Rangelands NRM Blog, News & Resources

Martu Perspectives on Fire Lessons from the Traditional and Contemporary Fire Project

[September 2013]

A report and film produced as part of the Rangelands NRM’s Traditional and Contemporary Fire Project reveals the Martu perspectives of fire and how they use fire to look after their families and keep their country alive and productive.

The work is enabling both cultures to learn from each other and work together to keep the country alive and thriving and keep Martu culture alive.

CSIRO Research Scientist and ethno-ecologist Dr Fiona Walsh said Martu are amongst the last people in the world to carefully walk and burn their country.

“For Martu, fire comes from Jukurrpa those characters and events that created country, it is past and present. Fire is a life force, a tool with many benefits and dangers,” Dr Walsh said.

Dr Walsh explained the Martu were expert in the use and control of fire. There were different burns for different foods. A small burn for a Skink. A long burn for a Hill kangaroo. A round burn for a Mala. In old times, most fires burnt less than a day. After fires and rain, different plant and animal foods regrew.

There have been powerful changes on Martu lands in just three generations, especially following the mission days when Martu were moved away from their Country.

“As forces push and pull Martu further from their homelands, ‘far away’ places become ‘lonely’ and ravaged by wildfire,” Dr Walsh said.

In the 1980s, Martu left Jigalong and towns and returned to their homelands to live in small communities such as Puntawarri, Parnngurr, Punmu, and Kunawarritji.

Now they light fires where they travel – near roads and communities. These small fires burn for a night or two and the patchwork they create keeps these lands healthier than distant lands.

Dr Walsh said the further-away land is hard to reach and hot season wildfire eats up the country.

Martu are concerned and worry about cemeteries, sacred sites, and big shade trees that are destroyed in these fires. Meat animals killed by fires and also wasted.

“There aren’t enough people and work income to look after such vast lands with old Martu ways alone,” she said.

On Martu and Birriliburu lands, ranger groups extend the good work done by elders and families to look after country. Some of the work is to burn country so that fewer wide hot lightening fires will roar through. Elders, young workers, coordinators and fire officers plan together.

“Different Martu have different skills and priorities. They learn fragments of traditional and modern ways and mix these as they can,” Dr Walsh said.

Ultimately, we have common interests – an ancient fascination with fire, the need to protect people and places, biodiversity and threatened species and burning because it’s our job.

The film ‘Waru, kuka, mirrka wankarringu-lampaju – Burning, bushfoods and biodiversity’ will be available on our YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKLD9LrySeU. The film features 30 Martu speakers, is co-filmed and edited by David Wells and produced by Rangelands, CSIRO and Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa.