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.
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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.

New tools help communities measure and reduce their emissions locally



John Englart/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Stephen Pollard, University of Melbourne

The slogan “What you can measure, you can manage” has become a guiding principle for local climate action. There’s an accounting standard made for this purpose: the Global Protocol for Community-scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories. Free online CO₂ emissions snapshots for municipalities in Australia, recently launched by Ironbark Sustainability and Beyond Zero Emissions, make the protocol more accessible than ever for local governments and communities that want to know what their emissions are, and what to do about them.




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In the absence of national leadership, cities are driving climate policy


The Greenhouse Gas Protocol provides a way to measure local greenhouse gas emissions and removals. It is designed to record two elements of local emissions:

  • emissions within a municipal area, such as from cooking with natural gas or driving a car
  • emissions from activities within that area that produce emissions somewhere else, such as using electricity from a coal-fired power station or sending rubbish to landfill.

The method creates a consistent approach to measure emissions in different localities. It lets local governments and communities aggregate their individual commitments to reduce emissions.

The protocol is aligned with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) standards that guide countries’ greenhouse gas inventories. Local accounts can then be nested within national inventories without double counting.




Read more:
Double counting of emissions cuts may undermine Paris climate deal


Australian local governments can do many things to help reduce their community emissions.
Australian Local Government Climate Review 2018, CC BY

By measuring greenhouse gas emissions at the local scale, the protocol supports local governments and communities as important actors in climate governance. Adding local efforts together gives them a stronger voice in national and international arenas. This political pressure is especially important given the inadequacy of countries’ commitments to meet the Paris Agreement targets.




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The good, the bad and the ugly: the nations leading and failing on climate action


Translating local actions to global impacts

Even though the protocol adds weight to local climate commitments, translating these commitments into action can be challenging. Consistent with IPCC standards, the protocol frames greenhouse gases in two important ways.

First, greenhouse gases are measured according to defined “sectors”. These include stationary energy, transportation, waste, industrial processes and product use, and agriculture, forestry and other land uses. These categories are shorthand for the complex and extended systems of infrastructure, resource flows and human activities that produce greenhouse gases.

Municipal boundaries often align poorly with these systems. The data on activity needed to calculate emissions are often patchy or misaligned at the local scale. Local governments and communities rarely have the authority to intervene directly and change these larger systems.

So although the protocol helps to direct attention to local activities and systems that produce emissions, changing those systems and activities is usually more complex.




Read more:
This is why we cannot rely on cities alone to tackle climate change


Second, greenhouse gas emissions are translated, through a set of simple equations established by the IPCC, into a “carbon dioxide equivalent”. These equations are the basis for comparing, aggregating and exchanging greenhouse gas emissions and removals of different types, at different times and in different places.

These calculations are entangled with the claim that “a ton of carbon is everywhere the same”. It forms the basis for regulated and voluntary markets in carbon trading.

However, there are problems with this assumed interchangeability. As Larry Lohmann argues:

While carbon trading encourages ingenuity in inventing measurable ‘equivalences’ between emissions of different types in different places, it does not select for innovations that can initiate or sustain a historical trajectory away from fossil fuels […]

Local carbon accounts aren’t the whole answer

In sum, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol supports the legitimacy and strengthens the voice of local governments and communities in global climate governance.

At the same time, defining emissions by territory and sector does not fully reflect the complexity of the infrastructure systems and human activities that cause emissions. In particular, the protocol can reinforce a framing of carbon as an exchangeable commodity. This poses the risk that choices about whether to reduce or offset emissions could be skewed.

Without suggesting there is no place for territorial carbon accounts, it is important to recognise that how we measure emissions shapes possibilities for how we might manage them.

Alternative approaches such as consumption-based accounts measure greenhouse gas emissions from what is consumed by an individual or within a territory. This draws attention to choices about what we eat and what we buy, and to the social norms and systems of wealth, which are harder to see in territorial accounts.




Read more:
What is ‘ecological economics’ and why do we need to talk about it?


The key point is that no single measure of greenhouse gases can offer a definitive view. As a complement to the protocol, an additional question for local governments and communities to ask when trying to manage greenhouse gases is: “Where do we have the power to effect change, and why does that change matter to us?”The Conversation

Stephen Pollard, PhD Candidate in climate change and sustainability, University of Melbourne

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