<p>Stacey Lee (11, left) sets the bark of trees alight to produce a natural light source to help hunt for file snakes <i>(Acrochordus arafurae)</i>, in Djulkar, Arnhem Land, Australia.</p>
2022 Photo Contest, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Stories

Saving Forests with Fire


Matthew Abbott

for National Geographic/Panos Pictures
22 July, 2021

Stacey Lee (11, left) sets the bark of trees alight to produce a natural light source to help hunt for file snakes (Acrochordus arafurae), in Djulkar, Arnhem Land, Australia.

Indigenous Australians have strategically burned land to protect their environment for tens of thousands of years. In a practice known as cool burning, fires move slowly, burn only the undergrowth, and remove the build-up of fuel that feeds bigger blazes. As a result, these traditional burns prevent larger, more destructive fires from occurring in the hotter, dryer months of the year. The Nawarddeken people, one of the traditional owners of West Arnhem Land in the north of Australia, see fire as a way to rejuvenate the land, and use it as a tool to manage their 1.39 million hectare homeland. Warddeken rangers use traditional knowledge and combine it with contemporary technologies such as aerial burning and digital mapping to prevent wildfires. In doing so, they have successfully decreased the amount of climate-heating CO2. The emissions saved earn carbon credits, and the proceeds are invested in the community and environmental projects.

The photographer is an Australian who once lived in West Arnhem Land and was accepted into a local community. He sees sharing the Warddeken rangers’ solution to wildfires important due to the climate crisis and the intensive bushfires Australia has seen in recent years.

Matthew Abbott
About the photographer

Matthew Abbott (1984) is a storyteller and photojournalist based in Sydney. He specializes in identifying, researching and executing in-depth long form visual stories. He believes that storytelling is most effective and powerful when it is based on a close connection to the subjects and an understanding of th...

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Technical information
Shutter Speed





Nikon D6

Jury comment

The story responds to Australia's devastating forest fires and makes us question what the world would look like if we had listened to ancient knowledge. The body of work is a proactive and pragmatic lesson which does not exoticize the Nawarddeken people, a First Nations group, but rather highlights the crucial value of their knowledge in a comprehensive review. While each image is strong on its own, intentional editing, strong pacing, and the sequencing of images illustrates how culture and the environment are inseparable in indigenous cultures. Furthermore, the story provides a refreshing balance of humans and nature in a way which forwards a perspective of interconnectedness and the role of humans as stewards of the land.