Solutions for a hot, dry earth – water retention landscapes and ‘cool burning’

Canadians have been shaken to the core by the scorching temperatures of recent weeks and the destruction by fire of the small town of Lytton, British Columbia. People are talking in a whole new way about climate change – about how quickly things can change.

And, overwhelming as this news is, I wanted to talk about solutions – both in terms of how we manage fire, and in terms of how we manage the land and water cycle. And for that, it means looking at aboriginal fire management strategies from northern Australia, and water retention landscapes from the Tamera peace research centre in Portugal.

I spent a week at Tamera in 2008, learning about how their centre was created and seeing the water retention landscapes for myself. Tamera is located in the Alentejo, a very, very dry part of Portugal, but the micro-climate around the centre is quite different – and you can feel it even as you drive along the road from the small railway station.

Its water retention landscapes draw on the work of Sepp Holzer, the Austrian ecologist and mountain farmer, who was invited to visit in 2007 when Tamera was struggling with the question of how to support a community of 300 people. The Alentejo’s average annual precipitation of 700 mm is enough to provide the region’s population with all the water it needs for drinking, household use, and agriculture. But to do so, it needs land that absorbs the water like a sponge, not land so dry that the rain washes away much of the fertile soil and floods roads, villages, and towns.

Holzer, who has seen the consequences of deforestation and desertification in many parts of the world, suggested how Tamera could build a water retention landscape that would keep the water that falls as rain and allow the ground water to recharge. You can see the process of building this first landscape at Tamera in 2007-8 in this video:

Over the years since, Tamera has gone on to build more water retention landscapes, increasing its ability to grow food and support the community, and it shares its strategies and learning with people from around the world. It has shown, in a practical way, how to restore the land-water balance.

I wrote earlier about the fire management strategies of the aboriginal people of northern Australia, which include ‘cool burning’ and ‘mosaic burning’ – ancient strategies that have been blended with modern fire management techniques in a unique way.

Northern Australia became prone to destructive fires after Aboriginal peoples were moved off their traditional lands in the 1950s, thus ending their traditional fire management regimes. In their absence, hot and damaging fires ravaged an average 40% of the region’s landscape each year. By the time they moved back onto their lands from settlements in the 1980s and 1990s, “the land was out of control,” said Dean Yibarbuk, a park ranger whose indigenous elders encouraged him to seek solutions.

The innovative savanna carbon farming approach that began in 2006 grew out of collaboration between Indigenous people, land managers and scientists that had begun eight years earlier with the goal of tackling this long-existing problem. Their coordinated regional program, which tried to replicate traditional Indigenous mosaic burning, showed researchers that improved fire management also could significantly cut greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere.

The savanna burning methodology, hailed as a world first when it was developed in 2006, has sparked a multi-million dollar Indigenous carbon industry that now includes 29 savanna fire projects managing more than 17 million hectares of savanna woodland and grassland across northern Australia. The fire management approach has been so successful that it’s being adopted in countries around the world, says Charles Darwin University Centre for Bushfire Research fire ecologist Rohan Fisher.

“Our research shows the area of hot, late dry season fires across northern Australia has halved over the past 15 years and the area of all fires has dropped close to a quarter,” he said. “The frequency of fires has been reduced over an area the size of Germany, or one and a half times the size of Victoria.” And that has occurred despite the way climate change has worsened fire weather conditions.