Building equitable partnerships with Indigenous people, starting with future bush fire management

Impact story

Exploring the opportunities and challenges for expanded and enhanced collaborative natural hazard management.

Key facts

  • Deakin’s research team is aiming to understand the past and current experiences of diverse Aboriginal groups working with the settler government natural hazard management agencies. This will lead to the development of a better framework that ensures equitable partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals and organisations.
  • The research will guide the reduction of natural hazard risk within the wider community.
  • During one of the cases studies, Dr Neale conducted fieldwork and interviews with Dja Dja Wurrung people on their Country about their collaborative bushfire management initiatives.
  • This research project engages and collaborates with Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, Western Sydney University, University of Melbourne, Firesticks Initiative, University of Alberta, Charles Darwin University.
  • In 2020, Dr Neale was awarded funding from the Commonwealth Government with additional funding from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, to co-lead a project on cultural land management.

Building equitable partnerships

The work of a social scientist at Deakin University will support building meaningful future partnerships with Indigenous leaders in bushfire management techniques in southern Australia.

As part of their collaborative research, co-lead Dr Timothy Neale and his colleagues are investigating how best to build intercultural, natural hazard management partnerships between Indigenous peoples and others.  This work will contribute to policy on how natural hazard risks are managed by government agencies and the wider community. The research is also seeking to understand how bushfire management partnerships benefit the social and ecological resilience of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Dr Neale, a social scientist with an interest in collaborative bushfire management, says understanding how best to engage in respectful partnership with Indigenous peoples will be crucial in supporting the development of public policy that reduces and protects against natural hazard risks.

“We have to understand that, in Australia and elsewhere, many Indigenous peoples’ past and present experiences of sharing their knowledge have frequently been negative and exploitative. It’s pretty galling, if you think about it, to follow up centuries of dispossession by asking for more,” Dr Neale says.

“As Aboriginal scholars and activists have been saying for a long time: non-Indigenous peoples have to give up some of their power and control if they want to work together. We have to start from the premise of their rights, as the First Peoples of this place, to speak authoritatively about Country.”

During one of the project’s case studies, Dr Neale conducted long-term fieldwork with Dja Dja Wurrung people on Dja Dja Wurrung Country (which mostly overlaps with the Murray Goldfields region), to learn about their ongoing bushfire management partnership with government agencies.

There, several djandak wi (sometimes called ‘traditional burns’, ‘Country fire’ or ‘healthy fire’) have been led by Dja Dja Wurrung peoples since 2017. Significantly, these burns are believed to be among the first Aboriginal-led burns on public lands in southeast Australia since settlement more than 180 years ago.

As Dr Neale and several Dja Dja Wurrung colleagues have contended, such collaborative partnerships can be understood as “decolonising experiments”, in the sense that they involve progressively and experimentally testing how to create more equitable relationships between people and Country.

'We should treat last season’s fires as a chance to support Aboriginal peoples’ rights to Country and, thereby, their capacity to care for it. My hope is that, quite soon, when we talk about cultural burning and other forms of Indigenous natural hazards management, we will be talking about a vital and vibrant network of groups in control of decisions about their Country.' - Dr Timothy Neale

Respecting knowledge

According to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the bushfires experienced in the 2019-20 season have burned more than 10 million hectares of land in southern Australia, greater than the combined area burned in the 2019 Black Saturday and 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires. Indigenous fire management practices have been identified as a potentially beneficial tool for mitigating fire hazards over future fire season. The ancestors of contemporary Aboriginal peoples applied fire to shape their surroundings for more than 65,000 years.

Typically, Aboriginal peoples have been marginalised from contemporary bushfire management since colonisation in southern Australia. One key way to reduce this inequity, and more fully support Indigenous fire management, is the development of strong partnerships with Indigenous groups. For instance, ongoing collaborations between Dja Dja Wurrung peoples and the Victorian Government began with the signing of the Recognition and Settlement Agreement in 2013. The first of its kind, the agreement was key to the creation of partnerships between Dja Dja Wurrung people and government agencies.

Using this and other examples, the research team is aiming to understand the past and current experiences of diverse Aboriginal groups working with settler government natural hazard management agencies. This will lead to the development of a better framework that supports equitable partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals and organisations.

'Walking together' to reduce bushfire risk

The research project is providing  crucial advice to research partners including Indigenous communities and government agencies about the opportunities and challenges for expanded and enhanced collaborative natural hazard management.

Key successes for the project include publications, further research funding from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC (BNHCRC) and submissions to several government inquiries. In 2020, Dr Neale was called as an expert witness to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements and provided evidence-based on this research. Dr Neale’s evidence was subsequently cited in the Royal Commission’s findings and recommendations.

Dr Neale explains that there is an encouraging trend of government agencies and others beginning to treat Indigenous peoples as partners with self-determination, not one stakeholder among others. Projects and programs are becoming more supportive of Indigenous people’s aspirations to heal and bring people back to Country, focusing less on just managing natural hazard risk or some other calculable policy goal.

In a recent paper, Dr Neale and several Dja Dja Wurrung colleagues reflected on the ideals of past Dja Dja Wurrung elders which encourage ‘walking’ or cooperating with non-Indigenous people. As one interviewee explained: “…at the end of the day we’re better off walking together. The last 50 years, we could have walked away [from the government], but like Uncle Doug and all them said ‘we’re going to walk together’.’’

Grants and funding

Funding is from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC for an amount of $450,000.

Collaboration

The project is in collaboration with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, Western Sydney University, University of Melbourne, Firesticks Initiative, University of Alberta and Charles Darwin University.

Contact details

Dr Timothy Neale
View Timothy's Deakin profile
Email Dr Timothy Neale
+61 03 9246 8494