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Copyright © 2000 by The Resilience Alliance

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Elmqvist, T. 2000. Comments on "Cross-cultural conflicts in fire management in northern Australia: not so black and white" by Alan Andersen. Conservation Ecology 4(1): 3. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol4/iss1/art3/


Comments on "Cross-cultural Conflicts in Fire Management in Northern Australia: Not so Black and White" by Alan Andersen

Thomas Elmqvist

Swedish Biodiversity Centre

KEY WORDS: cultural conflicts, ecosystem management, fire, natural resources.

Published: February 3, 2000

Andersen (1999) raises two important issues upon which I would like to comment.

First, it is no surprise that people have starkly contrasting perceptions about biodiversity and that the Western concern with conserving it is not universally shared. For example, it has often been pointed out that, because of inherent discrepancies between Western rationales for conservation that focus on resource protection and indigenous rationales based on sacred responsibility to kin, ancestors, and deities, perceptions about the conservation of biodiversity are very different (Grove 1990). As a result, even well-intentioned conservation programs can fail or inadvertently be very destructive (Cox and Elmqvist 1997).

However, a growing body of experience from numerous cases around the world demonstrates that the largest gap in communication and perceptions of biodiversity and management is not necessarily between European and indigenous non-Western cultures. Instead, the gap may be just as wide between urban professionals and rural subsistence farmers and resource managers within the same country, regardless of cultural identity. For example, in Samoa deep tensions developed between the urban staff of an environmental NGO and local village chiefs with regard to the management of a village preserve. Although those involved were all residents of the same country, the cultural differences between the NGO staff and the villagers finally resulted in the village banning the NGO from the preserve (Cox and Elmqvist 1997).

A key to solving such conflicts is a system in which centralized and authoritarian approaches to management are replaced with local responsibility and communication based on mutual respect. Andersen similarly points out that the contrasting views on Australian landscape and fire management held by research professionals and rural managers are often as profoundly different as those of Europeans and Aborigines. Despite the fact that researchers with a "scientific" perspective may claim to have clear objectives and express a willingness to continue challenging and changing their practices, actual European and aboriginal experiences in practical management are similar in that their objectives are often not well-defined, their practices are resistant to outside influences, and biodiversity is not a central concern. I believe that it is extremely important to analyze the exisitng communication and perception gap and acknowledge that we have a long way to go to achieve a decentralized responsibility and to reconcile the viewpoints of researchers and practical managers with regard to biodiversity issues.

The second point I want to make is based on the statement that the objective of aboriginal burning during the last 50,000 years was not to maintain biodiversity. Instead, as the author states, this type of burning served many different cultural, social, and economic purposes. Nevertheless, the outcome of 50,000 years of large-scale burning, which took place at higher frequencies compared with preceding periods of time, was almost certainly a shift in the biota towards the dominance of fire-tolerant species, with the result that fire-sensitive species were confined to specific refuges. If the prevailing pattern of burning were to change, the diversity of plants and animals might also change dramatically, as a result either of the absence of fires or of fires whose patterns were more uniform. Therefore, maintaining fire regimes on the same temporal and spatial scales as those of aboriginal management would maintain not only biodiversity patterns but also a cultural landscape with a specific biota favored by human activity. I am convinced that this insight, that management for the conservation of biodiversity in many regions equals the conservation of ancient cultural landscapes, may help to reconcile researchers and practical managers and ultimately to determine sustainable uses of natural resources.


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Andersen, A. 1999. Cross-cultural conflicts in fire management in northern Australia: not so black and white. Conservation Ecology 3(1): 6 [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol3/iss1/art6

Cox, P. A., and T. Elmqvist. 1997. Ecocolonialism and village controlled preserves in Samoa. Ambio 26(2):84-89.

Grove, R. H. 1990. Colonial conservation, ecological hegemony and popular resistance: towards a global synthesis. Pages 15-50 in J. M. MacKenzie, editor. Imperialism and the natural world. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK.

Address of Correspondent:
Thomas Elmqvist
Swedish Biodiversity Centre
Box 7007, SE-750 07 Uppsala
Phone: +4618-671071

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