Kimberley seed smoking trial underway to help rehabilitate Argyle diamond mine

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Wildfires have long played an important role in the regeneration of native vegetation in WA’s vast Kimberley landscape.

Now those trying to rehabilitate the region’s most famous mining site hope that fire may be the key to their success, through a new seed-smoking technique.

Since Rio Tinto closed its Argyle diamond mine in 2020, traditional owners have been committed to returning the site, about 180 km south of Kununurra, closer to its pristine state.

Gelganyem Group, representing the traditional owners of the site, has been involved in collecting a bank of approximately 80 different native species harvested from a 200 km radius around the mine.

Riley Shaw, the group’s seed operations manager, said a new smoke treatment is being trialled to boost seed germination at the once-bustling pink diamond mine.

“The idea is that we want to mimic a forest fire,” he said.

“Many Australian natives need smoke to deactivate their resting mechanisms so that they wake up, so to speak, and germinate better once we distribute them on site.”

Employees from Gelganyem Group and Top End Seeds were involved in handling seed smoking in Kununurra.(ABC Kimberley: Stephanie Sinclair)

The first round of seed smoking took place recently at Gelganyem’s Kununurra seed collection center.

“We need to sow when there will be imminent rainfall and sustained wet season weather,” Mr Shaw said.

To recreate a forest fire, a makeshift tunnel made of tarpaulin, star posts and poly pipe was constructed and filled with the native collection.

A small fire was then lit in a sealed drum, with smoke blown into the tunnel by a fan.

Man with dark skin and white beard smiles at the camera while standing in front of green leaf.
Gija man Andrew Daylight is part of the Top End Seeds collection team.(ABC Kimberley: Stephanie Sinclair)

Gija man Andrew Daylight works for Top End Seeds and is one of about 12 Indigenous men involved in the seed collection program.

After seeing many wildfires pass through his community of Warmun, Mr. Daylight was optimistic that the smoke treatment would have a similar effect in Argyle.

“If we let the fires rip … burn the trees and like when we get a little bit of rain or something like that, it brings back the leaves and the seeds,” he said.

“We need to put more seeds and trees in there to cover the holes and things like that.

“This is the first time I’ve seen something like this… it’s really good.”

An aerial view of a mining site with mounds of red dirt.
Work is underway to restore the site of the Argyle mine, which was shut down in 2020.(Supplied: ABC Rural)

The smoked seeds have since been taken to the Argyle mining site where they will be replanted.

Since collection started in 2019, more than 5,000 kg of seed has been collected, with a target of 11,000 kg for the mine’s entire revegetation program.

A spokesman for Rio Tinto said about 100 hectares of rehabilitation would be completed this wet season, using about 800 kg of seed.

Trial results are expected to be clear by mid-2023.

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