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Cross-cultural Conflicts in Fire Management in Northern Australia: Not so Black and White

Alan Andersen, Wildlife and Ecology, CSIRO Tropical Ecosystems Research Centre

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Abstract

European ("scientific") and Aboriginal ("experiential") perspectives on fire management in northern Australia are often contrasted with each other. For Europeans, management is portrayed as a science-based, strategically directed and goal-oriented exercise aimed at achieving specific ecological outcomes. In contrast, landscape burning by Aboriginal people is more of an emergent property, diffusely arising from many uses of fire that serve social, cultural, and spiritual, as well as ecological, needs. Aboriginal knowledge is acquired through tradition and personal experience, rather than through the scientific paradigm of hypothesis testing. Here I argue that, in practice, science plays only a marginal role in European fire management in northern Australia. European managers often lack clearly defined goals in terms of land management outcomes, and rarely monitor the ecological effects of their management actions. Management is based primarily on tradition, intuition, and personal experience rather than on scientific knowledge, and there is often a reluctance to accept new information, particularly when it is provided by "outsiders." In these ways, the processes by which European land managers acquire and utilize information are actually similar to those of indigenous Australians, and can be considered characteristic of a management culture. In this context, the conventional European vs. Aboriginal contrast might be more accurately described as a conflict between scientists on one hand and land managers in general, both black and white, on the other. That is not to say that science has all the answers and that researchers always deliver useful research outcomes. Cultural tensions between Australia's colonists and its original inhabitants rank highly on the national agenda, particularly in relation to land access and ownership. For the effective management of such land, another difficult but rewarding challenge lies in reconciling tensions between the cultures of science and management, black and white.

Key words

Aboriginal burning, adaptive management, Australia, cross-cultural conflict, fire ecology, land management, management culture, performance indicators, science culture, strategic goals, traditional fire ecology and management.
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087