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Devastating bushfires affect lives of indigenous people across Australia

Among them is Noel Butler, a Budawang Elder of the Yuin Nation South Coast at New South Wales. He is a qualified teacher who has been working as a Cultural Educator for over 30 years, running specific programs for all sectors.

As a great animal lover, one of the first things Butler did after returning to the fire-ravaged site where his home stood for 18 years was to lay out some food for the wildlife that survived, and plant new plants for birds in the area.

“We had over 50 different varieties of birds here that lived with us all of the time and our kangaroos, wombats, wallabies, possums. And we lived with all those, like they didn’t live in cages, we lived with them,” said Butler.

A strong connection to the land has always been at the center of Butler’s approach to life as an Aboriginal man, and as a leading member of the Budawang Yuin people.

The fire also destroyed the center where he shared his cultural knowledge with youngsters, which itself was located just meters from his house. Butler said a lack of respect for mother nature can be blamed.

“I don’t hold the fire responsible for that. It’s from letting something that can be extremely powerful get out of control. And that is a case of not caring for the country properly. We can’t do that here even on our own land,” he said.

Experts have in the past pointed to the need to deploy countermeasures to prevent the fires growing as they did. Firefighters have typically relied on what’s known as hazard reduction burning when conditions cooperate, which sees deliberately lit, controlled fires designed to rid the ground of debris that could become potential fuel for fires.

But some people believe the country’s devastating fires are proof that those methods aren’t effective.

“What we’re seeing here is definitely the result from 200 years of mismanagement of the country and it’s sad to see. It’s devastating to see,” said Dan Morgan, an officer of the local land services at Aboriginal Community Support.

Butler has been calling for better land management for decades, including practices used by Indigenous people which date back thousands of years, such as the use of ‘cultural burning’.

“It was done by somebody being there on the land, knowing what lived in there. And you need to know that there is nothing in a breeding cycle, there’s no totemic animals or birds in that area that you can interfere with or destroy. You need to know all of that respect for all living things that are in your country. And then when you know that, then you know the right time and the right piece of the land that you can put that cold burn through,” he said.

Butler has strongly advocated these traditional methods, and says officials should look to the past in order to safeguard the future.

“I say to a lot of my students over a lot of years, that is: ‘look at yesterday today, for a better tomorrow’,” he said.

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