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Managing Country through First Nations fire practices


For thousands of years, First Nations peoples have managed their Country in the Top End of Australia, through traditional fire practices.

These fire practices – also known as controlled burning – involve applying fire to strategically identified areas of Country at the right time of the year to protect and regenerate the land, protect sites of cultural and spiritual significance and reduce the extent of late dry season wildfires.

This practice has been a part of Indigenous peoples’ culture and traditions in Northern Australia and been passed down from generation to generation.

Fast forward to 2024, and these traditional practices are very much alive and more important than ever. With climate awareness high on the agenda within the community, business world, and government, many are now looking to Australia’s first peoples to better understand fire practices, sustainability and the importance of managing Country.

Following research and development led by the North Australian Indigenous Land & Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), the first methodology was approved in 2012.

The Savanna Fire Management (SFM) program is playing an important role in answering the call for the expertise of Indigenous peoples to manage land in a sustainable way. It does so by providing opportunities for participants to continue using their traditional fire practices, while also encouraging enterprise development for First Nations peoples.

The program, which operates under the Australian Government’s Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act 2011 via the Australian Carbon Credit Unit (ACCU) scheme, enables First Nations ranger groups to apply the 2018 savanna fire management methodology.

This methodology centres on emissions avoidance, by implementing cooler burns in the early dry season to limit greenhouse gas emissions being released from intensive late dry season wildfires.

When implemented and managed correctly, projects registered under the ACCU scheme that assist with the avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions can earn ACCUs.

Along with improved fire management using the practices that have served Australia’s First peoples so well for thousands of years, the program plays an important role in raising awareness of climate change and the positive role Indigenous peoples can play in contributing to climate change challenges within Australia.

The program also reduces barriers to participation, providing Aboriginal groups support to engage in business and employment development opportunities in land management within the broader carbon market.

There are five registered projects using the savanna fire management methodology through the program. In total, the projects cover 39,000 square kilometres of land in Northern Australia. To put this size into context, it is bigger than the Netherlands and almost as big as Switzerland.

Photo: David Hancock


The SFM program is funded by the Ichthys LNG Joint Venture and operated by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC). It is part of a broader $91 million voluntary offsets package agreed with the NT Government, pursuant to the environmentally and socially responsible development of the INPEX-operated Ichthys Onshore LNG facility.

The ILSC has nearly three decades of experience in partnering with First Nations peoples to support them in realising the social, cultural, environmental, and economic benefits of owning and managing Country.

The program began in 2011 and commenced operations five years later in 2016. The ILSC has been its operator since the commencement of the program.

The SFM program provides about $2 million annually for funding coordination, training, start-up and early operational costs for new projects on Aboriginal lands in the NT.

ILSC Group Chief Executive Officer Joe Morrison knows how important the program is, not only for the Northern Territory and local Indigenous communities, but also globally due to its ability to reduce emissions and transfer this lesson to other Indigenous people around the world.

“The ILSC has worked with INPEX in delivering the Savanna Fire Management program for almost a decade,” he says.

“Over this time, we have seen many Indigenous groups not only benefit from using their traditional knowledge and techniques to manage their Country, but also strengthen their ongoing connection to it.

“An example of a successful SFM Program project is the Tiwi project, who have conducted early season burning to create healthier Country”. The Tiwi project first took part in the SFM program following the Tiwi project, who have conducted early season burning to create healthier Country”. The Tiwi project first took part in the SFM program following the Tiwi Carbon Study, which investigated how fire regimes impact emissions and biodiversity on the islands.

It was registered in late 2016, commencing with the SFM program in 2018. As of 2022, it has generated 159,093 Australian carbon credit units.

Through the Tiwi project, Tiwi people are engaged in permanent/casual employment to deliver fire management and biodiversity monitoring.

Ranger Supervisor, Tiwi Resources Board Member, Derek Puruntatameri says rangers have developed their skills by obtaining nationally accredited training in fire management, including aerial bombardier and responding to wildfire and geographic information systems.

“We have done basic fire training, training on using pyro shots, training on the Raindance machine up on the helicopter, and first aid training as well. We also did geographic information systems training early this year, with basic mapping,” he says.

“If we carry on with what we are doing with our fire management, I can see there will be more jobs that will be created for the kids.”

Photo: David Hancock


To be eligible for the program, projects must take place on Indigenous-held land, be a minimum 30,000 ha in size, and fall within a 600mm and above rainfall zone. Once group eligibility is determined, projects are undertaken in a staged process.

Phase 1 consists of new projects, which are hosted by Indigenous organisations, allowing these groups to gain an insight into the program and how it works.

During this time, extensive community consultation is undertaken, along with vegetation mapping and viability assessments – with a view to become an independent commercial enterprise within five-seven years.

Phase 1 is critical, as it helps groups in familiarising themselves with a future carbon enterprise and the management responsibilities that come with the operation of a carbon business. When a phase 1 project meets commercial viability requirements, the project is eligible to proceed to phase 2, the Project Funding Agreement (PFA). It is here when projects can start to earn ACCUs after registration with the Clean Energy Regulator (CER).

Phase 2 PFAs can be negotiated for the SFM program to fund savanna fire management operations involving fire management, planning, prescribed burning operations and late dry season bushfire suppression.

Along with operational funding, phase 2 PFAs support project offset reporting, Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) audits and broader project development activities to establish sustainable carbon enterprise.

There are five SFM projects within the NT, which are all operating at various stages of the phase 2 implementation. In 2022, these projects provided employment and training for 62 Indigenous rangers from 12 different ranger groups.

The Tiwi SFM project, operated by Tiwi Resources, is on track to becoming a standalone independent business.

Having successfully developed the ranger group’s capacity to implement early dry season burning, the group has undertaken extensive community engagement to inform the island’s residents. The group has developed a business plan that will see them operate as an independent carbon business, with the ACCUs they have retained through the SFM project.

Photo: David Hancock


The SFM program’s benefit for Indigenous people is immeasurable in the sense that it helps communities in managing Country through best-practice environmental stewardship, protects cultural values and provides socio-economic benefits in the NT.

Through its sustainable carbon enterprises development approach, the program creates culturally appropriate employment and training opportunities for Aboriginal people in remote NT areas.

In turn, this helps build capacity amongst Indigenous rangers by providing cultural recognition, and work experience in fire management – all while continuing to strengthen Indigenous peoples’ self-determination.

The program is delivering real action by being a piece in the puzzle towards the sustainable management of land in the Top End of Australia.

Other environmental, social and cultural co-benefits that are linked to the SFM program have a major focus in carbon markets. Where demonstrated, these co-benefits can increase the value of the carbon credit to which they are attached. 

For example, businesses, State governments and other purchasers can buy ACCUs to offset emissions or meet emission reduction targets. For purchasers, ACCUs with demonstrable co-benefits can offer additional value in meeting sustainability commitments.

The investment into the SFM program is scheduled to continue for approximately another 10 years and will continue providing support and development opportunities for existing and eligible groups looking to investigate operating emissions reduction programs on Country.

To learn more about the Savanna Fire Management program, visit the ILSC website:

Photo: David Hancock