'Smoke money' offers an unexpected way forward for Indigenous communities

A ranger conducting fire management work. Photo: Claire Thompson, via Bush Heritage
A ranger conducting fire management work. Photo: Claire Thompson, via Bush Heritage

Not long after dawn has broken over Murwangi, a patient crocodile hides in the shade near a plump of unsuspecting ducks, and the barramundi seem eager to bite every time Peter Djigirr and Marley Djangirr toss their lures into the billabong.

"Magpie geese, [long and short-necked] turtles, we've got all this tucker here," Djigirr says, soon after heaving half a dozen fish out of the tinny onto dry land. "That's why we need this swamp ... and need it to be healthy."

The two rangers are part of an ambitious 10-year plan for the Yolngu people inhabiting the Arafura Swamp region of eastern Arnhem Land. It aims to wrest back control over traditional lands in ways that also restore health and pride to Top End Indigenous communities.

Relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are arguably entering a sensitive period. Late last month, the Turnbull government rejected calls for a constitutionally enshrined First Nations voice - a move that sent shockwaves through Indigenous communities nationwide. This week, the Anangu traditional owners won a long-sought victory by securing the closure of Uluru to climbers by 2019.

But across northern Australia, an odd confluence of global and local environmental economics is supplying funds that offer promise of a positive transformation.

Feral buffalo damaging the Arafura Swamp region. Photo: Daniel Hartley-Allen

Feral buffalo damaging the Arafura Swamp region. Photo: Daniel Hartley-Allen

For Arafura Swamp, for instance; virtually all the funds for the local corporation driving the Healthy Country Plan, are derived from "smoke money" - the tradeable Australian Carbon Credit Units generated by carefully planned and executed early-season savannah burning.

By burning at the start of the dry season, much bigger fires are largely avoided, resulting in reduced carbon emissions. This saving is recognised under Commonwealth carbon abatement programs, including the Emissions Reduction Fund set up by the Abbott-Turnbull government to replace Labor's carbon price.

"It's a beautiful example of Indigenous knowledge practically developed into a market and an industry," Jennier Ansell, chief executive of Arnhem Land Fire Abatement. "It's been an incredibly important source of income."

The non-profit group manages credits for the Arafura Swamp region and its neighbours in an area covering 80,000 square kilometres, or bigger than Tasmania.

ALFA has contracts for 1.8 million ACCUs, including net abatement of 830,000 tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent in 2016, the best year yet.

'Cool burning'

The benefits of the managed burning, though, potentially go far beyond supplying money to remote areas ranging from the Kimberley in the west, across the Top End, and northern Queensland.

"Cool burning" doesn't come cheap. In 2016, for instance, rangers and traditional owners covered some 50,000 kilometres in helicopters, dropping incendiaries, while those using matches and drip torches travelled at 26,000 kilometres on foot, quad bike, four-wheel drive or other transport, ALFA says.

"We also take the tractor, and put a tracker [device] on, so our manager knows," says Djangirri, who is one of two women on the board of the Arafura Swamp Rangers Aboriginal Corp.

Rangers crossing some savannah land burned during the recent dry season in Arafura Swamp. Photo: Peter Hannam

Rangers crossing some savannah land burned during the recent dry season in Arafura Swamp. Photo: Peter Hannam

Biodiversity is helped because the risk is reduced of devastating "hot burns" that can destroy forests and open up the country more to invasive weeds such as mimosa.

The extra funds also support programs culling feral animals, such as wild buffalo, cattle and pigs that were introduced by the "Balanda" - the common word for Europeans.

The swamp is considered unique in its size and range of relatively intact wetlands in the Northern Territory, with the paperbark forests kept well-watered through the dry season by springs along the Goyder River.

Large black-necked stork, also known as jabiru, can be seen stalking along the edges of billabongs - as one did during this writer's recent visit - while the region also supports huge flocks of waterbirds of international significance in numbers and variety.

'Waste Lands'

But the significance of the "smoke money" potentially goes much further if the objectives of ASRAC's 2017-2027 Healthy Country Plan can be achieved.

The program was compiled with help from Bush Heritage - a conservation group founded by former Greens leader Bob Brown - and Charles Darwin University.

Marine rangers off Arafura Swamp, in east Arnhem Land. Photo: Peter Hannam

Marine rangers off Arafura Swamp, in east Arnhem Land. Photo: Peter Hannam

While highlighting the need to reconnect Yolngu with their lore and the land it is based on, it also seeks to address some of the challenges that have bedevilled the region.

For instance, one of 11 identified threats is "Balanda rules [are] always changing", a problem ASRAC hopes to counter with "good governance" and funding sources including carbon credits and a crocodile hatchery.

The wording, though, masks waves of trauma that began in 1842 when, unbeknownst to the Yolngu, the "Australian Colonies, Waste Lands Act" was passed, handing their land over to European pastoralists.

By 1861,Yolngu men moving south of the Roper River were made to "wear a tin plate slung around their neck. Anyone not wearing a plate was simply shot," author Richard Trudgen, wrote in his book Why warriors lie down and die, quoting an earlier work.

Trudgen's book details what he calls four "pastoral wars", beginning in 1885 and extending into the 1930s, that are little known in modern day Australia but are keenly remembered in Arnhem Land today.

That 1885 contact began when pastoralist J.A. Macartney tried to set up the Florida station at Murwangi - now the site of an upmarket tourist camp beside the billabong where rangers Djigirr or Djangirr were fishing.

"White people come and destroy all our bush tucker," says Djigirr, who acted and co-directed the 2006 Ten Canoes drama filmed in the Arafura Swamp.

'Be careful of these people'

Otto Campion, ASRAC chairman, says the corporation "is already thinking of putting some of our history from our first European contact" in a form visitors can appreciate as part of potential cultural tourism plans.

Campion speaks delicately of how Yolngu spearing cattle "got trouble" for his people, noting his own clan has a site "where people got shot".

Marley Djangirr, a ranger at the billabong near Murwangi station. Photo: Peter Hannam

Marley Djangirr, a ranger at the billabong near Murwangi station. Photo: Peter Hannam

The killing of members of western clans prompted them to flee. "Some people rushed to the escarpment, and left the evidence" in the form of paintings.

"The rock art was telling the story: 'Be careful of these people - they are coming and they have rifles'," Campion says.

"After fighting and dropping the population [Campion's forefathers] realised they had to stop," Campion says of the time when Yolngu realised they had no choice but to end resistance and seek protection from missionaries.

"If the missionaries hadn't stepped in, they wouldn't exist any more," Trudgen tells Fairfax Media.

International traders

Trudgen - who has worked with local communities for three decades and is fluent in the region's lingua franca, Yolngu Matha - is blunt in his description of how some Yolngu think of Balanda.

They consider Europeans as "cretin, lawless people" for their past murder of women and children and the seizure of their lands without consultation.

"The Aborigines would have been much better off if they had been colonised by Asians," Trudgen says, pointing to centuries of amicable trading between Arnhem Land and Makassar (now Ujung Padang on Sulawesi island in Indonesia).

The Makassans came each year for trepang, a highly sought-after sea slug that grows about 10-15 centimetres. In return, they brought fish hooks and line, and other objects that the Yolngu on-traded into central Australia.

As Trudgen notes in his book, the South Australian government - which then ran Northern Territory affairs - effectively banned the trade in 1906 without telling the Yolngu. (Part of the grief was that some Yolngu clansmen lived in Makassar and could never return.)

Lost for words

Trudgen has campaigned for governments to translate their policies in Yolngu Marta - so more the 8000-odd speakers can understand - and other Indigenous languages.

He cites the example of the slow response to efforts to cut petrol sniffing when lead was one of the toxic components. Interviews he conducted with about 250 adults found "not one person knew what lead was, even though they had their own name for it" thanks to the Makassan trade, Trudgen says.

More recently, the intervention - introduced by the Howard government to address allegations of widespread child abuse - has fostered an unintended erosion of discipline within Indigenous communities, he says.

"They had trouble with the word 'abuse'," Trudgen says. People think "they can no longer discipline children or they'll end up in jail".

Signs of social strains were evident even on the recent whirlwind visit. Outside the main store in Ramingining, the main town in the Arafura Swamp region, youth were gathered in the shade, drinking soft drink, and some of them smoking.

On chart on the wall of the store noted "Ramo's" school attendance goal was 90 per cent, compared with a 72 per cent target for Arnhem Region.

Week two of term four, though, showed just 55 per cent attendance on the Monday for the local school, dropping each day to below 40 per cent by Friday.

Bridging the divide

Campion, the ASRAC chairman, hopes his organisation will be able to step up junior ranger training that will give students more of a connection between students' education and the culture and life around them.

"We want to set up a program so that everybody knows traditional burning," he says, adding they shouldn't have to get a letter from the principal excusing their absence. "It should be part of their education."

Bush Heritage, which elsewhere in Australia has made strategic purchases of properties to boost conservation, is providing help in the form of staff and other assistance for ASRAC.

Solomon O'Ryan, a ranger for 16 years, understands better than most the challenges of bridging the cultural divide.

Born of a white Tasmanian father and a Yolngu woman, O'Ryan was brought from Darwin - about 460 kilometres to the west - to his mother's community when he was 11.

Conversations with O'Ryan flow without a ripple between descriptions of Dreaming legends and Western ways.

"The shark started from the east, heading to the west, and got injured half-way by another spiritual being. This is where he came to rest," he says, standing beside a small lake that is a sacred site for his mother's clan.

With his ranger's hat on - actually a "Hawks" cap, reflecting his love as a player and fan of the Hawthorn AFL team - O'Ryan points out the damage down by feral animals such as cattle.

"It used to have many water lilies, now it's just dirty water," he says. "May be in the future we can get it back to its original state."

Back to country

The appeal of the Healthy Country Plan for O'Ryan is also that it gives people "a reason to get back on country again", he says.

"What we're looking at now is everyone in town, relying on a job to go to the shop," he says. "No one relies on the bush to get the food."

The plan also has the advantage of telling the outside world the Arafura Swamp clans are ready to take more control of their lives. ASRAC is seeking independence from the Northern Land Council, and the current funding for about 11 rangers, by the first half of 2018.

"People are keen to separate out," says Dominic Nicholls, chief executive of ASRAC, noting "it wouldn't have been viable to set up the corporation without 'smoke money'".

That flow of carbon funds should only increase in the future, with new methodology allowing 25-year contracts rather than the 10-year ones now signed.

'For the planet'

With the Bonn climate conference getting under way next week, ALFA's Ansell says "you see where the world is headed".

"In the long run, it's going to be incredibly important for the planet" that carbon abatement increases, she says.

Evidence of climate change is emerging in northern Australia, as elsewhere. This past dry season was the hottest on record, the Bureau of Meteorology said recently.

The impact of rising sea levels may also be becoming clear, with more signs of sea water intruding into Arafura Swamp's traditionally fresh-water regions.

Djangirr says she has seen proof of the effects during her ranger work: "If you see a dying bird, we know that the salt water's coming in."

The author travelled to Arafura Swamp as a guest of Bush Heritage.