Published on February 3, 2020

AHMEDABAD: The devastating bushfire in 2019-20 in Australia affected 1.86 lakh sq km, killing close to 100 crore animals and burning 6,000-odd houses – making global headlines for its effect on environment and the biosphere.

“Several areas have lost 80-85% of its flora and fauna. The bushfire could have been prevented if we listened to the indigenous tribes,” said Prof Claire Smith, an anthropological archaeologist from Flinders University, Australia. “When the tribes had control of the land, they would burn the land annually to prevent accumulation of dried twigs and leaves which can work as fuel for the fire – it happened when the land is a bit wet and thus the practice did not affect the animals.”

Prof Smith, editor of Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology and two-times president of World Archaeological Congress from 2003 to 2014, was at Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar (IIT-Gn) as part of Scheme for Promotion of Academic and Research Collaboration (SPARC). She and Dr Alok Kumar Kanungo of IIT-Gn are working on a project titled ‘Indigenous Cultural Heritage as a Facilitator for the Sustainable Development Goals’ as part of the initiative.

She said that such catastrophe can be prevented with right steps at the right time, including learning from traditional knowledge. “We can learn to manage the land, get insight from traditional practices and can even engage them fruitfully by steps such as appointing community members as rangers,” she said.

The scheduled tribes in India form about 8.6% of total population of India. What lessons the incident holds for the country? Prof Smith said that India also has a rich tradition of indigenous cultures. “They live close to nature and have very deep knowledge about one place… Research on it can lead to policy documentation for the government,” she said.

Dr Kanungo said that as part of SPARC project, they are documenting tribes of Naga Hills in northeastern states and Bhils in Gujarat and Rajasthan. “As part of the project, we intend to document traditional practices and cultural aspects of these tribes. We also intend to document their lores and artefacts,” he said.’

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