'Fund the Firies': Australia’s fires show why governments must pay wildlife workers.
Donations won’t put the fires out, or stop them from happening again - but people can. Governments paying green sector workers to safeguard ecosystems might prevent this tragedy repeating itself.
Just days before Christmas, two volunteer firefighters in New South Wales were killed as their fire truck was hit by a falling tree amidst the blazes. Both were fathers to young daughters; Andrew O’Dwyer’s one-year-old daughter Charlotte wore her father’s firefighting helmet to his funeral on January 7th. Their friends and colleagues will go back into those fire frontlines this week, facing toxic smoke and unprecedented infernos - unpaid.
To briefly sum up the devastation, at least 26 people have died, over 2000 homes have been destroyed, and an area larger than Scotland has burned. Smoke is choking cities around Australia, causing breathing problems as far away as New Zealand. Effects on wildlife have been disastrous. Conservative estimates suggest at least 480 million birds, mammals and reptiles have been killed or affected in the blazes, not counting bats; more recent figures suggest around a billion animals have died overall. Ecologists say they’ve likely resulted in multiple extinctions of Australia’s unique species, increasing the likelihood of further ecosystem collapses.
The ecological and climate disaster of Australia’s bushfires, like so many others, was preventable - and we know exactly how. Hindsight is an ugly and bitter thing. But if any good learning and positive change can come of this, we should embrace it with open arms. If we don’t, we’ll repeat the same mistakes, and suffer the consequences all over the world.
[Image: Australian students participate in a school climate strike to protest coal expansion in Sydney.]
The repeated call from protesting Australians enraged at their Government? ‘Fund the Firies - Climate Action Now’. They know that this is in great part a result of climate breakdown and poor management by governments. They recognise that the brave firefighters who put their lives on the line to protect wildlife, bushland, property and human lives should be paid for their work. It’s a shameful insult that these people, who provide a vital service to society and our planet, have to work tirelessly for long unpaid hours as volunteers in extremely dangerous conditions.
It took the government months of destruction to come up with a half-baked and inadequate response to the unpaid firefighter situation: giving people 20 days’ leave from their day jobs to fight fires, and pledging USD $7.5M to aerial firefighting. It’s a pathetic failure to adapt when we know the costs to affected communities dwarf this, and the worst is yet to come: the ‘Pyrocene’, or the age of fire, is just beginning and will be exacerbated by climate breakdown. Where to get the money for all these wages? It's simple: end Australia's suicidal fossil fuel subsidies, which reach USD $20 Billion (AUD 29 Bn).
The fires have simply brought the absurdity of the status quo into the orange light, the system’s ugliness now plain for the world to see. But the recognition must go further. It’s not just Australia’s firefighters who have been striving to protect us from the worst of disasters like this one.
[Image: firefighters tackle a wildland blaze in Portugal.]
It’s wildland firefighters risking their lives tackling the blazes in the Amazon, California, Siberia, and all around the globe - a job often pushed onto prison inmates that promises "hard work, low pay, miserable conditions ... and more!" These skilled people often work as volunteers in dangerous conditions, risking their lives. Yet in Brazil, the state even hit back against volunteer firefighters, imprisoning them on suspicion of starting the fires.
It’s the Indigenous land defenders whose deep knowledge and traditional practices of land management, including controlled burns, could have prevented this disaster. But these communities have been swept aside and persecuted for generations.
It’s the rangers and ecologists monitoring wilderness health year on year, flagging up species losses, ecosystem disintegration and destruction. Those same people, who have eyes on the wild every day, are too often silenced, not consulted when the big decisions are made about how we manage nature.
It’s the conservationists fighting tirelessly, on the ground, in the lab and in Parliament, to save these species from extinction and restore ecosystems. Yet they are underfunded and sidelined as troublemakers.
It’s the anti-poaching units, first scouts and first lines of defence against wildlife crime, going up against heavily armed poachers to protect nature at all costs. But although they risk their lives to uphold the law and protect the ecotourist economy, they are bypassed by corruption in the state and police forces who disregard their evidence.
It’s the environmental journalists and science communicators searching for these hard-to-find stories, and bringing the frontline reality to the public eye in cities, where people have been disconnected from the natural world. However, these truths are rarely given the coverage they deserve, washed out of print by stories more helpful to the narratives of the billionaire press.
It’s wildlife rescue workers and veterinarians working sleeplessly to save the millions of animals affected by these fires in Australia, and those affected by poaching and illegal trafficking for animal parts and exotic pets elsewhere. In the veterinary profession, hit by some of the highest suicide rates of any field, we cannot imagine the hardship they are going through now, being forced to euthanise thousands of animals too badly burned to save.
[Image: a burnt koala is attended to by staff at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. So many have died in the recent fires that conservationists are discussing whether they are now functionally extinct.]
In many places, these often working-class roles are taken on by the nation’s poor, local people and especially the Indigenous - many of whom have no choice but to protect their communities and homelands. And in fact, we cannot ignore that it’s very often women, breaking down gender stereotypes by making conservation one of the few majority-female STEM fields. Women are even putting themselves on the male-dominated, violent and militarised frontline against poaching and wildlife crime.
[Image: Petronella Chigumbura, 29, is part of the Akashinga anti-poaching unit - Africa's first armed all-female team. Photo by Adrian Steirn for Alliance Earth.]
Like Australia’s volunteer firefighters, these people are providing a vital service which protects us from the worst impacts of ecological disasters. They function both as prevention and cure, climate mitigation and adaptation. Without them, the situation would be so much worse. And yet, so many of these reputably-qualified and highly-skilled people are working for free or peanuts, doing long unpaid internships, volunteering part-time, or doing it unnoticed as part of their daily lives. The fact they work out of passion is not an excuse to allow a system in which they work for nothing.
Thousands are stuck searching for the few paid jobs that exist, which are paradoxically often not easily accessible to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. These are often working in big NGOs funded by donations, or they’re pay-to-volunteer projects which exploit passionate but inexperienced workers looking to build their CV - an unustainable model for these ecological projects and for the individuals starting out their careers. Many workers give up on green jobs altogether because the work can’t support them financially, let alone provide long-term job security or feed a family.
This is already unacceptable, but is made worse particularly because working conditions are extremely difficult. It’s physically tough and mentally challenging, involving many hazards - from the risk of burns in fires, to higher exposure to parasites and diseases, and even occasional attacks from the wildlife you are striving to protect. There are long hours at unsociable times, and work often takes place in remote locations far from family, including during traditional holidays. In a wildlife sanctuary, anti-poaching unit or vet clinic, you can’t simply go home for Christmas and leave the animals without your care.
Worse yet, many of these workers are actively persecuted for defending the environment. This is because their work directly confronts lucrative polluting and extractive industries such as poaching, mining, agribusiness and fossil fuels. Environmental defenders are brought to court, threatened with violence and evictions, labelled as terrorists, unjustly imprisoned, and murdered for their work. At least 164 land and environmental defenders were murdered last year according to Global Witness, down from 207 deaths in 2018. That’s three to four killed every week, a rate that’s been described as “war-zone levels”.
[Image: Paulo Paulino Guajajara, a member of the grassroots 'Forest Guardians' who combat illegal environmental destruction in the Amazon who was shot by illegal loggers in an ambush, was the first of at least 5 Indigenous people murdered in Maranhao in the past few months.]
Yet governments can turn this around, for people and planet. State funding for workers who protect and restore climate and ecology could provide countless skilled and good-quality jobs. It would reduce unemployment rates by taking these lost job-searchers into stable careers. Perhaps most crucially of all, it will massively increase the number of people working in green sectors, bolstering the workforce actively tackling the ongoing climate and ecological crisis. The reward-to-investment ratio is of almost incalculable value: this will have demonstrable long-term benefits for the job market and the stability of local and global economies. If governments fail to make this change, the resulting impacts on our society are so dire we cannot do them justice in this article, and as is often said, “There are no jobs on a dead planet.”
The Green New Deal and politicians backing it mention a just transition for workers in carbon-intensive sectors, and millions of new climate jobs. Often we’re convinced with images of engineers working on solar panels or wind turbines. But some of the best ways to tackle the crisis involve natural climate solutions: protecting, restoring and rewilding ecosystems for both mitigation and adaptation to oncoming change. Allowing nature to recover and heal from the damage humans have caused could suck untold amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and let wildlife bounce back, not to mention restabilising our food and water systems.
[Image: US congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at rally for the Green New Deal.]
In the GND’s millions of jobs, the boots on the ground protecting nature, ecology and climate are too often forgotten. That must change: we need these people more than ever. As we’ve seen in Australia and elsewhere, when weather patterns break down and ecosystems collapse, it’s not only our wild places and animal species that are threatened. When they die, we die, because our society and economy are based on ecology. The living planet sustains our food, water, and way of life. As its ecology is degraded and social inequity increases, our property, lives, children, social order and entire civilisations are increasingly threatened with collapse into chaos.
In an era of climate emergency, green sector workers are our emergency service workers. They should be paid, supported and respected as such. It’s time for Governments to accept that saving the planet is worth paying for.
Author: Iggy Fox, a wildlife biologist and science communicator from London, founded the Wildlife and Wilderness Workers Network (aka the Wildwork) in 2017 - now over 13,000 members strong. Fox has spent time working with rescued wildlife in Thailand, Colorado and Bolivia, including tackling Amazon fires set by cattle ranchers, and is also an active member of Extinction Rebellion.