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Conference Proceeding

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The transition from equilibrium to non-equilibrium models of ecosystems in the biological sciences during the past several decades parallels an evolution in the ways that anthropologists understand culture. Reconceptualizations of ecosystem processes (e.g., disturbance) and units (e.g., landscapes) are apparent in fire science where they have influenced a conversion from the belief that fire is a destructive artificial force to the belief that fire is a controllable natural element. What adjustments have fire scientists made in their understandings of people who ignite fires? Even though fire science literature is voluminous, the sociocultural and biophysical relationships surrounding fire are insufficiently understood. Ethnographic data on the fire-related knowledge and skills that indigenous peoples possess are especially sparse. This paper is a case study of everyday burning practices on Sumba, Indonesia. It approaches burning as a social activity with culturally-specific meanings, political and economic components, and with implications for human well-being. This paper also examines social constructions of savannas in the Dry Monsoonal Tropics and people who use fire to manage them. Ethnographic data combined with archival information will be used to explore the linkages and disconnects between studies of disturbance fires and 21st century understandings of culture. How can we explain the scientific and development literature that differentially assesses indigenous and non-indigenous fire regimes, technical expertise, and burning authority in Eastern Indonesia and Northern Australia? The social, historical, geographical, political, and environmental dimensions of fire produce problematic understandings of fire and fire starters.



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