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There are different schools of thought on how land (and sea) are best managed but often in the rush for economic development, indigenous practices and knowledge are overlooked. Observations and understanding from living on the land can inform how to protect and preserve it.

Tom Heap meets Victor Steffensen, a descendent of the aboriginal Tagalaka people and an indigenous fire practitioner. He explains how cultural burns can help manage the land, reduce the fuel load and the likelihood of destructive wildfires. Yet he feels while there are more calls to incorporate this knowledge, it doesn't go far enough.

He also meets Diana Mastracci who is a researcher working with groups in the Amazon and Arctic to give them equal participation and benefits from research. She runs hackathons for software ideas that could use and value their knowledge more and says academics have a long way to go to fully appreciate this knowledge.

Society Fellow Dr Tamsin Edwards weighs up just how much carbon dioxide could potentially be saved by adopting indigenous land management practices.

Listen now on BBC Radio 4


What our experts say

We asked Society Fellow Abi Croker and Dr Jem Woods from Imperial College to offer some observations on the potential of indigenous knowledge in using fire as a land management tool in reducing carbon emissions. Moreover, if indigenous communities were able to refuse climate-changing development on their land in reducing carbon emissions. Their points take some of the themes of the programme a step further.


What are the limiting factors?

Dr Jem Woods

  • Poverty

  • Lack of extension capacity and knowledge about beneficial practices

  • Lack of governance

  • Lack of positive market forces


Abi Croker

Fires are an example of a land management tool. The limiting factors surrounding this include:

  • Recent colonial history: the establishment of protected areas, coloniser settlements, and game reserves, and the consequent forced movement of indigenous peoples into marginalised and ‘secondary’ (in terms of their subsistence ability, i.e. ecosystem services) territories has resulted in inter- and intra-group conflict, competition for resources, exploitation of land and resources (often due to a lack of empowerment), and increasing pressures due to high population and livestock densities concentrated in smaller areas.

  • European administrations banned the use of fire, advocating fire suppression. The spread of Western norms and ideals, through both colonial administrations and missionaries, has resulted in a decline of traditional fire knowledge and practice - an ‘extinction of experience’.

  • Ambiguity surrounding land tenure since 19th century European colonisation (Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)): differences between statutory tenure based on European law and customary tenure governed under customary law. Dual or multiple land tenure systems vary between codified law and unwritten customary practices. The latter are often highly insecure due to not being formally recognised, making them vulnerable to conversion to statutory tenure and allocation to large scale, foreign, and private investors. Informally recognised land is often also subject to weak/no law enforcement.

  • A general increase in the conversion of customary lands into leasehold lands to increase land markets - driven by capitalist market ideologies and systems of industrialisation. This has led to a transition from a subsistence-based economy to cash-crop production and, in-turn, ecosystem degradation. Agricultural intensification and the decline of pastoralism has decreased the ‘need’ and ‘use’ of fire in the landscape.

  • Land is a profoundly political and an economic issue across SSA, and resulting inter- and intra-group (local communities, regional authorities, the state) land conflicts often prevent the implementation of long-term management strategies (including monitoring, reporting, and developing). Also, conflicts and distrust between social ‘hierarchies’ e.g. at the local, regional, national, and international level prevent effective and equitable cooperation. This results in communities not having the recognition or resources they require where fire has been long suppressed and banned by authorities. 


What are the co-benefits?

Dr Jem Woods

  • Biodiversity protection

  • Enhanced knowledge and improved practices

  • Enhanced agricultural resilience including through new markets, locally and globally

  • Employment generation and poverty reduction


Abi Croker

Stopping the exploitation of indigenous lands by commercial organisations, governments or other forces has many benefits:

  • Carbon sequestration 

  • Ecosystem restoration, e.g. drylands, degraded savannas, forests, woodlands.

  • Decrease in soil erosion and vegetation degradation

  • Community empowerment and environmental stewardship

  • Investment into community-based projects - empowering traditional ecological knowledge, skill, and practice

  • Reduction in GHG emissions

  • Decrease in toxic chemicals running off into the environment

  • Investment into sustainable development and long-term goals

  • Partnerships

  • Equity

  • Reduced inter- and intra-group conflict (including local communities, authorities, government)


Are there any potential negative impacts of this idea?

Dr Jem Woods

  • Insufficient jobs are created (note that abandonment of the land by the young is a common feature of rural areas as they move to the cities or even abroad, to find work)

  • Conflict could be generated through land ownership with winners and losers emerging when ownership is re-allocated


Abi Croker

  • Depending on the local leader, traditional institutions, community dynamics and cohesiveness, and the presence of traditional knowledge, land management and use aims might vary, resulting in further degradation.

  • Lighting fires for post-traditional practices e.g. cash crop production, settled and intensified agriculture, resource exploitation - variables resulting from integration into the global market economy. These fires do not necessarily have social-ecological benefits.

  • Less investment into the local area.

  • Marginalisation from economic activity and development.


Further reading


About the series

39 Ways to Save the Planet is a new radio series by BBC Radio 4 developed in partnership with the Society and broadcast in 2021. It showcases 39 ideas to relieve the stress that climate change is placing on the Earth. In each 15 minute episode Tom Heap and Dr Tamsin Edwards meet the people behind a fresh and fascinating idea to cut the carbon.

Programme website

Over the course of 2021, the Society will be producing events and digital content to accompany the series.

Episode 32: Local wisdom

Listen now on BBC Radio 4


Featured card image: Victor Steffensen

Featured banner image: Curioso Photography/Adobe Stock