Food, tools and medicine: 5 native plants that illuminate deep Aboriginal knowledge



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Zena Cumpston, University of Melbourne

Over countless millennia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have harnessed the tremendous potential of plants, ingeniously using them for medicines, nutrition, to express our culture and to develop innovative technologies.

But as I learn more about First Peoples’ plant knowledge, I’m also better understanding the broader Australian community’s failure to recognise the depth and breadth of our expertise.

Aboriginal people, our culture and deep knowledges are often seen as “in the past”, fixed and stagnant.

Damaging perceptions which cast us as lesser and posit us as a
homogenous peoples, who were limping towards inevitable extinction before
the arrival of a “superior” race, still abound. Such tropes deny our dynamic place in the present day, and our ability to continuously adapt and innovate.

Below I’ve listed five of my favourite indigenous plants and the multiple ways Aboriginal people used them, and continue to do so.




Read more:
To address the ecological crisis, Aboriginal peoples must be restored as custodians of Country


These plants are examples from my recent publication exploring Aboriginal plant use, and highlight our deep knowledge and holistic approaches to ecological management.

1. Spiny-headed mat-rush (Lomandra longifolia)

Spiny-headed mat-rush is a large tussocky plant found throughout southeastern Australia.

The Wurundjeri people particularly favour this plant for weaving cultural items such as necklaces, headbands, girdles, baskets, mats and bags for carrying foods, as well as for making technologies such as eel traps and hunting nets.

Spiny-headed mat-rush
Spiny-headed mat-rush.
Shutterstock

Its seeds are high in protein. They can be collected and pounded into a bread mix, with the core of the plant and the base of the leaves eaten as a vegetable.

Many diverse Aboriginal peoples use the roots to treat bites and stings. The caterpillars of several butterflies, such as the Symmomus Skipper, also rely on this plant for food and habitat.

2. Wallaby grass

There are around 30 types of wallaby grass in Australia. Native grasslands were once the most extensive habitat of Victoria’s western plains, but are now the most endangered plant community.

Wallaby grass
Wallaby grass.
John Tann/Wikimedia, CC BY

Grasslands provide food and habitat for a huge diversity of fauna, particularly birds, such as the peregrine falcon, whistling kite and Australian kestrels. Many animals, such as the legless lizard, little whip snake and fat-tailed dunnart, were once commonplace, but are now scarce in this endangered ecosystem.

Wallaby grass seeds make an excellent bread by pounding them into flour. The leaves and stem are also used to make cultural items, such as nets for fishing and hunting.

It’s also incredibly hardy – highly tolerant to frost, heat and drought, and requiring no fertilisers and little water. And it makes an excellent lawn, controlling erosion and weeds.

3. Bulbine lily (Bulbine bulbosa)

In summer, bulbine lily dies back to a dormant bulb, before re-shooting in late autumn. In spring, it displays vibrant yellow flowers.

Bulbine lily
Bulbine lily.
Shutterstock

Bulbine lilies can be found in all states except Western Australia, growing wild in tandem with milkmaids and chocolate lilies in the few areas of Victoria’s undisturbed remnant vegetation.

It’s considered the sweetest tasting of all edible root plants and is available year-round. You can find a plump, round, cream-coloured storage organ (a type of underground stem) under its stalk, which can be eaten after being roasted. Bulbine lily is also nutritious, a good source of calcium and iron.

4. Black kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus)

Aboriginal peoples from many diverse groups favour the fibrous kurrajong bark for making string for fishing lines, nets and bags, as well as body adornments such as headbands.

Flowers turn to fruit in the form of leathery pods. These pods contain highly nutritious yellow seeds, which contain around 18% protein and 25% fat, and high levels of magnesium and zinc.

Black kurrajong
Black kurrajong.
Luis Fernández García/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

To eat the seeds, you first must remove toxic yellow hairs surrounding them. They can be eaten raw and roasted, and have a pleasantly nutty flavour. The young roots of this tree also make an excellent food source and can provide water.

5. Black sheoak (Allocasuarina littoralis)

Favouring dry conditions, black sheoak is native to Queensland, Tasmania, NSW and Victoria, and can grow up to eight metres high. It flowers in spring, with either rusty-brown spikes or red flowers that develop into cones.

Its seeds are an important food source for many native birds, including parrots and cockatoos.

Black Sheoak
Black sheoak.
John Robert McPherson/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Diverse groups of Aboriginal peoples use sheoaks for various purposes. The shoots and cones can be eaten, and sheoak wood can be used to fashion boomerangs, shields, clubs and other cultural implements because the wood is both strong and resists splitting and chipping.

In fact, the earliest evidence of boomerangs, found in the Wyrie Swamp in South Australia, were made from various sheoak species, and were dated at 10,000 years old.




Read more:
The art of healing: five medicinal plants used by Aboriginal Australians


The Conversation


Zena Cumpston, Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Friday essay: crafting a link to deep time from ancient river red gum




Billy Griffiths, Deakin University

With a mischievous smile, Damien Wright gives the exhibit an unceremonious kick. The enormous, curved slab of river red gum rocks back and forth on the gallery floor, casting a wavering shadow over the “Do Not Touch” sign at its base.

A couple of anxious visitors shuffle over to investigate as Damien tells me how he made this wobbling wooden bowl, and why he chooses to work with the hardest, most challenging timbers.

Damien Wright, ‘Food Bowl’, 2017. Recovered Red Gum, 2800 x 1300 x 250mm.
Fred Kroh

The river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) once grew on the banks of the Murray River. Damien discovered the thick slab in a miller’s yard in Wodonga, where it had lain exposed to the elements for years, slowly warping in the heat. What others had dismissed as damaged wood, Damien saw as creative possibility: he relished the opportunity to work with wood that had been “cooked, cured and crazed by the sun”.

In his workshop in Northcote, Melbourne, he worked to accentuate the warp in the wood by curving the edges of the slab, creating a long, bowing channel, almost three metres in length and over a metre wide. Like all his work, this object is an argument he has made with his hands.

The rough, red, cracking grain of the wood runs lengthways across the piece, like gullies and rivulets spreading across a parched, burnt land. Damien encourages this comparison with his title, which is a pointed commentary on the mistreatment of the waterways on which the tree grew.

“It’s called Food Bowl”, he tells me. And then, gesturing to a knot in the centre, “It drains in the middle”.

Damien Wright, left, and miller Kelvin Barton with the slab that became Food Bowl, Wodonga, 2017.
Fred Kroh

For Damien, wood is a way of thinking about place and time — even deep time. A river red gum may grow for anywhere between 400 and 1,000 years before it falls. And as it decomposes over centuries it becomes a home for new life. Murray cod lay their eggs in drowned red gums.

To work with wood is to think beyond a human lifespan. When you look at something like the Murray-Darling system from the perspective of a grand old red gum, you see the fragility and inter-connectedness of the waterway, and how rapidly it has degraded with recent human interventions.

“And if you have that conversation about deep time in this country”, says Damien, “you have to talk about Indigenous people and this continent as an occupied and cultural space, not just a physical place”.




Read more:
Friday essay: when did Australia’s human history begin?


River red gums were a part of Australia’s environment long before people arrived here. They grew beside the Murray River when it was a wide, cold, fast-flowing stream; they witnessed its transformation in the late Pleistocene into a narrow, sinuous, seasonal river; and they have remained, over the past 13,000 years, as the water has slowed and warmed, forming swamps, low sand dunes and small lakes along the channel, and seasonal wetlands in the wider riverine plain.

These mighty trees have also been absorbed into the social and cultural worlds of Indigenous Australians. Their roots have been dug and hollowed out to create bowls, their bark cut to craft canoes, and their limbs burned to warm camps and cook food. In recent millennia, they presided over the most densely populated areas of the continent.

A red gum along the Wagirra Trail in Albury, 2017. Before European settlement, wooden canoes were cut from the trees and used by the Wiradjuri people on the Murray River.
Sarah McPhee/AAP



Read more:
The ring trees of Victoria’s Watti Watti people are an extraordinary part of our heritage


Damien tells me how he seeks to evoke this deep history through his craft as he shows me two of his other pieces: a striking lantern (Black Lighthouse) he made in collaboration with Yolngu craftsman Bonhula Yunupingu, which glows like a fire through thin, black wood; and an elegant reading chair and angular side table called Ned — a riff on Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly helmet, which it closely resembles.

Each piece of furniture has been made from red gum in a stage preliminary to fossilisation. The wood is black and almost as hard as stone. It is known as ancient red gum.

While other native timbers enable Damien to explore relationships with the Australian environment, the ancient red gum opens a conversation about deep time on this continent.

Geomorphologist Jim Bowler was the first to identify the material as red gum; he used radiocarbon dating to place its age at about 8,000 or perhaps 10,000 years old. Later I call him and, over the phone, he sketches out the wood’s journey from the banks of the Murray River to the workshops of inquisitive artisans like Damien.

The tree would have seeded after the end of the last ice age, at a time when sea levels were rising and the climate was warming.

The rapid snowmelt in the Victorian Alps caused the mountains to shed huge amounts of gravel, which was then swept into the Murray River. As red gums fell into an ancient channel they were covered by this new gravel, which sealed them in the riverbank.

Preserved from decay by the acidity of the water, the entombed wood slowly absorbed enormous amounts of iron and silica. This oxidising and ebonising process is what makes it black through to the centre and hard, much harder than other red gum.

Articulating a future

Jim first became aware of the red gum when he received some samples at the Melbourne Museum in 1990. The damp and fibrous wood had been unearthed in a quarry on Yorta Yorta land in Wodonga, where it was regarded as a nuisance by those more interested in the gravel around it.

Jim and his wife Joan Bowler recognised the significance of the timber and were eager to see it preserved and used. They helped arrange for the director of the museum to provide “authentications” for woodworkers to make it into furniture, and Joan and her friend Annetine Forell travelled the country over the following two decades, drawing the remarkable material to the attention of millers and craftspeople.

The late Kelvin Barton, a miller, woodworker and seventh-generation farmer, became a crucial intermediary. He collected the ancient red gum in Wodonga, reducing its water content in his ersatz kiln to turn it into workable timber. This was how Damien, a long-term friend and collaborator, came to encounter the ancient red gum — indeed it was in Kelvin’s yard that he found the much younger slab that became Food Bowl.

Ancient red gum, Wodonga, 2004.
Damien Wright

Damien uses the ancient red gum to articulate his vision for Australia. He sees craftsmanship as a language: a practice that is refined over time to communicate knowledge, beauty and ideas.

He considers his furniture — in its functionality as well as its elegance — as an embodiment of this philosophy. Objects tell stories. They become part of our everyday lives and express everyday futures:

My argument is that to take a material that is ten thousand years old and to articulate that in a beautiful and passionate way and to make that a relevant thing to our lives or to peoples’ lives is a way of articulating a future for this continent. It’s a way of understanding our place in time. It’s a way of dealing with people. It’s a way of projecting forward.

Damien Wright, Reading Chair and Ned, 2017. Ancient red gum and recovered black bean.
Fred Kroh

Joan Bowler shares this vision for the ancient timber. In 2008, her company Australian Ancient Redgum donated a six-metre “Fossil Tree” to the Children’s Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, so that “children can sit under this ancient tree and look up through the hollowed out centre and dream of what was and what might be”.

Trees that were seeded after the end of the last ice age, that survived the ruptures of invasion and industry, have reemerged to offer a deep-time perspective of the continent.

It is a scale that reveals the long-term costs of short-term exploitation, and renders processes like the degradation of the Murray-Darling river system into sudden events.

Ancient red gum also invites a longer view of Australian history. And in the hands of Joan and Damien, it calls for the acknowledgement of cultures and histories that for so long have gone unrecognised.

This is an extract from Living with the Anthropocene, Love, Loss and Hope in the Face of Environmental Crisis, edited by Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner & Jenny Newell (New South Books).The Conversation

Billy Griffiths, Lecturer, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Introducing the Maliwawa Figures: a previously undescribed rock art style found in Western Arnhem Land



A Maliwawa macropod found in the Namunidjbuk clan estate of the Wellington Range.
P. Taçon

Paul S.C.Taçon, Griffith University and Sally K. May, Griffith University

Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, has a remarkable range and number of rock art sites, rivalling that of Europe, southern Africa and various parts of Asia. Several thousand sites have been documented and each year new discoveries are made by various research teams working closely with local Aboriginal communities.

Today, in the journal Australian Archaeology, we and colleagues introduce an important previously undescribed rock art style. Consisting of large human figures and animals, the style is primarily found in northwest Arnhem Land, and has been named Maliwawa Figures by senior Traditional Owner Ronald Lamilami.

Infographic summarising some of the main features of Maliwawa rock art .
Infographic: P. Taçon; digital tracing: Fiona Brady

We recorded 572 Maliwawa paintings at 87 rock shelters over a 130-kilometre east-west distance, from Awunbarna (Mount Borradaile) to the Namunidjbuk clan estate of the Wellington Range, a region home to unique and internationally significant rock art of various types.

Maliwawa Figures consist of red to mulberry naturalistic human and animal forms shaded with stroked lines. Occasionally they are in outline with just a few strokes within. Almost all were painted but there is one drawing.

The figures are often large (over 50 cm high), sometimes life-size, although there are also some small ones (20–50 cm in height). Various lines of evidence suggest the figures most likely date to between 6,000 to 9,400 years of age.

Map of Kakadu/Arnhem Land showing the general location of the Awunbarna and Namunidjbuk areas.
Produced by A. Jalandoni; base map by Stamen Design [OpenStreetMap].

Animal-human relationships

In the Maliwawa paintings, human figures are frequently depicted with animals, especially macropods (kangaroos and wallabies), and these animal-human relationships appear to be central to the artists’ message. In some instances, animals almost appear to be participating in or watching some human activity.

Another key theme is a male or indeterminate human figure holding an animal, often a snake, or another human figure or an object.

Such scenes are rare in early rock art, not just in Australia but worldwide. They provide a remarkable glimpse into past Aboriginal life and cultural beliefs.

Scene of two male Maliwawas with ball headdresses reaching down to a shorter indeterminate human figure with a snake behind the male on the right and behind the left male a female and a macropod, Namunidjbuk. An indeterminate human figure with a cone and feather headdress is above.
P Tacon

Maliwawa animals are usually in profile. Some macropods are shown in a human-like sitting pose with paws in front, resembling a person playing a piano. Depictions of animal tracks (footprints) and geometric designs are rare.

Macropods, birds, snakes and longtom fish are the most frequent animal subjects, comprising three quarters of total fauna. But, more generally, mammals are most common.

There are seven depictions of animals long extinct in the Arnhem Land region, consisting of four thylacines and three bilby-like creatures. At one Namunidjbuk site there is a rare depiction of a dugong.

Digital tracing of panel of three bilby-like animals, Awunbarna.
Digital tracing: Fiona Brady

A third of human depictions were classified as male because they have male genitalia depicted. Females, identified because breasts were shown, are rare, comprising only 5% of human depictions. Almost 59% of human figures could not be determined to be either male or female because they lack sex-specific characteristics.

Human figures generally have round-shaped or oval-shaped heads; some have lines on the head suggestive of hair. 30% of human figures are shown with headdresses, of which there are ten different forms. The most common is a ball headdress, followed by oval, cone and feather.

Large male Maliwawa human figures from an Awunbarna site. The largest male is 1.15 metres wide by 1.95 metres high.
P Tacon.

Maliwawa males are usually in profile and often have a bulging stomach above a penis. A few Maliwawa females are also shown with an extended abdomen.

National significance

Most Maliwawa Figures are in accessible or visible places at low landscape elevations rather than hidden away, or at shelters high in the landscape. This suggests they were meant to be seen, possibly from some distance. Often, Maliwawa Figures dominate shelter walls with rows of figures in various arrangements.

We first found some of these figures during a survey in 2008-2009 but they became the focus of further field research from 2016 to 2018.

Back-to-back Maliwawa macropods in the ‘piano player’ pose, Namuidjbuk.
P. Tacon

In Australia, we are spoiled with rock art — paintings, drawings, stencils, prints, petroglyphs (engravings) and even designs made from native beeswax in rock shelters and small caves, on boulders and rock platforms. Often in spectacular and spiritually significant landscapes, rock art remains very important to First Nation communities as a part of living culture.

There are as many as 100,000 sites here, representing tens of thousands of years of artistic activity. But even in 2020, new styles are being identified for the first time.

What if the Maliwawa Figures were in France? Surely, they would be the subject of national pride with different levels of government working together to ensure their protection and researchers endeavouring to better understand and protect them.

We must not allow Australia’s abundance of rock art to lead to a national ambivalence towards its appreciation and protection.

The Maliwawa Figures demonstrate how much more we have to learn from Australia’s early artists. And who knows what else is out there waiting to be found.
The Conversation

Paul S.C.Taçon, Chair in Rock Art Research and Director of the Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit (PERAHU), Griffith University and Sally K. May, Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why most Aboriginal people have little say over clean energy projects planned for their land



Pexels, Author provided

Lily O’Neill, Australian National University; Brad Riley, Australian National University; Ganur Maynard, Australian National University, and Janet Hunt, Australian National University

Huge clean energy projects, such as the Asian Renewable Energy Hub in the Pilbara, Western Australia, are set to produce gigawatts of electricity over vast expanses of land in the near future.

The Asian Renewable Energy Hub is planning to erect wind turbines and solar arrays across 6,500 square kilometres of land. But, like with other renewable energy mega projects, this land is subject to Aboriginal rights and interests — known as the Indigenous Estate.

While renewable energy projects are essential for transitioning Australia to a zero-carbon economy, they come with a caveat: most traditional owners in Australia have little legal say over them.

A red-dirt road through the WA desert, with a tree either side.
Wind turbines will be built across 6,500 square kilometres in the Pilbara.
Shutterstock

Projects on the Indigenous Estate

How much say Aboriginal people have over mining and renewable energy projects depends on the legal regime their land is under.

In the Northern Territory, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth) (ALRA) allows traditional owners to say no to developments proposed for their land. While the commonwealth can override this veto, they never have as far as we know.

In comparison, the dominant Aboriginal land tenure in Western Australia (and nationwide) is native title.

Native title — as recognised in the 1992 Mabo decision and later codified in the Native Title Act 1993 — recognises that Aboriginal peoples’ rights to land and waters still exist under certain circumstances despite British colonisation.




Read more:
Indigenous people no longer have the legal right to say no to the Adani mine – here’s what it means for equality


But unlike the ALRA, the Native Title Act does not allow traditional owners to veto developments proposed for their land.

Both the Native Title Act and the the ALRA are federal laws, but the ALRA only applies in the NT. The Native Title Act applies nationwide, including in some parts of the NT.

Shortcomings in the Native Title Act

Native title holders can enter into a voluntary agreement with a company, known as an Indigenous Land Use Agreement, when a development is proposed for their land. This allows both parties to negotiate how the land and waters would be used, among other things.

If this is not negotiated, then native title holders have only certain, limited safeguards.

The strongest of these safeguards is known as the “right to negotiate”. This says resource companies must negotiate in good faith for at least six months with native title holders, and aim to reach an agreement.

But it is not a veto right. The company can fail to get the agreement of native title holders and still be granted access to the land by government.

For example, Fortescue Metals Group controversially built their Solomon iron ore mine in the Pilbara, despite not getting the agreement of the Yindjibarndi people who hold native title to the area.

In fact, the National Native Title Tribunal — which rules on disputes between native title holders and companies — has sided with native title holders only three times, and with companies 126 times (of which 55 had conditions attached).

There are also lesser safeguards in the act, which stipulate that native title holders should be consulted, or notified, about proposed developments, and may have certain objection rights.

Negotiating fair agreements

So how does the Native Title Act treat large-scale renewable energy developments?

The answer is complicated because a renewable energy development likely contains different aspects (for example: wind turbines, roads and HVDC cables), and the act may treat each differently.

Broadly speaking, these huge developments don’t fall under the right to negotiate, but under lesser safeguards.

Does this matter? Yes, it does. We know from experience in the mining industry that while some companies negotiate fair agreements with Aboriginal landowners, some do not.




Read more:
Rio Tinto just blasted away an ancient Aboriginal site. Here’s why that was allowed


For example, two very similar LNG projects — one in Western Australia and the other in Queensland — resulted in land access and benefit sharing agreements that were poles apart. The WA project’s agreements with traditional owners were worth A$1.5 billion, while the Queensland project’s agreements were worth just A$10 million.

Likewise, Rio Tinto’s agreement for the area including Juukan Gorge reportedly “gagged” traditional owners from objecting to any activities by the company, which then destroyed the 46,000-year-old rock shelters.

A matter of leverage

We also know the likelihood of a new development having positive impacts for Aboriginal communities depends in part on the leverage they have to negotiate a strong agreement.




Read more:
Uranium mines harm Indigenous people – so why have we approved a new one?


And the best leverage is political power. This comes from the ability to wage community campaigns against companies to force politicians to listen, or galvanise nation-wide protests that prevent work on a development continuing.

Legal rights are also very effective: the stronger your legal rights are, the better your negotiation position. And the strongest legal position to be in is if you can say no to the development.

For land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, this ability to say no means traditional owners are in a good position to negotiate strong environmental, cultural heritage and economic benefits.

For land under the Native Title Act, traditional owners are in a weaker legal position. It is not a level playing field.

A just transition

To remedy this imbalance, the federal government must give native title holders the same rights for renewable energy projects as traditional owners have under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the NT.




Read more:
Charles Perkins forced Australia to confront its racist past. His fight for justice continues today


Or, at the very least, extend the right to negotiate to cover the types of large-scale renewable energy projects likely to be proposed for native title land in coming decades.

We must ensure the transition to a zero-carbon economy is a just transition for First Nations.The Conversation

Lily O’Neill, Research Fellow, Australian National University; Brad Riley, Research Fellow, Australian National University; Ganur Maynard, Visiting Indigenous Fellow, Australian National University, and Janet Hunt, Associate Professor, CAEPR, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When rehoming wildlife, Indigenous leadership delivers the best results



Te Nohoaka o Tukiauau (Sinclair Wetlands)
Glen Riley, Author provided

Aisling Rayne, University of Canterbury; Channell Thoms, University of Canterbury, and Levi Collier-Robinson, University of Canterbury

Whakapapa [genealogy] binds tākata whenua [people of the land] to the mountains, rivers, coasts and other landscapes, linking the health of the people with that of the environment. Like humans, species have whakapapa that connects them to their natural environment and to other species. If whakapapa is understood thoroughly, we can build the right environment to protect and enhance any living thing.

These are the words of Mananui Ramsden (with tribal affiliations to Kāti Huikai, Kāi Tahu), coauthor of our new work, in which we show that centring Indigenous peoples, knowledge and practices achieves better results for wildlife translocations.

Moving plants and animals to establish new populations or strengthen existing ones can help species recovery and make ecosystems more resilient. But these projects are rarely led or co-led by Indigenous peoples, and many fail to consider how Indigenous knowledge can lead to better conservation outcomes.

Co-author Levi Collier-Robinson (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Apa ki ta rā tō, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Porou) with students from Te Kura o Tuahiwi.
Ashley Overbeek

We argue that now more than ever, we need transformative change that brings together diverse ways of understanding and seeing to restore ecosystems as well as cultural practices and language.




Read more:
Indigenous peoples are crucial for conservation – a quarter of all land is in their hands


Reimagining conservation

Where Western science often focuses on specific parts of complex systems, Indigenous knowledge systems consider all parts as interconnected and inseparable from local context, history and place.

Experience in Aotearoa and around the world shows Indigenous-led or co-led approaches achieve better environmental and social outcomes. For example, by combining distributional data with cultural knowledge about plants used for weaving or traditional medicines, we can work out whether they will grow in places where they are most important to people under future climate conditions.

In our Perspective article, we present a new framework for reimagining conservation translocations through the Mi’kmaq (First Nations people of Canada) principle of Etuapmumk, or “Two-Eyed Seeing”. In the words of Mi’kmaq elder Dr Albert Marshall, Two-Eyed Seeing is:

…learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing … and learning to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.

At the centre of this framework lies genuine partnership, built on mutual trust and respect, and collective decision making. This approach can be extended to local contexts around the world.




Read more:
Children make connections to Aki (Earth) through Anishinaabe teachings


Two-Eyed Seeing case studies

In Aotearoa, Te Tiriti o Waitangi (Treaty of Waitangi, 1840) provides a foundation for building equitable partnerships between tākata whenua (people of the land) and tākata Tiriti (people of the treaty). For us, as a team of Māori and non-Māori researchers and practitioners, Two-Eyed Seeing means centring mātauraka Māori (Indigenous knowledge systems).

Together with two conservation trusts, Te Nohoaka o Tukiauau and Te Kōhaka o Tūhaitara, we have been working to co-develop strategies to restore native wildlife at two wetlands in Te Waipounamu (the South Island).

These studies are weaving together genomic data and mātauraka Māori (Māori knowledge systems) to restore populations of mahika kai (food-gathering) species such as kēkēwai (freshwater crayfish) for customary or commercial harvest, and kākahi (freshwater mussel) as ecosystem engineers. We are also developing translocation strategies for kōwaro (Canterbury mudfish), one of Aotearoa’s most threatened freshwater fish.

Tuna (eel) monitoring at Te Nohoaka o Tukiauau (Sinclair wetland).
Paulette Tamati-Elliffe, Author provided

Where ecological data is scarce in Western science, such as for many native freshwater fish and invertebrates, past management of those species (for example, translocations along ancestral trails) can inform whether, and how, we mix different populations together today.

For some species, such as kōwaro, there has been little consideration as to how the mātauraka (knowledge) held by local iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes) can enhance conservation translocation outcomes.

Better conservation translocation outcomes

The biodiversity crisis calls on all of us to work together at the interface of Indigenous knowledge systems and Western science.

At the coastal park Te Nohoaka o Tukiauau and Tūhaitara, the revival and inter-generational transfer of knowledge and customary practices is restoring ecosystems that will be renowned for sustainable practice and as important Kāi Tahu mahika kai (food-gathering places).

We contend that centring Indigenous people, values and knowledge through Indigenous governance, or genuine co-governance, will enhance conservation translocation outcomes elsewhere, particularly for our most threatened and least prioritised species.


This work was carried out together with co-authors Greg Byrnes, John Hollows, Professor Angus McIntosh, Makarini Rupene (Ngāi Tūāhuriri, Ngāi Tahu), Mananui Ramsden (Kāti Huikai, Kāi Tahu), Paulette Tamati-Elliffe (Kāi Te Pahi, Kāi Te Ruahikihiki (Otākou)), Te Atiawa, Ngāti Mutunga) and Associate Professor Tammy Steeves.The Conversation

Aisling Rayne, PhD candidate, University of Canterbury; Channell Thoms, , University of Canterbury, and Levi Collier-Robinson, PhD Student, University of Canterbury

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia, you have unfinished business. It’s time to let our ‘fire people’ care for this land



Rangers from Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, conducting cool season burning on Martu Country.
Tony Jupp,The Nature Conservancy

David Bowman, University of Tasmania and Greg Lehman, University of Tasmania

Since last summer’s bushfire crisis, there’s been a quantum shift in public awareness of Aboriginal fire management. It’s now more widely understood that Aboriginal people used landscape burning to sustain biodiversity and suppress large bushfires.

The Morrison government’s bushfire royal commission, which began hearings this week, recognises the potential of incorporating Aboriginal knowledge into mainstream fire management.

Its terms of reference seek to understand ways “the traditional land and fire management practices of Indigenous Australians could improve Australia’s resilience to natural disasters”.

Incorporating Aboriginal knowledge is essential to tackling future bushfire crises. But it risks perpetuating historical injustices, by appropriating Aboriginal knowledge without recognition or compensation. So while the bushfire threat demands urgent action, we must also take care.

Accommodating traditional fire knowledge is a long-overdue accompaniment to recent advances in land rights and native title. It is an essential part of the unfinished business of post-colonial Australia.

Grant Stewart, a ranger from Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa. The benefits of Indigenous fire practices are becoming well-known.
Louie Davis

A living record

Before 1788, Aboriginal cultures across Australia used fire to deliberately and skilfully manage the bush.

Broadly, it involved numerous, frequent fires that created fine-scale mosaics of burnt and unburnt patches. Developed over thousands of years, such burning made intense bushfires uncommon and made plant and animal foods more abundant. This benefited wildlife and sustained a biodiversity of animals and plants.

Following European settlement, Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land and the opportunity to manage it with fire. Since then, the Australian bush has seen dramatic biodiversity declines, tree invasion of grasslands and more frequent and destructive bushfires.




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In many parts of Australia, particularly densely settled areas, cultural burning practices have been severely disrupted. But in some regions, such as clan estates in Arnhem Land, unbroken traditions of fire management date back to the mid to late Pleistocene some 50,000 years ago.

Not all nations can draw on these living records of traditional fire management.

Indigenous people around the world, including in western Europe, used fire to manage flammable landscapes. But industrialisation, intensive agriculture and colonisation led to these practices being lost.

In most cases, historical records are the only way to learn about them.

Aborigines Using Fire to Hunt Kangaroos, by Joseph Lycett. Indigenous people have used cultural fire practices for thousands of years.
National Library of Australia

Rising from the ashes

In Australia, many Aboriginal people are rekindling cultural practices, sometimes in collaboration with non-indigenous land managers. They are drawing on retained community knowledge of past fire practices – and in some cases, embracing practices from other regions.

Burning programs can be adapted to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. These include the need to protect assets, and new threats such as weeds, climate change, forest disturbances from logging and fire, and feral animals.




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This process is outlined well in Victor Steffensen’s recent book Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia. Steffensen describes how, as an Aboriginal man born into two cultures, he made a journey of self-discovery – learning about fire management while being guided and mentored by two Aboriginal elders.

Together, they reintroduced fire into traditional lands on Cape York. These practices had been prohibited after European-based systems of land tenure and management were imposed.

Steffensen extended his experience to cultural renewal and ecological restoration across Australia, arguing this was critical to addressing the bushfire crisis:

The bottom line for me is that we need to work towards a whole other division of fire managers on the land […] A skilled team of indigenous and non-indigenous people that works in with the entire community, agencies and emergency services to deliver an effective and educational strategy into the future. One that is culturally based and connects to all the benefits for the community.

Making it happen

So how do we realise this ideal? Explicit affirmative action policies, funded by state and federal governments, are a practical way to protect and extend Aboriginal burning cultures.

Specifically, such programs should provide ways for Aboriginal people and communities to:

  • develop their fire management knowledge and capacity
  • maintain and renew traditional cultural practices
  • enter mainstream fire management, including in leadership roles
  • enter a broad cross section of agencies, and community groups involved in fire management.

This will require rapidly building capacity to train and employ Aboriginal fire practitioners.

In some instances, where the impact of colonisation has been most intense, action is needed to support Aboriginal communities to re-establish relationships with forested areas, following generations of forced removal from their Country.




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Our land is burning, and western science does not have all the answers


Importantly, this empowerment will enable Aboriginal communities to re-establish their own cultural priorities and practices in caring for Country. Where these differ from the Eurocentric values of mainstream Australia, we must understand and respect the wisdom of those who have been custodians of this flammable landscape for millennia.

Non-indigenous Australians should also pay for these ancient skills. Funding schemes could include training, and ensuring affirmative action programs are implemented and achieve their goals.

Involving Aboriginal people and communities in the development of fire management will ensure cultural knowledge is shared on culturally agreed terms.

Fire people, fire country

In many ways, last summer’s fire season is a reminder of the brutal acquisition of land in Australia and its ongoing consequences for all Australians.

The challenges involved in helping to right this wrong, by enabling Aboriginal people to use their fire management practices, are complex. They span social justice, funding, legal liability, cultural rights, fire management and science.

Fundamentally, we must recognise that Aborigines are “fire people” who live on “fire country”. It’s time to embrace this ancient fact.

Andry Sculthorpe of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre contributed to this article.The Conversation

David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania and Greg Lehman, Pro Vice Chancellor, Aboriginal Leadership, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This rainforest was once a grassland savanna maintained by Aboriginal people – until colonisation



John Glover’s paintings show open savannahs and grasslands in Tasmania. (1838)
Art Gallery of NSW

Michael-Shawn Fletcher, University of Melbourne

If you go to the Surrey Hills of northwest Tasmania, you’ll see a temperate rainforest dominated by sprawling trees with genetic links going back millions of years.

It’s a forest type many consider to be ancient “wilderness”. But this landscape once looked very different.

The only hints are a handful of small grassy plains dotting the estate and the occasional giant eucalypt with broad-branching limbs. This is an architecture that can only form in open paddock-like environments – now swarmed by rainforest trees.

These remnant grasslands are of immense conservation value, as they represent the last vestiges of a once more widespread subalpine “poa tussock” grassland ecosystem.

The temperate rainforest in Tasmania’s Surrey Hills are a legacy of colonialism.
Author provided

Our new research shows these grasslands were the result of Palawa people who, for generation upon generation, actively and intelligently manicured this landscape against the ever-present tide of the rainforest expansion we see today.

This purposeful intervention demonstrates land ownership. It was their property. Their estate. Two hundred years of forced dispossession cannot erase millennia of land ownership and connection to country.




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Myths of “wilderness” have no place on this continent when much of the land in Australia is culturally formed, created by millennia of Aboriginal burning – even the world renowned Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

British impressions

Today, the Surrey Hills hosts a vast 60,000-hectare timber plantation. Areas outside the modern plantations on the Surrey Hills are home to rainforest.

On first seeing the Surrey Hills from atop St Valentine’s Peak in 1827, Henry Hellyer – surveyor for the Van Diemen’s Land company – extolled the splendour of the vista before him:

an excellent country, consisting of gently rising, dry, grassy hills […] They resemble English enclosures in many respects, being bounded by brooks between each, with belts of beautiful shrubs in every vale.

It will not in general average ten trees on an acre. There are many plains of several square miles without a single tree.

And when first setting food on the estate:

The kangaroo stood gazing at us like fawns, and in some instances came bounding towards us.

He went on to note how the landscape was recently burnt, “looking fresh and green in those places”.

It is possible that the natives by burning only one set of plains are enabled to keep the kangaroos more concentrated for their use, and I can in no way account for their burning only in this place, unless it is to serve them as a hunting place.

The landscape Hellyer described was one deliberately managed and maintained by Aboriginal people with fire. The familiarity of the kangaroo to humans, and the clear and abundant evidence of Aboriginal occupation in the area, implies these animals were more akin to livestock than “wild” animals.

A debated legacy

Critically, Hellyer’s accounts of this landscape were challenged later in the same year in a scathing report by Edward Curr, manager of the Van Diemen’s Land company and, later, a politician.

Curr criticised Hellyer for overstating the potential of the area to curry favour with his employers, for whom Hellyer was searching for sheep pasture in the new colony.




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These contrasting perceptions are an historical echo of a debate at the centre of Aboriginal-settler relations today.

Authors such as Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu) and Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth) have been challenged, ridiculed and vilified for over-stating the agency and role of Aboriginal Australians in modifying and shaping the Australian landscape.

These ideas are criticised by those who either genuinely believe Aboriginal people merely subsisted on what was “naturally” available to them, or by those with other agendas aimed at denying how First Nations people owned, occupied and shaped Australia.

New research backs up Hellyer

We sought to directly test the observations of Hellyer in the Surrey Hills, using the remains of plants and fire (charcoal) stored in soils beneath the modern day rainforest.

Drilling in to the earth beneath modern rainforest, we found the deeper soils were full of the remains of grass, eucalypts and charcoal, while the upper more recent soil was dominated by rainforest and no charcoal.


Author provided

We drilled into more than 70 rainforest trees across two study sites, targeting two species that can live for more than 500 years: Myrtle Beech (Nothofagus cunninghami) and Celery-top Pine (Phyllocladus aspleniifolius).

None of the trees we measured were older than 180 years (from 1840). That’s just over a decade following Hellyer’s first glimpse of the Surrey Hills.

Our data unequivocally proves the landscape of the Surrey Hills was an open grassy eucalypt-savanna with regular fire under Aboriginal management prior to 1827.




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Importantly, the speed at which rainforest invaded and captured this Indigenous constructed landscape shows the enormous workload Aboriginal people invested in holding back rainforest. For millennia, they used cultural burning to maintain a 60,000-hectare grassland.

Learning from the past

Our research challenges the central tenet underpinning the concept of terra nullius (vacant land) on which the tenuous and uneasy claims of sovereignty of white Australia over Aboriginal lands rests.

Our research drilled into the soil to learn what the landscape looked like before British invasion.
Author provided

More than the political implications, this data reveals another impact of dispossession and denial of Indigenous agency in the creation of the Australian landscape.

Left unburnt, grassy ecosystems constructed by Indigenous people accumulate woody fuels, in Australia and elsewhere.

Forest has far more fuel than grassland and savanna ecosystems. Under the right set of climatic conditions, any fuel will burn and increasing fuel loads dramatically increases the potential for catastrophic bushfire.

That’s why Indigenous fire management could help save Australia from devastating disasters like the recent Black Summer.




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Our land is burning, and western science does not have all the answers


The Conversation


Michael-Shawn Fletcher, Associate Professor in Biogeography, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The world’s best fire management system is in northern Australia, and it’s led by Indigenous land managers


Rohan Fisher, Charles Darwin University and Jon Altman, Australian National University

The tropical savannas of northern Australia are among the most fire-prone regions in the world. On average, they account for 70% of the area affected by fire each year in Australia.

But effective fire management over the past 20 years has reduced the annual average area burned – an area larger than Tasmania. The extent of this achievement is staggering, almost incomprehensible in a southern Australia context after the summer’s devastating bushfires.




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The success in northern Australia is the result of sustained and arduous on-ground work by a range of landowners and managers. Of greatest significance is the fire management from Indigenous community-based ranger groups, which has led to one of the most significant greenhouse gas emissions reduction practices in Australia.

As Willie Rioli, a Tiwi Islander and Indigenous Carbon Industry Network steering committee member recently said:

Fire is a tool and it’s something people should see as part of the Australian landscape. By using fire at the right time of year, in the right places with the right people, we have a good chance to help country and climate.

Importantly, people need to listen to science – the success of our industry has been from a collaboration between our traditional knowledge and modern science and this cooperation has made our work the most innovative and successful in the world.

A tinder-dry season

The 2019 fire season was especially challenging in the north (as it was in the south), following years of low rainfall across the Kimberly and Top-End. Northern Australia endured tinder-dry conditions, severe fire weather in the late dry season, and a very late onset of wet-season relief.

Despite these severe conditions, extensive fuel management and fire suppression activities over several years meant northern Australia didn’t see the scale of destruction experienced in the south.

A comparison of two years with severe fire weather conditions. Extensive early dry season mitigation burns in 2019 reduced the the total fire-affected areas.

This is a huge success for biodiversity conservation under worsening, longer-term fire conditions induced by climate change. Indigenous land managers are even extending their knowledge of savanna burning to southern Africa.

Burn early in the dry season

The broad principles of northern Australia fire management are to burn early in the dry season when fires can be readily managed; and suppress, where possible, the ignition of uncontrolled fires – often from non-human sources such as lightning – in the late dry season.

Traditional Indigenous fire management involves deploying “cool” (low intensity) and patchy burning early in the dry season to reduce grass fuel. This creates firebreaks in the landscape that help stop larger and far more severe fires late in the dry season.

Relatively safe ‘cool’ burns can create firebreaks.
Author provided

Essentially, burning early in the dry season accords with tradition, while suppressing fires that ignite late in the dry season is a post-colonial practice.

Savannah burning is different to burn-offs in South East Australia, partly because grass fuel reduction burns are more effective – it’s rare to have high-intensity fires spreading from tree to tree. What’s more, these areas are sparsely populated, with less infrastructure, so there are fewer risks.




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Satellite monitoring over the last 15 years shows the scale of change. We can compare the average area burnt across the tropical savannas over seven years from 2000 (2000–2006) with the last seven years (2013–2019). Since 2013, active fire management has been much more extensive.

The comparison reveals a reduction of late dry season wildfires over an area of 115,000 square kilometres and of all fires by 88,000 square kilometres.

How fire has changed in northern Australia.
Author provided

Combining traditional knowledge with western science

The primary goals of Indigenous savanna burning projects remain to support cultural reproduction, on-country living and “healthy country” outcomes.

Savanna burning is highly symbiotic with biodiversity conservation and landscape management, which is the core business of rangers.

Ensuring these gains are sustainable requires a significant amount of difficult on-ground work in remote and challenging circumstances. It involves not only Indigenous rangers, but also pastoralists, park rangers and private conservation groups. These emerging networks have helped build new savanna burning knowledge and innovative technologies.




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While customary knowledge underpins much of this work, the vast spatial extent of today’s savanna burning requires helicopters, remote sensing and satellite mapping. In other words, traditional burning is reconfigured to combine with western scientific knowledge and new tools.

For Indigenous rangers, burning from helicopters using incendiaries is augmented by ground-based operations, including on-foot burns that support more nuanced cultural engagement with country.

On-ground burns are particularly important for protecting sacred sites, built infrastructure and areas of high conservation value such as groves of monsoonal forest.

Who pays for it?

A more active savanna burning regime over the last seven years has led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of more than seven million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.




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Savanna burning: carbon pays for conservation in northern Australia


This is around 10% of the total emission reductions accredited by the Australian government through carbon credits units under Carbon Farming Initiative Act. Under the act, one Australian carbon credit unit is earned for each tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent that a project stores or avoids.

By selling these carbon credits units either to the government or on a private commercial market, land managers have created a A$20 million a year savanna burning industry.

How Indigenous Australians and others across Australia’s north are reducing emissions.

What can the rest of Australia learn?

Savanna fire management is not directly translatable to southern Australia, where the climate is more temperate, the vegetation is different and the landscape is more densely populated. Still, there are lessons to be learnt.

A big reason for the success of fire management in the north savannas is because of the collaboration with scientists and Indigenous land managers, built on respect for the sophistication of traditional knowledge.

This is augmented by broad networks of fire managers across the complex cross-cultural landscape of northern Australia. Climate change will increasingly impact fire management across Australia, but at least in the north there is a growing capacity to face the challenge.The Conversation

Rohan Fisher, Information Technology for Development Researcher, Charles Darwin University and Jon Altman, Emeritus professor, School of Regulation and Global Governance, ANU, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Remote Indigenous Australia’s ecological economies give us something to build on


Jon Altman, Australian National University

Land titling in Australia has undergone a revolutionary shift over the past four decades. The return of diverse forms of title to Indigenous Australians has produced some semblance of land justice. About half the continent is now held under some form of Indigenous title.

Forms of title range from inalienable freehold title to non-exclusive (or shared) native title. Much of this estate is in northern Australia, as this recent map shows.

Status of Indigenous title across Australia.
K. Jordon, F. Markham and J. Altman, Linking Indigenous communities with regional development: Australia Overview, report to OECD (2019), Author provided

Another map from 2014 shows over 1,000 discrete Indigenous communities and the division between north and south.

What’s different about these lands?

These lands and their populations have some unusual features.

First, the lands are extremely remote and relatively undeveloped in a capitalist “extractive” sense. These are the largest relatively intact savannah landscapes in Australia — and possibly the world.

Much of this estate is included in the National Reserve System as Indigenous Protected Areas because of its high environmental and cultural values, according to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria.

These areas still face threats from invasive animal and plant species, bushfires and increasingly extreme heat. These threats will lead to further species extinctions.

Indigenous Protected Area management plans address these threats to ensure biodiversity and cultural values are at best restored or maintained, at worst not eroded.




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Second, parts of these lands in the wet-dry tropics are valuable as sources of emissions avoidance and carbon storage.

Many groups are paid through offset markets and voluntary agreements to reduce overall emissions. There are emerging options for payment for long-term carbon storage – between 25 and 100 years.

These lands have some of the world’s highest solar irradiance. Multi-billion-dollar solar and wind/solar/green hydrogen facilities are being developed.

Third, the Indigenous owners and majority inhabitants are among the poorest Australians. Only 35% of Aboriginal adults in very remote Australia are formally employed. Over 50% of Indigenous people in these areas live below the poverty line.

Such poverty is explained partly by past colonisation and associated social exclusion and neglect, geographic isolation from market capitalism and labour markets, and different priorities.

Having legally proven continuity of customs, traditions and connection to reclaimed ancestral lands, landowners generally look to care for their country. They use its natural resources for domestic non-commercial purposes as allowed by law.

But Indigenous people continually struggle to inhabit these lands. Their dispersed small settlements range from townships to homelands. Government support is minimal and policy intentionally discouraging.




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The problem with official development models

Since federation, many government policy proposals to “develop the north” have sought to replicate the economic growth trajectory of the temperate south. Such plans are based on state-sanctioned, often environmentally damaging, market capitalism.

The latest version is the 2015 Our North, Our Future white paper, released after a parliamentary inquiry. In submission 136, Francis Markham and I asked, “developing whose north for whom and in what way?” We pointed out 48% of the north’s 3 million square kilometres was under Indigenous title at that time, and Indigenous ideas about the land are often very different from those of the government and corporate, mainly extractive, interests.




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Four years on, a Senate select inquiry is examining how the Our North, Our Future agenda is progressing. A specific reference to First Nations people has been added. In submission 13, we highlighted four fundamental changes over the past five years.

  1. the Indigenous land share of northern Australia has grown to 60%

  2. Indigenous people are living in deeper poverty partly due to punitive changes to income-support arrangements

  3. growing scientific consensus that global warming will have escalating negative impacts on northern Australia

  4. slowing population growth suggests the white paper’s goal of a population of 4–5 million by 2060 (from just over 1 million now) lacks realism.




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We are at a critical crossroads in policy thinking about northern Australia.

The dominant approach sees it as ripe for capitalist development, extraction and associated economic growth, irrespective of environmental consequences. Corporate pressure to undertake risky fracking for oil and gas and to develop industrial-scale agriculture and aquaculture projects epitomises such thinking.

The zero-emissions alternative

The holistic focus of ecological economics informs an alternative approach. It’s based on the tenet that everything connects to everything else: the economy is embedded in society and society is embedded in the environment, the natural order.

This line of reasoning resonates with the focus of many Indigenous landowners on the need to nurture kin, ancestral country and living, natural resources.

Ecological economics distinguishes between economic growth that depletes non-renewable resources irrespective of environmental harm, and forms of development that focus on human well-being, cultural and environmental values.




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Development in the north might take many transformational forms as we strive for a zero-emissions economy.

Economist Ross Garnaut discusses the potential of a zero-emissions economy in Australia.

Indigenous-titled and peopled lands are well positioned to drive this in three proven ways:

  1. by intensifying projects that reduce emissions and sequester carbon
  2. by increasing efforts to conserve biodiversity by managing and potentially reversing impacts of invasive species
  3. by becoming key players in the renewables sector through massive projects for domestic energy use and export.

The same landscapes can be used for sustainable wildlife harvesting for food and diverse forms of cultural production for income. These uses accord with Indigenous tradition and leave minimal environmental footprints.

Policy and practice must be informed by the environmental perspectives of Indigenous landowners, which are highly compatible with the core concepts of ecological economics.

In these ways, the North could emerge as a powerhouse region beyond current imaginaries. The climate crisis makes this transformation essential.

As ecological economies, remote Indigenous lands could deliver sustainable livelihoods to Indigenous people and contribute significantly to a zero-emissions economy of critical benefit to national and global communities.The Conversation

Jon Altman, Emeritus professor, School of Regulation and Global Governance, ANU, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

After the climb: how new tourism opportunities can empower the traditional owners of Uluru



The Anangu community of Mutitjulu stands in stark contrast to the sleek tourism infrastructure in the neighbouring town of Yulara.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Barry Judd, Charles Darwin University; Amanda Kearney, Flinders University; Chris Hallinan; Christine Schlesinger, Charles Darwin University; Joseph M. Cheer, Wakayama University, and Keir James Reeves, Federation University Australia

Last weekend marked 34 years since the land title to Uluru was handed back to the local Yankunytjatjara-Pitjantjatjara peoples. It was also when joint management of the Uluru-Katja-Tjuta National Park began between the traditional owners (Anangu people) and Parks Australia.

The arrangement recognised Anangu title to the land and ensured the direct involvement of Anangu in the development of tourism in the area.

The agreement also coincided with the relocation of tourism facilities from the southeast base of Uluru to the purpose-built resort town of Yulara. The old hotels and other tourist sites were discarded and became the base for the Anangu community of Mutitjulu.

However, if joint management aimed to deliver improved economic and social outcomes for Anangu residents, it has proven to be a spectacular failure.




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Today, Yulara and Mutitjulu stand in stark contrast. Yulara is filled with cashed-up, bucket-list travellers from all over the world, while Mutitjulu is an outpost of lingering disadvantage where overcrowding, underemployment, poverty, high rates of suicide and preventable diseases remain pervasive problems.

Mutitjulu was also the epicentre of the controversial Northern Territory National Emergency Response in 2007, commonly referred to as the intervention, when the federal government took control over more than 70 Indigenous communities in response to allegations of child sexual abuse.

Over a decade later, the intervention has done little to close the gap in these communities.

Mutitjulu is emblematic of what academic Jon Altman refers to as the persistent need to reestablish trust between Indigenous Australians and the institutions that for so long failed to ensure their basic human rights were protected.

An end to climbing brings new opportunities

The end of climbing at Uluru provides an opportunity to reset the relationship between the traditional owners and the tourism sector, and look for new ways for Anangu to be integrated into the industry.

Central to this is how the Anangu can meaningfully develop their cultural assets within the park to ensure the long-term benefit of their people, particularly through direct employment.




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Why we are banning tourists from climbing Uluru


There would appear to be ample opportunities for the people in Mutitjulu to take advantage of the 1,000-plus tourism jobs in Yulara, which are currently staffed largely by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from outside the community.

The closure of Uluru to climbing also necessitates the development of alternate visitor experiences, particularly more educational and immersive experiences that would entail learning from and interacting respectfully with traditional owners.

The decision to end climbing at Uluru has been a cause for celebration by Indigenous communities.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Obstacles to developing an Indigenous tourism economy

Yet, structural impediments prevent this from becoming a reality at Uluru, as well as other remote parts of Australia.

These obstacles include a lack of education and training options specific to Indigenous needs to help them set up and run their own businesses. Another issue is that land rights and native title claims have tended to benefit a few legally recognised landowners and haven’t been conducive to whole-of-community development.

Both the Anangu and key tourism stakeholders in central Australia, including Voyages Indigenous Tourism and Tourism NT, are keenly aware of the need to reform the local tourism industry.




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Enabling greater access to commercial bank loans is critical to Indigenous business development, as is collaborative planning between Indigenous groups and the government. Likewise, scientific and traditional Indigenous knowledge could be combined in new ways to drive tourism growth in areas like land and wildlife management.

The Anangu must also be empowered to start micro-enterprises grounded in Knowledge of Country that would strengthen their community, culture and language. One example of this is the Indigenous Ranger and Protected Area program, which involves Indigenous rangers managing their own lands based on traditional cultural practice.




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Another approach that has shown promise is embracing Indigenous knowledge systems as part of the tourist educational experience. This is gaining currency in the NT as remote community arts centres seek to become visitor destinations in their own right.

These approaches to bottom-up initiatives have the greatest potential for growth and long-term empowerment in Uluru.

A model for other Indigenous communities

A major tourism rethink also requires addressing the structural impediments that prevent Indigenous peoples from starting businesses.

For example, new incentives could be built into the Australian tax code for those who invest in businesses on Aboriginal-owned land. However, such measures will only succeed if they are supported by bespoke educational and training programs for Anangu wanting to work in tourism.

The closure of Uluru to climbing should not simply focus on the limits the Anangu have imposed on visitors, but rather on the new possibilities this presents to leverage tourism for a more sustainable and resilient future.

This could also provide a model for traditional owners elsewhere who want to reclaim decision-making authority over tourism and other cultural activities on their lands.

And it signals to the broader Australian public that a greater respect for the rights of Indigenous people might just be the catalyst that helps drive a brighter Indigenous future.The Conversation

Barry Judd, Professor, Indigenous Social Research, Charles Darwin University; Amanda Kearney, Matthew Flinders Fellow, Professor of Australian and Indigenous Studies, Flinders University; Chris Hallinan, Research Associate; Christine Schlesinger, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science and Ecology, Charles Darwin University; Joseph M. Cheer, Professor in Sustainable Tourism, Wakayama University, and Keir James Reeves, Professor of History, Federation University Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.