Kakadu National Park in northern Australia was one of the first jointly managed parks in the world, and offers an important case study of how public institutions and indigenous communities interact in the management of landscapes. In the 1990s, an extensive fire management program was instituted in Kakadu. The aim of this program was to shift the timing of fires from the late dry season to the early dry season, a pattern that on its surface more closely reflects precontact Aboriginal fire patterns. Despite broad success in this fire regime shift, Kakadu has come under particularly intense criticism from local Aboriginal communities, as well as the conservation sector and the wider public, for failures in fire management. These perceived failures are, however, assumed to be a feature of Kakadu specifically, rather than early season burning generally. Consequently, the model of extensive fire management in the early dry season continues to be a key goal for Aboriginal-owned lands across northern Australia, with early-burning projects that derive funding tied to reduced net carbon emissions now emerging as the most promising potential for reinstating indigenous fire management in northern Australia. We argue, however, that these new emissions-reducing programs run the risk of following the same fraught path of dissatisfaction and disassociation as Kakadu, because it is inherent in the nature of institutionalized management programs to replace the complexity and contingency of indigenous fire management with standardized goals. In so doing, such programs treat indigenous people as workers executing plans developed by others rather than as genuine partners in the design and implementation of management programs.
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Vol. 35 • No. 1