Assessing the value of ecosystem services delivered by prescribed fire management in Australian tropical savannas

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The savannas of tropical northern Australia, covering 1.9M km2, are relatively unmodified and support a very sparse human population (0.5 person/km2). Largely marginalised and impoverished Indigenous communities are key stakeholders in the region with legal rights to >60% of the land. Colonisation in the late 19th century significantly impacted long-standing Indigenous land management practices, resulting, until recently, in fire regimes dominated by extensive wildfires emitting, on average, >16Mt of greenhouse gases (GHG) per annum. To manage these emissions, the Australian Government in 2013 enacted an incentivised scheme—the Savanna Burning Methodology (SBM) under the Carbon Farming Initiative Act (2011)—to reduce wildfires through strategically applied prescribed burning. This paper assesses the value of ecosystem services (ES) delivered by fine-scale fire management under the SBM that is now applied to 25% of the 1.2 M km2 regulatory eligible savanna area, abating >7 Mt of GHG emissions per annum. While this scheme delivers and maintains a diverse range of ES supporting (i) the well-being of local Indigenous people, estimated at $189 million/yr (using a substitute value of government expenditure on Indigenous welfare), and (ii) many off-site ES for regional and global populations, the realised market value for GHG emissions abatement represents < 1% (i.e. USD 74.6 million since 2013) of the total value of ES. This assessment emphasizes the: (i) need to recognise the many benefits derived from SB; (ii) challenges associated with valuing ES for regional savanna stakeholders; (iii) further development of incentivised mechanisms for maintaining the flow of ES across sparsely settled northern Australian savannas. This assessment has broader implications globally where Indigenous and local communities aspire to sustainably manage their lands.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101343
JournalEcosystem Services
Early online date6 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021


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