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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 June 2007, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Aborigines burn the way to climate control
By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Northern Australia

A crackling fire snakes towards Dean Yibarbuk's bare legs, as he and a group of fellow Aborigines walk through this isolated corner of the Australian Outback, pouring long trails of burning kerosene into the grass.

It may seem strange, even dangerous behaviour, in a region where wildfires sweep through almost half the wilderness every year.

But this work is part of a unique "carbon trading" deal which is harnessing ancient traditions of indigenous fire management in a very modern struggle against greenhouse gas pollution.

Controlled burning, Western Arnhem
Creating fire breaks controls the big blazes which generate noxious gas

"Our people have been doing this for thousands of years, to control the land," says Dean, a 53-year old community ranger with a grey beard and dreadlocks.

"We burn now, just after the rains, and we make fire breaks to stop hot wild fires later in the year."

Now scientific evidence has confirmed that the old Aboriginal system works - dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions from savannah fires, by limiting both their numbers and their intensity.

Today those wildfires account for 40% of the region's total greenhouse emissions.

The key now is to operate on a big enough scale to make a real impact, as the fires did decades ago before Aborigines began to move out of the countryside and into towns.

"The greenhouse emissions are far, far lower," says Andrew Edwards, a scientific researcher monitoring the traditional fires for the Northern Territories' Bush Fires Council.

"If we were better resourced we could make extraordinary savings in greenhouse gas emissions."

I feel proud of this deal... It brings jobs for our community... and we are now involved in the fight against global warming
Dean Yibarbuk, community ranger

Those savings are now a real possibility, as a result of a landmark deal between traditional leaders in Western Arnhem Land, and a giant new natural gas refinery in Darwin, ConocoPhillips.

It has agreed to pay the Aborigines A$1m ($850,000) a year, for 17 years, to offset 100,000 tons of the refinery's own greenhouse emissions.

The agreement has attracted huge interest from other companies as Australia moves towards a formal carbon-trading scheme.

"This is a precedent-setter," says Joe Morrison, from the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance. "It's generating a lot of interest from multi-nationals. It's not just a blip on the radar."

The money has already transformed the operations in Western Arnhem Land.

The Aboriginal teams are now using trucks, and even helicopters, to drop incendiary devices on their land, enabling them to burn, and control, huge areas before the dry season and the wild fires begin towards the end of the year.

At the end of a hot day's work, Dean Yibarbuk and his colleagues sit by their tents in a clearing. Ancient rock paintings dot the nearby hills. Buffaloes and wild pigs roam in the woods.

Western Arnhem
Western Arnhem Land is the size of Britain

"I feel proud of this deal," says Dean. "It means a lot to us. It brings jobs for our community... and we are now involved in the fight against global warming."

Many Aborigines across Australia face huge social problems in dysfunctional communities ravaged by domestic violence and alcoholism.

But in West Arnhem Land - an area the size of Britain with a population of perhaps 4,000 - all alcohol is banned, visitors are strictly limited, and those working on the fire abatement scheme talk enthusiastically about the sense of empowerment and hope they now feel while living in the wilderness.

"We're not just the victims of global warming," says Dean. "We can do something about it. It's our obligation."

As for the scientists involved in the deal, they are now hoping the model can be applied outside Australia. They have their eyes on the vast savannahs of Africa.

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