Fire in the Tropics of Australia


The use of fire in tropical regions is of increasing global significance. Conversion of forested land to pasture continues to contribute to deforestation on an unprecedented scale with severe implications in terms of habitat impoverishment, biodiversity loss, decreased soil fertility and global warming from greenhouse gas emissions and loss of carbon sequestration potential. For example, NASA satellite data indicates a 50-percent increase in the number of forest fires caused by fire-assisted pastoralism in the Brazilian Amazon between 1996 and 1997, representing one of the principal means of deforestation in the region. Burning as a land clearance tool is also thought to be one of the principal causes of the 1997-1998 Indonesian fires and, in Europe, the recent wild fires have been blamed by some scientists for the unprecedented rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2002 and 2003 observed at the Mauna Loa Observatory, located 12,000ft up a mountain in Hawaii.

There is therefore increasing need to improve scientific knowledge regarding the ecological effects of fire, an area currently clouded by a high degree of uncertainty and disagreement among experts.

Study site map

This research aims to explore the ecological and economic implications of the use of fire as a land management tool in the wet-dry tropics of Australia. The project was established by Dr Jon Lovett of the University of York in 1997 whilst on a research leave with James Cook University in Cairns and since continued by David Ockwell. This work was carried out in partnership with the managers of Wattle Hills, a property in Cape York Peninsula, Queensland. The study assessed cross-sectional data from vegetation samples exposed to alternative burning regimes and enables monitoring of vegetative changes on burnt and unburnt sites. Vairous aspects of fire policy have also been analysed using social science techniques including discourse analysis and “Q Methodology” (see current work).

Fire in Cape York – some background

Cape York Peninsula is a remote area of wilderness in the tropical far-north of Australia. Roughly equivalent in size to England, Cape York has a population of around 18,000 people, less than in attendance at some third division football matches. The population is mostly concentrated within a few small mining settlements and Aboriginal communities. Despite its relative isolation from human settlement, an estimated 80% of Cape York burns each year as a direct result of human induced fires.

Fire has formed a natural part of the ecology of Australia for many millions of years. More recently, for at least the last 60,000 years, it has been used as a tool by Aboriginals to, for example, drive game into areas for hunting. Many species of trees, plants and animals have therefore become adapted to fire as part of their environment. There are also, however, many species, including most rainforest species, that have not adapted to fire.

Over the last 200 years, since European invasion of Australia, huge changes have taken place in human use of fire on the landscape. In Cape York, as in many parts of Australia, Aboriginal communities have been forcibly removed from their land and replaced by pastoralists who make a living rearing cattle. The pastoralists burn the land in the late stages of the dry season to encourage the growth of green grass for their cattle when food for these foreign introduced animals is most sparse. The early dry season burning practices of Aboriginals which result in cooler, low-intensity fires have, therefore, been replaced by the late dry season burning practices of pastoralists which result in hot, high-intensity fires. Conservation managers also tend to burn areas such as National Parks on an annual or bi-annual basis in order to avoid wildfires later in the dry season. This practice has raised concerns with the impact of such high frequency burning.

Some scientists believe that the changes in burning practices are causing an environmental problem but this is by no means a unanimously held view. Scientists are a long way from properly understanding the ecological impacts of fire. One key debate revolves around whether current burning practices on Cape York are impacting on “biodiversity”. Biodiversity refers to biological diversity, or the diversity of living things. The exact rate of global biodiversity loss is not known, but scientists estimate current species extinction rates are between 1,000 and 10,000 times what would occur naturally without human influence. The global reduction of biodiversity is a key international concern as it is thought to threaten the healthy functioning of ecosystems which humans rely on to provide goods and services such as food, energy, building materials and medicines, and to assimilate the waste and pollution we produce as a result of our daily activities.

As well as impacting on biodiversity, fire can also contribute to global warming by killing trees and therefore releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere from the carbon that trees otherwise store in their trunks, branches, roots and leaves. It is the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that are thought to cause global warming. Both in the public consciousness and in policy making an increasing significance is being attached to the potentially catastrophic future impacts global warming may have on global society.

Current Work

CELP’s research in Cape York focuses on three key areas:

The first area is the ecological impacts of current burning practices specifically looking at biodiversity and global warming. The research is based at a remote property in the northern part of Cape York where a group of land managers have attempted to keep fire out of the majority of their 36,000 square kilometre property and pursue sustainable forestry instead of pastoralism. Members of CELP have, since 1997, been measuring trees in areas of the property that burn regularly and areas that have been protected from fire. By recording the species and measuring the girth of the trees it is then possible to compare the biodiversity and amount of carbon stored within the burnt and unburnt areas.

The second focus of CELP’s research is on the economic impacts of fire. The data collected as part of the ecological work has been used for economic analysis of alternative land uses that either include or exclude the use of fire. David Ockwell and Dr Jon Lovett have recently published a paper that investigates what would happen if a market were created for the carbon stored by trees in Cape York (see Paper 1). This market would be based on the value to future human generations of the carbon stored by trees in contributing to reduced global warming. The paper concludes that such a market, by economically rewarding carbon storage in trees, could lead to a large-scale change in land use on Cape York away from fire-assisted pastoralism towards sustainable forestry that excludes fire.

The third focus of the research is on social and political issues related to land use in Cape York. Policy makers must understand the needs and opinions of land users before they can design policy that will be effective in changing land use practices. Without such an understanding policies can often fail. CELP has responded to this by analysing how different discourses on the use of fire play out in Cape York ( this research was undertaken in partnership with Yvonne Rydin at the London School of Economics, (see Paper 2) and conducting research that reveals the key opinions that exist amongst stakeholders in Cape York with regard to fire (see Paper 3). The research will also address the gaps between Euro-centric approaches to land management and the traditional land management practices of Aboriginal communities on Cape York.

For further information contact David Ockwell on

Working Paper 1

Land Use Conflicts: The Burning Issue.

David Ockwell (2000) Unpublished.
of complete Paper 1


The resulting forest impoverishment from conversion of forested land to pasture for livestock production using large scale burning maintained on a regular, periodic basis has been widely observed as undesirable from an environmental / ecological perspective implying land uses that exclude fire as desirable. This study asks the question as to whether fire exclusion is also desirable from an economic perspective.

By focussing on Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, Australia, two alternative land uses are compared using cost-benefit analysis (CBA); sustainable forestry with a policy of fire exclusion and pastoralism utilising fire on a regular basis. Samples of woody vegetation subject to the two opposing land uses enable quantitative comparison of ecosystem attributes in terms of biodiversity, and environmental functions in terms of carbon sequestration. No significant difference between the two land uses is observed in terms of biodiversity, however the rate of increase in levels of biodiversity is seen to be significantly higher in the absence of fire. Levels of carbon sequestration are also observed to be significantly higher in the absence of fire. The possibility of the presence of fire scars enabling biomass degradation by termites is also investigated but no correlation is observed.

Inclusion within the CBA of benefits derived from carbon sequestration through greenhouse mitigation is problematic owing to wide discrepancies within the current literature regarding valuation. However, this does not affect the overall results of this study as sustainable forestry with a policy of fire exclusion yields a higher net present value (NPV) at all levels of analysis (with or without carbon benefits) thus rendering it preferable from an economic perspective. However, the presence of significant market and policy failures may well result in unsustainable forestry practices impeding the realisation of the full NPV of sustainable forestry. It is therefore imperative that such failures be addressed before an optimal land use distribution can be achieved.

Paper 2

Conflicting Discourses of Knowledge: understanding the policy adoption of pro-burning knowledge claims in Cape York Peninsula, Australia

David Ockwell and Yvonne Rydin (2005)

of complete Paper 2


Using as a case study the dominant pro-burning policy paradigm in Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, Australia, this paper examines how knowledge claims become adopted in environmental policy. Stakeholder views in Cape York are polarised between pro and anti discourses regarding anthropogenic burning, each with their own contested knowledge claims. This paper carries out a discourse analysis of stakeholder views on the use of fire and enhances this with detailed stakeholder consultation and policy analysis. Through this it demonstrates how an examination of the discursive nature of the conflicts and alliances among different knowledge-holders within an environmental policy debate can provide a powerful heuristic approach to fully understanding how contested knowledge claims become accredited and established in policy.

Paper 3

Can attending to local discourses increase policy effectiveness? A case study of fire management in Cape York, Australia

David Ockwell 2005
Submitted to Policy Sciences

of complete Paper 3


Policy debates are often characterised by opposing discourses based on conflicting knowledge claims. An increasing number of studies suggest that more effective policy solutions might be achieved through explicit consideration of the knowledge claims and discourses of all relevant actors. This includes those lay actors directly affected by a policy problem. This paper uses Q Methodology to analyse empirically what discourses exist amongst stakeholders in Cape York, Queensland, Australia regarding anthropogenic burning. This is a land management technique of relevance to important areas of contemporary policy concern including biodiversity loss, climate change and indigenous land rights. The discourses revealed through Q Methodology are then analysed to question whether they provide any insights into potentially more effective policy solutions. Four key discourses are shown to exist namely: discourse A – Rational fire management; discourse B – Fire-free conservation; discourse C – Pragmatic, locally controlled burning; and discourse D – Indigenous controlled land management. At present only discourses A and C are reflected in fire policy in Cape York. Discourses B and D both highlight issues that might contribute to improving the effectiveness of existing policy in achieving environmental and social sustainability. Whilst the conflicting nature of the four discourses suggests that resolving policy solutions might be difficult, several areas of existing consensus are identified which could provide a useful starting point for facilitating constructive deliberation amongst stakeholders in Cape York enabling them to capitalise on opportunities for increased policy effectiveness.

Last Updated: 11 July 2017