Since the mid-1990s, natural resource management or “ranger” jobs have been established in many Indigenous communities of northern Australia. These jobs are based on the formalization and professionalization of “traditional” responsibilities for the land and the sea referred to as “caring for country.” They are predominantly funded by the Australian government through policies and programs that combine environmental conservation and Indigenous economic development objectives. Fire management is usually one of the Indigenous rangers' main activities. This paper endeavors to analyze the power relations and ambivalences inherent in these rangers' burning practices, described in the scientific literature as “community-based.” The joint or integrated use of “traditional ecological knowledge” and Western science is widely advocated for programs using anthropogenic fires for conservation purposes. We argue that in northern Australia, attempts to integrate these two systems of knowledge have resulted in a de facto transfer of the social and ritual responsibility of burning the country from specific Indigenous custodians (traditional owners and managers) to Indigenous rangers, non-Indigenous fire ecologists, and other non-Indigenous actors. While traditional owners and local people are supposed to define and control their rangers' fire management activities, local involvement is impeded by the role of external experts. Furthermore, attempts to combine Indigenous and non-Indigenous fire knowledge entangle different understandings of what a “traditional” fire regime was and should be, and often prioritize Western views supported by funding bodies. Consequently, the burning practices implemented by Indigenous rangers can be a source of controversy within local communities and among rangers themselves.
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Vol. 35 • No. 1