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Age-old knowledge + contemporary science = healthy continent

Elder Mary Kolkiwarra sharing her intimate understanding of the Arnhem Plateau (Photo by Sam Betley-Toon)

Connections between age-old Aboriginal ecological knowledge and contemporary science and technology may improve the way all Australians husband ecosystems through rapidly changing land uses.

For the first time, the different types of knowledge are being compiled into a single set of sources as part of a project, ‘Indigenous bio-cultural knowledge’, which is supported by the Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS), a facility of TERN.

Those taking part in the project believe that by bringing together different world views in a collaborative, respectful way we will have a better chance of joining the dots between causes and effects of environmental degradation to come up with innovative ways of protecting and using our natural environment.

The first step, says project leader Dr Emilie Ens, is in having Aboriginal know-how and skill acknowledged and honoured.

Emilie is an ecologist in the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University. For her and the project team, this step is integral to achieving the bigger vision.

‘There’s been no comprehensive analysis of Australian Indigenous bio-cultural data before now, so this project will help researchers, policy makers and resource managers identify culturally important regions, species and ecosystems. This is a big task, because a lot of knowledge is passed down verbally, and not necessarily publicly available,’ Emilie says.

‘Aboriginal clan groups have spent 60,000 years developing a vast and intricate understanding of the ecology of our landscapes, and the ways in which people have changed ecosystems.

‘But because much of it is embedded in day-to-day living, it’s not pigeon-holed as “environmental science”, as in the European tradition. But there’s a lot going on in Aboriginal communities under the banner of land and sea management, that most Australians, even ecologists and others working in the environment, don’t know about. We aim to change that. This project is the first Australia-wide review of the work that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have done together. Once we understand that work better, we can clarify what processes we need to employ so that different types of knowledge are equally valued, and everyone can take part.

‘Let’s face it, Europeans haven’t done a good job as custodians of our wildlife and unique landscapes in the past 225 years, and it is time we, the wider community, gave Aboriginal knowledge credit where it is due. To enlarge the impact of that knowledge, we can use tools and technologies that the European tradition has excelled in developing,’ Emilie says.

As well as raising the profile of Aboriginal land and sea management effort, the project will help researchers pinpoint gaps, and map strengths and weaknesses. With this knowledge, governments and communities can decide how to make the best environmental gains from the resources available.

One of the challenges to be faced turns on finding common ground in the different world views of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people. An example, Emilie said, is how to control feral animals, since methods of control, and even views on whether an animal is a pest, are based in broader social values and ways of using the land. There is a growing feral-animal problem in Arnhem Land, because there is no consensus on how to control them, so little control occurs, to the detriment of people’s health and that of the environment.

‘A completely different problem we’re discussing is that, compared with government-run and other conservation areas, Aboriginal groups are managing vast tracts of land and sea with virtually no resources. It needs to be equitable. The question is how,’ Emilie says.

The project team will produce a website and discussion paper with case studies to highlight successful practices and challenges, and to share access to other resources; and a GIS-based map that ties literature of Indigenous bio-cultural knowledge to its location.

The team expects the results will be manifested in government policy and the everyday practices of land custodians—and that the results will be bigger than the sum of the parts.

Published in TERN e-Newsletter January 2013

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