abating the equivalent of around 488,000 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide, or 122,000 tonnes a year –  ahead of the 100,000 tonnes a year the project is contracted to deliver. There has been a significant reduction in the incidence of destructive wildfires, however it will take some time to verify that this has produced a recovery in the status of threatened and declining species on the plateau. The fire management has involved over one hundred part-time jobs for Indigenous Rangers and others and has allowed many different ranger groups and communities to coordinate their activities and build regional collaboration. To find out more see What's been achieved? in the menu at left.

Where to from here?

The outcomes achieved by the West Arnhem Fire project have potential application across fire-prone tropical Australia and other fire-prone savannas of the tropics. Major companies are investigating the feasibility of entering into similar Greenhouse Gas offsets agreements using this approach. Governments and Indigenous land management groups are also looking to extend the practice of managing fire as an environmental service to other areas in fire-prone, biodiversity-rich, primarily Indigenously owned landscapes in northern Australia. To find out more see The Future in the menu at left.



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