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Society for Conservation Biology Conference - Oceania 2012 - Darwin, Australia

  • Author:  NAILSMA
  • Indigenous Voices

    The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), an international professional organisation dedicated to promoting the scientific study of the phenomena that affect the maintenance, loss and restoration of biological diversity, held their second Oceania Section Meeting at Charles Darwin University (CDU) on 21-23 September 2012.

    The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) was one of the supporters of the conference which attracted scientists and practitioners (land managers) from across the Oceania region. Under the theme People and Conservation in Land and Sea Country the conference aimed to put Indigenous conservation management under the spotlight. Here is a snapshot of Indigenous voices at the conference.

    Caring for Country is a uniquely Indigenous movement

    Joe MorrisonJoe Morrison, NAILSMA CEO, delivered an inspiring Plenary Session on The Future of Indigenous Land and Sea Management in North Australia in which he called for a fresh look at how we value Indigenous landowners and managers and their unique traditional knowledge. He stressed the importance of Indigenous people managing their land and sea as the rightful and inherent owners of country. He also explained how the concept of community based land and sea management evolved into the uniquely Indigenous Caring for Country movement, a vision initially conceived in the early 1990s by Gurrgoni man Dean Yibarbuk, who was then the leader of the Djelk Rangers in Maningrida, East Arnhem Land.

    “Caring for Country is based on the use of two sets of knowledge systems – traditional and contemporary,” said Joe Morrison. “This concept sparked a level of enthusiasm rarely seen in remote Northern Territory communities. The meetings in the bush gradually became bigger providing a platform for Indigenous rangers to network, communicate and develop partnerships and strategies to examine new economic opportunities. Today, Indigenous ranger groups and land managers are performing an innovative and crucial role in maintaining healthy and resilient ecosystems in the face of pending climate change, dwindling global biodiversity, water scarcity and carbon pollution. They are also providing services of national significance including quarantine and custom surveillance across the northern coastline.”

    “But there are two different discourses taking place across the country”, Joe Morrison said. “On one side is the Indigenous understanding of Caring for Country which is embedded in a spiritual reality, connectedness to country and inherent cultural responsibilities, whereas another discourse sees people in the landscape as an externality and gives precedence to the scientific worldview of natural resource management.”

    Indigenous Ecological Knowledge is not understood properly

    Jayson Ibanez from Davao on Mindanao Island, Philippines, expressed similar thoughts. He is presently undertaking a PhD at Charles Darwin University and presented on Indigenous Peoples’ Perception of Natural Resource Management Planning in the Philippines.

    He said, “There is increasing recognition of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) in the Philippines which is underpinned by law”, but he thinks that governments are struggling with how to best use this knowledge, that there is a big misconception on what IEK could do. “Outsiders are trying to extract IEK and then incorporating this into plans; this puts IEK out of context rather than giving management tools to Indigenous people themselves - letting them manage their lands, and providing the resources.”

    “Indigenous people are involved in workshops to get their views but they are not really benefitting”, Jayson added, “there are a lot of intermediaries and funding is directed to established ecological or conservation organisations.”

    Western concept of conservation is very new

    Karau Kuna and Benjamin Sipa come from the Highlands in New Guinea, and are working on a Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program. Benjamin Sipa presented on Harnessing Livelihood and Development Opportunities to Reinforce Indigenous Conservation Action and Kauru Kuna spoke on Using GIS and Participatory Planning to Engage Landowners for Conservation of Land and Sea. They agree that it is very important to listen to traditional people and said, “You have to work two ways; if you just go in, monopolise and take control of everything, it does not work, it has to be a partnership.”

    Benjamin and Karau explained that many traditional people in New Guinea have hardly been out of their local area and have little or no understanding about global environmental challenges. “They have been good stewards of their lands but because things are changing, they are caught up in a transition and they can see changes taking place at a local level. They know about their environment intimately and how to do things, but the western concept of conservation is very new to them. They worry that outsiders take their land or disturb the spirits in the forest because of the stories they hear from other places.”

    “It is therefore very important to provide the best information to traditional people so they can make the best decisions,” they said.

    Strong ownership of Country

    Stan Lui comes from the Torres Strait Islands lying between Australia and Papua New Guinea. He works with the Tores Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) and presented on Torres Strait Turtle and Dugong and Community Based Management Plans. He said that Torres Strait Islanders feel such a strong ownership of their country because they were never forced off their lands. “Anything that happens on our land goes through our elders, so there has been a hierarchy of decision makers in place which still happens today.” He added, “Our management plans are based on traditional cultural protocols that have always been there although they have never really been documented”.

    “Everyone today, government, researchers and others, are trying to figure out how to engage with Indigenous people,” Stan said, “but at the same time, we are also trying to figure out how to engage with government and researchers, how to make them listen to us. Research in the past has not been kind to our people and we have learnt from that. Research and outcomes now are more directed by our people, by what we want.”

    “We hope jobs come out of management activities. We hope that when we create our IPA (Indigenous Protected Area) that we can get some resources to do work on country and preserve culture. We already have 42 rangers working in natural resource management in 13 communities. Their work was developed through consultations with the community - the community developed their work plans. These work plans cover six weeks and are put up on the notice board in the community so the community knows exactly what the rangers are doing.” Stan added, “These consultations make sure everybody in community knows what is going on. The consultations take a long time and are more expensive, but if done properly they cost less money in the long run.”

    Going back to a special place strengthens and empowers us

    Annette Kogolo is a Ngurrara woman who comes from country near Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia. Together with Sonia Leonard she presented on Integrating traditional Knowledge with Land Management Activities: Development of the Ngurrara Seasonal Calendar.

    The Ngurrara people of the Great Sandy Desert are using their Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to develop Cyber-tracker sequences for country management activities including a seasonal calendar data base and land management system, and to monitor the effects of climate change.

    Annette said that the culture and traditional knowledge of her people, is very strong “because we are connected to the land and everything in it spiritually through our songlines, through our jila (water holes), through our clan groups and through our kinship and we are actively working to look after our country”. She pointed out that the last of her people walked out of the desert in the 1950s and said, “Culture and kinship are very important for how we are connected to country and our rights to places that we can talk about, and on behalf of”.

    Annette would like to see more people going back onto traditional lands and practicing this traditional knowledge, maintaining language and culture and strengthening the land. She said, “When we go back to a special place it accepts us. It knows that we are there and welcomes us and we feel really strengthened within ourselves, especially going for the first time to places where once our family, our ancestors lived and hunted and gathered. Learning about that particular place really empowers you and strengthens you in your mind and spirit.”

    Annette thinks that there is not enough support for traditional knowledge but added, “Our culture is strong because we still have our old people. It is our responsibility and very important to keep this knowledge strong for future Indigenous generations, and for non-Indigenous people as well”.

    We worry about people and country getting sick

    Otto CampionOtto Campion, a Rembarrnga man from Ramingining in north- west Arnhem Land who has been involved in savanna fire management projects for many years. He was called back to country just before the conference but the essence of his contribution on What Really Drives Indigenous Engagement in Conservation and Carbon Economies was captured by his co-presenter Glenn James (NAILSMA).

    Before the conference Otto said, “If you look after country, country will look after you. Our relationship to kin and country and ancestry and law all exist in the landscape - that’s why we need to look after it. We would like to see that Caring for Country goes back to the people. We are worried about country and people getting sick. You can get better management of country by putting people back on country. We would like our people to be able to earn an income for looking after the country so we can stay on our country.”

    Indigenous values need to be taken seriously

    Joe Morrison summed up the concerns held by many Indigenous landowners and land managers in Australia and elsewhere. “I believe it is timely that the values held by Indigenous people are taken seriously as legitimate means of managing north Australia well into the future. We have the social, cultural, linguistic and site based ontology as firm building blocks for conserving the north’s unique natural and cultural resources.”

    “A beneficial start would be to have a monitoring and evaluation framework that deals with an Indigenous reality that includes important sites, songlines and people as central agents within country, as opposed to people being seen as external. Being able to measure and track changes that are driven by the ability for young people to visit their country with their elders, having ancient knowledge and practices passed on to them about how to read and manage that country – when to burn, when to harvest, when to depart, when to return – gaining an intimate understanding of people and their country.”

    Joe concluded, “For too long the language about Caring for Country has been about someone else’s agenda and the Indigenous voices are quietened down, ignored or just not considered as legitimate reasons underlying conservation efforts and the protection of biodiversity”.

    Read an article Three critical steps for the future of north Australia (Joe Morrison) and more information on the Conference event page.



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