Climate change presents the single biggest threat to sustainable development and urgent action is critical to implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. The Paris Agreement provides a global framework for reducing GHG emissions with over 100 Parties referring, in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), to actions in the land and agricultural sector.

Destructive wildfires emit 2Gt of carbon, destroy over US$2.4 billion per year of property and US$150 billion per year of ecosystem services.  They are a major driver of forest degradation and desertification. Suppression and control, the dominant response, has largely failed and in a warming world will become increasingly inadequate.

Indigenous people in Australia have developed a solution to this threat and Indigenous people across northern Australia have been leading the way. Combining their traditional knowledge with modern science and technology, they burn early, keep fuel loads down and reduce destructive wildfires. This leads to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn provides carbon market opportunities.

From 2013 to 2015 the International Savanna Fire Management Initiative (ISFMI) explored the feasibility of exporting Australia’s ground breaking savanna burning methodology to Asia, Africa and Latin America. The ISFMI found that reintroducing traditional fire management to the world’s savannas and dry forests will prevent destructive uncontrolled wildfires across millions of km2.  It could also reduce carbon emissions by as much as 750m tonnes per annum, create income, provide employment for thousands of the poorest people and prevent many deaths from respiratory illness. The ISFMI feasibility study outlines the global potential in more detail.

Over the next four years the ISFMI, led by a unique corporate, community and research partnership, and supported by an investment of $3.87 million from the Australian Government will:

  • Develop the framework to support the adaptation of savanna fire managment technology for Botswana;
  • Continue the successful capacity development programme established the first phase of ISFMI; and
  • Expand the international ISFMI network and build an active community of practice.

What is Traditional Fire Management?

The history of wildfire is similar across the world.  Originally fire regimes were intricately managed by Indigenous people who lit low-intensity fires for multiple purposes: creating firebreaks and preventing the build-up of fuel loads, hunting, increasing the productivity of the landscape and protecting cultural sites.  This resulted in a stable global fire regime.  With colonisation Indigenous fire management was suppressed, which since 1750 resulted in increased late dry season hot fires or destructive wildfires.

European style suppression is an unsustainable response that requires resources beyond the capacities of even the richest countries such as USA and Australia. This failure has meant that countries are exploring new ways of combating wildfire and are rediscovering the efficacy of the traditional methods.  However, much of the knowledge and experience is either lost or resides in remote communities without the capacity to reignite and disseminate the technology.

Innovative methodology and valuable co-benefits

Traditionally, Indigenous peoples used customary burning practices to manage the savanna regions of tropical northern Australia. In most places these practices were been interrupted, resulting in hot and uncontrolled wildfires late in the annual dry season. Experience in northern Australia shows that strategic reintroduction of traditional patchwork burning early in the dry season can limit the scale and intensity of late dry season fires, reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Savanna fire management in tropical north Australia is an approved offset methodology under Australia’s Emissions Reduction Fund. It allows Indigenous communities, pastoralists and other landholders to generate carbon credits, which can then be contracted by the Australian Government under the ERF or sold to Australian companies to offset their emissions. Through this methodology, Indigenous communities are reducing emissions and generating sustainable incomes through the Australian carbon market.

Australia’s savanna fire management projects have also demonstrated valuable co-benefits – creating market based jobs in remote and vulnerable communities, promoting biodiversity, supporting tourism through care and maintenance of biodiverse landscapes, reinvigorating culture and social traditions, improving food security and health. The technology has great potential to deliver the types of benefits experienced  in Australia.

International Savanna Fire Management Initiative

Preliminary studies have shown that the conditions necessary to establish projects of this kind when adapted to local conditions are available in regions with similar savanna landscapes and traditional management practices, including in Asia, Southern Africa and Latin America. The ISFMI pilot project centres on Botswana, however, Southern Africa is one of many sites where the methodology has potential and we are actively seeking partners to build a global network of projects.


The ISFMI is lead by a unique community, corporate and research partnership. The Initiative is hosted by the Baker & McKenzie Law for Development Initiative who are the counterparty to the funding agreement with the Government of Australia. The Kimberley Land Council, the Darwin Centre for Bushfire Research and Baker McKenzie are lead partners in the initiative responsible for delivering the Botswana pilot project. An expert Advisory Committee has been established and local project implementation partners will be invited to participate on the pilot project.  The ISFMI Global Network will be re-engaged with the goal of building a global community of practice.

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