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The application of Aboriginal knowledge, the result of millennia of experience, is essential to improve ecological management and inform environmental understanding. A case study from the Kimberley in north-western Australia, however, shows that the management responsibilities of traditional custodians need to be respected if Aboriginal knowledge is to be shared in ways that are beneficial for people, their country, and the interests of the broader Australian community.

Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. The ‘karparti’ approach
  4. North Kimberley Traditional Owners’ Ethnobiology Project: A case study
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References
  8. Wandjina and Wunggurr: Creators of the northwest Kimberley

It has become accepted wisdom that ecology in Australia, and especially northern Australia, is a very young science. It is widely recognized that our knowledge of many species and their distribution, let alone how they live together, is patchy. The absence of baseline studies often makes it difficult to identify and predict environmental impacts.

These statements would be irrefutable if this continent had been first colonized only two centuries ago. But how accurate is this conventional wisdom? Is it unduly influenced by a monocultural view of the world? The view can shift, depending on its cultural vantage point. A bicultural view of Australia offers a broader scope to ecological research, management and restoration.

Aboriginal ecological knowledge

The natural sciences of Aboriginal people draw on a wealth of ecological knowledge from thousands of generations of direct experience. Knowledge of species and their relationships is immense and detailed. Aboriginal histories of environmental change record uniquely long memories of country. Aboriginal ‘baselines’ describe environmental features over timescales ranging from decades to millennia; from the last sea level rise or volcanic eruption, to the recent invasion of new human societies with their suite of alien life forms.

Aboriginal science and knowledge systems have developed through many millennia of observation, experimentation and teaching to evolve sustainable relationships with the land. Contemporary environmental management must deal with changed land use patterns and different technologies, and in the next few decades, even rapid climatic change (Climate Action Network Australia 2001; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2001).

Over many years, Aboriginal ecological knowledge has been recorded by early European explorers, anthropologists, scientists, linguists, students, lawyers or historians for a range of different purposes (e.g. Mangolamara et al. 1991). In many cases, the recorded knowledge is archived for its interest value and conservation purposes, and has not been regarded as living knowledge to be applied to the contemporary management of land or sea.

Generally, for most of Australia, the application of the convergence of Indigenous science with Western knowledge systems is at an early stage. Changes towards the incorporation of Aboriginal knowledge and expertise in management practice (and conversely, the incorporation of Western knowledge in Aboriginal management practice) have occurred and are occurring in some parts of Australia, including Cape York Peninsula, Northern Territory, and the Kimberley (Yu 2000b; Baker et al. 2001; Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation 2001; Wunambal-Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation 2001). A range of methodologies and processes have been developed to implement participatory approaches with Aboriginal people in land use planning (Walsh & Mitchell 2001).

Seeking a ‘sea change’

Just as there are protocols for the use of intellectual property developed by scientific researchers, so too do the cultural dimensions of keeping and transferring traditional knowledge need to be respected. The provision of ecological knowledge by Traditional Owners cannot be isolated from their specific cultural responsibilities for managing and using country, from which the knowledge derives. Knowledge is entwined with customary Law, and people carry important legal and social obligations in sharing and maintaining knowledge.

Patrick Dodson points out that transfer of knowledge also involves important power, political and economic relationships.

If you go back to the great explorers of this country, they all had some blackfella with them who showed them where all the waterholes were and all the best country was. The next minute there’s a whole mob of other people coming into the place and the blackfellas are being dispersed . . . Knowledge is a very powerful thing. It’s not to say that knowledge is not to be shared, but how do we encourage the people who don’t live in our country to respect our interests? (Kimberley Land Council 2000, p.13)

Accordingly, we are not presenting a simplistic case about adding Aboriginal knowledge to scientific papers, or inviting Aboriginal people on research trips. Rather, we seek a ‘sea change’ in how ecologists conduct their research; how science (and which science) influences land management policy; how government agencies undertake their planning and allocate resources for environmental management; how resource developers conduct environmental assessments; how our society values and recognizes traditional knowledge; and, which (and whose) imperatives drive the management of land and sea in the public interest. Aboriginal custodians are often rendered invisible or overlooked in all of these circumstances, and it is this that we propose must change.

Biological diversity and knowledge diversity

Northern Australia is recognized as an area of high biological diversity. Certain areas are well known ‘hotspots’ for species richness (e.g. the Mitchell Plateau (WA); the Alligator Rivers region; Tiwi Islands; northeast Arnhem Land (NT); northern Cape York Peninsula; and the wet tropics of north-east Australia (Qld)). Less widely recognized, however, is the fact that the species, communities and ecosystems that constitute this biological megadiversity are also overlaid by layers of traditional Aboriginal knowledge. The diversity of knowledge reflects the diversity of life forms. This knowledge consists of names, utilitarian and ceremonial uses, creation stories, behavioural, seasonal and ecological information.

Such traditional knowledge and its study is referred to as ethnobiology or ethnoecology. Generally in Australia, despite its richness and diversity, ethnobiology is a minor or non-existent part of mainstream scientific and land management agencies. By contrast, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and other parts of Asia and the Pacific, ethnobiology is given the same level of resources and funding as Western taxonomic and ecological institutions such as herbaria and museums. The world’s leading botanical institutions, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (England) and the Missouri Botanic Gardens (USA), have extensive ethnobotanical staff and funding at work in various parts of the world.

Reductionist scientific concepts divide ethnobiology into ethnobotany and ethnozoology. However, traditional knowledge often crosses biological borders (between plant and animal) and traverses geographical boundaries (between land and sea), requiring multidisciplinary and holistic approaches for non-Aboriginal sciences to be more complementary.

Variation over space and time

North Australian traditional biological knowledge varies enormously over space and time. Spatial variation is most easily recognized at the language group level. In simple terms, different Aboriginal language groups have different names and uses of plants, even though they may be utilizing essentially the same plants and animals. Rather than seek uniformity, it is important for Western science to value the existence of knowledge variation between and within Aboriginal groups. For example, the Alawa and Mangarrayi language groups, whose lands occur in the central areas of the Top End of the NT, share a common boundary and have strong ceremonial, spiritual and marriage links. Traditional knowledge of plants from both languages was recorded separately with the senior Traditional Owners in the early 1990s (Wightman et al. 1994). A comparison of plant knowledge shows that only seven species have the same or similar name, and less than 40% of the plants utilized were used for the same purposes.

In terms of temporal variation, while the knowledge has been developed, tested and passed on over thousands of generations, it is possible that massive amounts of knowledge diversity could be lost in a few generations. At present, due to the relatively recent settlement and dispossession history of north Australia — literally in people’s living memories — traditional biological knowledge is suffering an escalating extinction phase. Necessarily, ‘extinction’ is a strong term, but it is not used here to imply that all elements of culture disappear with the loss of biological knowledge. However, if inter-generational transfer of knowledge is not fostered and maintained, then specific assemblages of detailed knowledge will be rapidly lost.

Many of the senior custodians of biological knowledge for language groups are old and passing away. They are the representatives of the last generation of Traditional Owners who grew up in the bush and were taught by family members who also grew up in the bush, remote from the influences of settler Australians. They have precise and detailed biological knowledge that they are struggling to pass on to younger generations. Of the eight senior authors of the Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngan’giwumirri (NT) ethnobotany book completed in 1995 (Marrfura et al. 1995), for example, three have since passed away and one can no longer undertake fieldwork. This pattern of knowledge loss is occurring throughout the northern part of the NT, and is mirrored in the Kimberley and north Queensland.

Such loss affects both the Aboriginal communities involved, and society as a whole. Against this trend of loss, however, there is a knowledge revival occurring in some areas as groups expand their ‘outstations’ across traditional country, and as a result of increased mobility and new effective technologies for recording language and exchanging information.

Benefits of ethnobiological research

Ethnobiological work can make a fundamental contribution to ecological research and management. In addition, it brings a range of benefits that add value to the research itself. It conserves and advances biological and ecological knowledge, some of which would otherwise become lost in the short term. If the research process (i.e. older people working with young people) reflects traditional ways of teaching and passing on culture, ethnobiological work can support the maintenance of knowledge and assist senior custodians to make it available for younger generations. In many cases, this transmission of knowledge is shifting from oral to include written or recorded forms.

Moreover, when it is properly undertaken, ethnobiological work actively shows respect for senior elders; unequivocally demonstrates traditional links to country; and assists Traditional Owners to interact with their country by providing access that is often not available for older people. Strategically, ethnobiological research allows links between traditional and Western ‘bush health’ concepts to be explored (Whitehead et al. 2000). It also provides improved information for the development of education programmes, environmental restoration activities, tourism enterprises, joint management arrangements, and other land/sea uses (Wunambal-Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation 2001). Wik, Wik Way and Kugu peoples from northwest Cape York Peninsula, for example, identify their priorities for collaborative ethnobiological research with Western scientists as those land management issues resulting from European colonization, such as exotic weeds, feral animals, and commercial resource use (Smith 2000).

Fully recording traditional ecological knowledge so that it has positive outcomes for habitats, species and the communities from which the knowledge derives, requires detailed study. This would include: (i) recording and analysing plant and animal names and uses; (ii) recording and articulating (where appropriate) the totemic relationships, ceremonies and creation stories associated with individual species, habitats and sites of high biodiversity; (iii) analysis of seasonal, spatial and personal restrictions on use of resources; (iv) the concurrent collection of Western scientific data relating to plant and animal distribution, abundance and health; and (v) extinct and extant species information.

This research is complicated and multidisciplinary. It requires the input of scientists, linguists and anthropologists who are familiar with the country and the biota, and who the Traditional Owners feel are qualified to undertake the work. Traditional Owners also need to be able to trust the researcher — and to trust that safeguards are in place to ensure that the knowledge recorded remains in their control.

The ‘karparti’ approach

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. The ‘karparti’ approach
  4. North Kimberley Traditional Owners’ Ethnobiology Project: A case study
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References
  8. Wandjina and Wunggurr: Creators of the northwest Kimberley

The term karparti is based on the Kriol word for the English expression ‘cup of tea’, although pronunciation varies across north Australia (it can also be heard as ‘garbordi’). The phrase ‘karparti approach’ is used here as an analogy for an unhurried and respectful approach to discussions or research with senior custodians of knowledge on mutually beneficial terms.

For us, karparti with Traditional Owners invokes remote localities, tucker boxes, shady trees, boiling billies, story telling, and making the time available to properly discuss plants and animals, land and sea management, and a range of related issues. When somebody calls ‘karparti!’ while travelling through country, it is time to stop and discuss where we have just been, or plan where we go next. The reasons for stopping may not be immediately apparent to the researcher, but are always important to the custodians. The ‘karparti approach’ is based on guidance by the senior custodians, respect, balance, reciprocity, flexibility and time availability, and of course, a pannikin or two of tea.

Respect for elders and traditional knowledge can be shown in a number of ways. One of the most obvious and important is paying elders at a rate commensurate with their expertise. Many elders possess unique knowledge that cannot be obtained from any other source and is often based on many years of experience. This knowledge is very valuable for social, economic and preservation aspects. Respect and flexibility is also critical when determining fieldwork sites, dates and times for fieldwork and plans for research. Authorship and copyright of any published materials should be determined with full respect for, and acknowledge of, the origins and the source of knowledge.

Balance between cultural sensitivity and scientific rigour while working in the field is an important part of the process. It is often difficult for scientists to relax methodologies to fit with Traditional Owners’ preferences and customs. However, it should be noted that this difficulty is mutual, and Traditional Owners are often confused and angered by the repetition and apparent lack of comprehension by many scientists (e.g. Puruntatameri et al. in press).

Reciprocity is deeply embedded in many of the Aboriginal cultures of north Australia. We use the term here to emphasize the importance of mutual benefit from projects, and from the ability to complement knowledge systems. However, we also wish to emphasize the concept of mutual action and the ability to give and take, both in the individual and cultural sense. The ‘karparti approach’ is not about simply collecting knowledge, but about creating a two-way flow of information, so that Aboriginal managers can also utilize knowledge gleaned from Western scientific methods. Researchers wishing to access Aboriginal country or knowledge should inform Aboriginal communities and their organizations well in advance, and negotiate research agreements that clearly set out the mutual benefits and the involvement of Traditional Owners.

Flexibility is required at all levels, from an ability to alter fieldwork schedules at short notice to fit in with communities and individuals, to being able to incorporate Traditional Owners’ ideas and desires into the project. For example, researchers must be able to alter schedules to allow for funerals, ‘sorry business’ and other unpredictable events, even though they may have planned work months in advance. It should be noted the reverse is also commonplace. Traditional Owners are often keen to undertake fieldwork and joint research at very short notice and with a minimum of preparation if circumstances are appropriate.

Time availability is critical but is one of the attributes that researchers find most difficult to bring to a project. Projects need to be discussed in detail, often several times, often with several groups. Time needs to be allowed for community members to discuss the project when the researcher is not there.

Furthermore, once a project has begun, information is often provided in small chunks rather than as a complete story. For example, when discussing the knowledge associated with individual plants and animals, the simple information is generally provided in early stages. If the researcher keeps progressing in their knowledge acquisition, more layers of knowledge are given. Consequently, when collating information about biota it is important to discuss the same plants and animals in many contexts.

One of the critical aspects of recording the ‘public’ first layer of traditional biological knowledge, is that it provides the vocabulary and educational process to allow Traditional Owners to take discussions of biological matters to the next level. This next layer of knowledge is complex, often involving links between biota, temporal and spatial variations, and spiritual factors. Generally, it is not discussed until Traditional Owners are confident that it will be understood in its proper context. Some of this knowledge also has restrictions placed upon its dispersal and if it is imparted to the researcher, it is imperative that non-public information is not placed in public documents.

It is essential for researchers to build a language of shared knowledge with its custodians. However, this carries responsibilities for ‘keeping the story straight’; observing the correct protocols for its use; and an acceptance that all will not be revealed to a ‘culturally unauthorized’ person from outside the community.

Ownership and control by Traditional Owners of their information (e.g. copyright of documents, tapes and photographs; vetting of public information; distribution of profits generated from uses of the knowledge; or restrictions on outside use of the knowledge) needs to be guaranteed by protection under copyright law; written and agreed protocols and procedures for using the information; and the custodians of knowledge feeling free and unpressured to decide what information can be shared.

North Kimberley Traditional Owners’ Ethnobiology Project: A case study

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. The ‘karparti’ approach
  4. North Kimberley Traditional Owners’ Ethnobiology Project: A case study
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References
  8. Wandjina and Wunggurr: Creators of the northwest Kimberley

The North Kimberley is predominantly Aboriginal tenure (as Aboriginal Reserve), and includes unallocated Crown Land, four pastoral leases, a mining reserve for bauxite, and the Drysdale River National Park (see map). Much of the 60 000 km2 region is of outstanding natural and cultural conservation value, including areas such as Ngauwudu (Mitchell Plateau), which is attracting escalating interest from tourists and nature conservation agencies.

Two Native Title applications encompass the region: the Wandjina/Wunggurr-Uunguu application of the Wunambal and Gaambera groups in the west, and the Balanggarra application in the east. These major Aboriginal groups and the Kimberley Land Council have been working together on a project funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Savannas, to explore the interface between traditional ecological knowledge and scientific perceptions of ‘good’ or ‘appropriate’ land management. The project was developed following decisions by the communities to start developing strategic management plans for their country.

The project and its outcomes

During the 1999 dry season, nearly 2 months of fieldwork were undertaken in six areas of coastal, river, woodland, and plateau country in the North Kimberley, based on the karparti approach. More than 50 Traditional Owners participated in the fieldwork. Study areas were selected by the communities to ensure the areas of responsibility for each key family group were represented. Knowledgeable younger men from each language group formed a research team with a consultant ethnobiologist. Names and information about use, distribution, and behaviour of a significant proportion of the region’s biodiversity, and more than 600 species of animals and plants, were recorded. The copyright and the ownership of information remains the property of the Traditional Owners and their corporations, and is recorded as photographs, more than 20 hours of audio, and 200 herbarium specimens. More than 30 recommendations about Aboriginal management were developed.

We consider that the outcomes provide a solid foundation to continue ethnobiological research. The project has built a shared knowledge that enables research to advance from the taxonomic level towards the ecological level, in the terms and language of the Traditional Owners. As it meets community aspirations rather than externally imposed priorities, such knowledge conservation work is appealing to Traditional Owners, and enthusiasm to continue is high. The project has also demonstrated that the karparti process of ethnobiological research itself (i.e. family groups travelling over and camping on country) provides a most appropriate forum for discussion, planning, and decision-making about land and sea management. The most relevant and least abstract place to undertake management planning is with the people who speak for country, on their country. The project provides a strong mechanism for maintaining Aboriginal traditional knowledge as its methodologies parallel traditional ways of teaching, by assisting senior people to pass knowledge on to younger people.

In addition to researching biological data, the project examined issues relating to the sustainable management of the biodiversity and cultural values of the region. The results of the research have been compiled in a ‘Management Manual’ [Wunambal-Gaambera and Balanggarra Traditional Owners, Wightman G, Mangolamara S & Smith D (2000) North Kimberley Traditional Owners’ Land and Sea Management Project Final Report. Kimberley Land Council; Tropical Savannas CRC (not publicly available)]. This ‘manual’ is being used as an information platform for negotiating agreements about access and joint management between Traditional Owners and government departments, research agencies, mining and exploration companies, commercial fishers, tourism operators, and other user groups. The main issues identified by this part of the project (touched on in the following section) have also informed management planning for the area, and provided the means for Wunambal Traditional Owners to prepare their own management plan for a specific area.

Management issues emerging from the project

During field work in the North Kimberley, Traditional Owners consistently raised three key priorities for management.

1. Passing on traditional knowledge of plants and animals: The community imperative of ‘passing on’ knowledge is not necessarily achieved by recording it in written form. While reports are usually a required outcome of Western science, the karparti approach places importance on the research process itself to ensure that it can support knowledge transfer between generations.

2. Visitor management: Under customary Law, Traditional Owners are responsible for management of sites and visitors.

3. Access to traditional homelands: Currently, tourists and others enjoy greater access to the country than the Traditional Owners. Ways to manage access by visitors have been identified. Moreover, like many Aboriginal people (e.g. Martu in Walsh 1992), North Kimberley people express their connection to land by using it. Traditional Owners desire greater access to country and its resources for their families and future generations, and to assert greater control over access by visitors whose presence may affect their activities and needs.

Wunambal country: Managing cultural diversity, biodiversity and tourism

Poorly managed and rapidly growing tourism is one of the most urgent issues in the north Kimberley (see also Schmiechen 1992). For Wunambal people at Ngauwudu (Mitchell Plateau), the pressures are particularly acute. Land and waterscapes sacred to Wunambal people, such as Punamii-unpuu (Mitchell Falls and surrounds), are also spectacular magnets for tourists. The number of visitors annually has increased 10-fold in recent years, and at current rates will nearly double within 4 years.

Traditional Owners are especially concerned, and indeed frightened, by the potentially dangerous consequences of uncontrolled access to sacred sites, which could result in accident, illness and even death for custodians or visitors. Tourists frequently visit, disturb, and camp on art, ceremonial and burial sites with no appreciation of their importance. Tourists have also been held responsible for the movement and removal of parts of skeletons placed in burial sites.

Wunambal people regard management as inseparable from land and sea ownership (Nesbitt 1992; Wunambal-Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation 2000). Management is a responsibility that comes with belonging to country (see also Walsh 1992; Sutherland et al. 1999). For this reason, Aboriginal people in the Kimberley are concerned that genuine joint management of national parks, where traditional ownership (and its responsibilities for making decisions about all aspects of managing country) is recognized, does not yet exist in WA. Currently, ownership is vested in a government authority and management is delegated to the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM), with Traditional Owners afforded no role in decision-making. The new State Government in WA, however, has committed itself to ‘implementing meaningful joint management strategies for conservation reserves’.

CALM has had an informal presence in Ngauwudu for several years. In 2000, Wunambal people invited the WA Minister for the Environment and the Department of CALM to visit their Kandiwal community at Ngauwudu to present the results of their ethnobiological work, so that ‘we landowners and you CALM can make a start about working together’ (Wunambal-Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation, pers. comm., 2000). At the time, Wunambal people were unaware that the WA Government had already converted 150 000 hectares of unallocated Crown land within their registered native title claim to national parks and conservation parks. These were created without notifying the native title holders; without their consent; without following the procedures of the Native Title Act; and without any agreement on joint management. The national park established over sections of the Mitchell River and its catchment is the first European tenure (apart from ‘unallocated Crown land’) over those areas of Wunambal country.

The elders make it clear: ‘we want CALM to help us manage tourists on our country, we know that all those people want to come up here — but we want it done in a proper way, a way that doesn’t steal our country’ (Wunambal and Ngarinyin elders, pers. comm. 2000). Wunambal people have called for the government to “pull back that paper making the national park before we can start talking again” (Wunambal elders, pers. comm., 2000). Backed up by legal action, they want the reservation orders withdrawn, pending negotiations about genuine joint management. Their call is supported by the Australian environment movement and the Australian Committee of the IUCN.

Management Plan

In the meantime, the Wunambal Traditional Owners for Ngauwudu (Mitchell Plateau) are using their research to lead the way in managing their country. With the Kimberley Land Council (KLC), they have developed a management plan for Ngauwudu (Wunambal-Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation 2000) to address the immediate issues of visitor impacts and sacred site protection on their country. Despite Drysdale River (on Balanggarra country to the east) having been a national park for more than 30 years, the Traditional Owners’ plan for Ngauwudu is the first conservation management plan proposed for any part of the North Kimberley. This innovation is a direct outcome of the ethnobiology project; and, if supported by other management agencies, will result in more effective and active management of the interlinked biodiversity and cultural heritage.

The guiding principles of the Plan are the maintenance of Wandjina-Wunggurr Law (see Box 1), and the protection of areas like Punamii-unpuu (Mitchell Falls and surrounds) in their natural condition. The Plan has been presented to a range of government and non-government agencies identified as potential partners for management. Their comments and support have been sought on the draft proposals, to form partnerships for on-ground management action to start during this year’s dry season.

The Plan provides guiding principles for arriving at more appropriate management actions on a range of issues including water supply, fire management, access to Aboriginal sites and visitor education. For example, CALM has proposed to drill boreholes to supply water for the campground. However, as Wandjina-Wunggurr Law requires the natural flows of water to be

maintained and unnatural flows to be avoided, the Plan proposes that tourists carry their own water and use surface water as an alternative. Sinking a bore would be against customary Law by creating an unnatural flow of water, ‘like drilling the backbone of Wunggurr’ who lives underground (Wilfred Goonack, pers. comm., 2000).

To provide another example, the very high diversity of vegetation types on the Plateau (valued by CALM for both conservation and tourism) are in part created by long-term Wunambal fire management (as well as water availability and other factors). Traditional Owners are proposing that resources invested in annual aerial fire-bombing be reallocated to support the re-establishment of patch burning by ground-based teams of Aboriginal people and other fire managers (Wunambal-Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation 2000).

Traditional Owners feel that they are marginalized in the current management of the area. The Plan aims to ensure governments and tourists respect the Law through greater understanding, and aims to provide better ways to provide access while maintaining respect. Leaflets, posters, signage and other educational products will be produced for distribution to tourists visiting the Mitchell Plateau and other parts of the North Kimberley. These are designed to meet the demand for information about Aboriginal values and history; help tourists understand the cultural dimensions of the country they are visiting; and educate people to behave in ways that minimize impacts to biodiversity and cultural values. In addition, painting and burial sites will be protected by closing access tracks or regulating visitation through interpretive information and installing viewing areas. Aboriginal rangers and guides are proposed, as are commercial agreements with tour companies. Measures will be devised to control feral animals, such as cattle and cats.

Sylvester Mangolamara, Traditional Owner and one of the researchers on the ethnobiology project, wants to ensure that tourists and government abide by Aboriginal Law.

We can share this land with white people if they want to come and look at Country, but they got to go according to our way, the proper way. They have to respect what we say, even if it’s a bit hard for them to understand. The only thing we don’t want in this Wunambal country is disrespect. (S. Mangolamara, pers. comm., 2000).

Overlaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal management approaches

In the North Kimberley, Aboriginal people identify a number of overlaps or ‘touch-points’ between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal management approaches. These overlaps suggest ways in which management planning can be informed and complemented by Aboriginal science, traditional knowledge and traditional responsibilities, such as at Uluru (Baker & Mutitjulu Community 1992). In addition, the convergence of Aboriginal and Western science has been used to develop management programmes for Aboriginal land in South Australia (Aboriginal Lands Trust SA 1999) and in NSW (English 2000a; English 2000b). For WA and other areas, these overlaps suggest ways in which Aboriginal management styles can provide solutions sought but not yet trialled by non-Aboriginal natural area managers.

• Traditional Owners consistently emphasize a need to regulate and manage visitors to their homelands, as these visitors are damaging country; littering; scaring and killing native animals; visiting significant sites; and even endangering themselves and those responsible for certain areas. Sacred and significant sites traditionally have a range of restrictions associated with access and use of resources in the area. Often this access and resource use is zoned, with tighter restrictions based on central zones and less restrictive practices moving away from these centres. This is almost completely analogous with contemporary Western practices for visitor management in parks and reserves.

• Traditional burning patterns basically attempt to ‘clean up’ country as soon as it is dry enough to burn the grass, especially around camps, other areas that are regularly used, and travel routes. This results in a patchwork of burning, ranging from cool early fires to late hot fires. While there are some difficulties in obtaining a clear definition of Western scientific perceptions of good fire management, it is generally agreed that a mosaic of burnt and unburnt country is preferred; to reduce or eliminate large, hot fires late in the dry season.

• Wunambal Law dictates a range of practices to conserve plants and animals during utilization. One example is the replanting of tops of some of the most important species of yams, which allows the same vine to produce another yam over the next few wet seasons. Smaller, skinny yams (often dug up with the larger yams) are replanted to allow them to ‘fatten up’. This represents common-sense sustainable utilization of one of the key carbohydrate food resources of the regions. Occasionally better quality yams from offshore islands are brought back to the mainland and planted around communities and settlements, a practice which represents one of the few recorded instances of plant breeding in Aboriginal society.

• Traditional Owners consistently describe a need to visit their traditional homelands to check everything is alright, visit sites of significance and to see what visitors (e.g. miners, fishermen, and tourists) are doing. This monitoring is critically important to Traditional Owners, for the country’s wellbeing and their own peace of mind and spiritual health, and parallels the concept of regular park inspection considered ideal by non-indigenous land managers.

• Western science incorporates ecological monitoring as a central tenet of good management — as do Traditional Owners, who often monitor the health of country by the observation of key indicator species and the continued ability to harvest yams, medicines and game. This is generally a skill obtained by growing up with country and based on long-term observation, interdependence and reciprocal obligations to country, plants and animals. Western science, while using more quantitative methods to assess the health of ecosystems, may gain further insight through also incorporating into monitoring these long-observed, traditional indicators of health and sustainable utilization.

As well as overlaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal management approaches, there are a number of points of divergence. Among the most important is the degree of difference between the two systems in terms of variation in management over time. Among Western scientific institutions and individuals, for example, there is a great deal of variation about land management, resource utilization and species and habitat conservation. This is highlighted in the variable scientific opinion that relates to tropical fire management (see Andersen 1999) and the changes in approach to conservation reserve management in the recent past.

Conversely, many of the laws, creation stories, and ceremonies that relate to land, habitat and species management from the traditional Aboriginal perspective are timeless and unchanging. Sylvester Mangolamara is clear about the relationship between knowledge, identity, and responsibility for management.

When you look at a book, every year they change books. Our Law stands one place, and straight, it never bends this way and that way. If we do bend it this way or that way, then we have to go to our senior elders and see if we can straighten that mistake out, and then we’ll carry on from there. But if we don’t do that, and it keeps on bending and bending, twisting around, and changing rules according to what they [CALM] tell us to do, and we happen to listen to them, then who are we? I’m not a Wunambal man then. I’d be full of shame. I wouldn’t approach Grandpa, I’d feel shame after making that big mistake. And country won’t accept me here any more, even the spirits that are holding the country for us.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. The ‘karparti’ approach
  4. North Kimberley Traditional Owners’ Ethnobiology Project: A case study
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References
  8. Wandjina and Wunggurr: Creators of the northwest Kimberley

Many of the opportunities offered to ecological management by knowledge conservation and ethnobiology — and much knowledge itself — will disappear from north Australia in a very short time. This will probably occur in the next few years if current trends continue. There is an urgent need, therefore, for a systematic approach to supporting ethnobiological research and knowledge maintenance by Aboriginal groups across north Australia, particularly in the wet-dry tropics and the Kimberley. This must be undertaken in a way that reinforces the enmeshing of knowledge within social structures and customary Law, so that the trend towards decline and loss is reversed.

There are at least 15 major Aboriginal groups in the Kimberley alone. Most are requesting support for ethnobiological research and ‘getting back on to country’ (e.g. Karajarri in Yu and Yu 1999), to extend the kind of work undertaken by North Kimberley people throughout the entire region. In North Australia, many Aboriginal communities are getting on with the job of management and occupation of traditional homelands, and do not wish to wait for the outcomes of protracted legal processes about ‘title’ and ‘extinguishment’.

‘Whitefella Law’ is yet to provide a nationally consistent statutory context for recognizing and supporting traditional knowledge and customary Law. The Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 refers to the role of Aboriginal knowledge in conservation management as part of its Objects. Unlike other States, laws for land management in WA, such as the Conservation and Land Management Act 1984, fail to even mention Aboriginal people, let alone recognize their role in knowledge and management.

Native title — the body of custom, Law, and common law rights which includes traditional knowledge — can be summarized as ‘the right to inherit and bequeath’ (P. Yu, pers. comm., 1997). However, the positive nature of this concept is not reflected in the Federal Native Title Act and the subsequent ‘ten-point plan’, which has been described as essentially a set of administrative procedures for extinguishing native title and providing compensation (Pearson 1997a). This negative approach has also been described as ‘fictitious’, given that native title held to be technically ‘extinguished’ continues to survive as a social reality (Pearson 1997b). Under current laws and policies, many Traditional Owners may undertake lengthy and harrowing claims to find themselves recognized as the ‘right mob for the country’, but with few rights recognized to its ownership and management (Yu 2000a).

Increasingly, most recently in WA, State and local governments and Aboriginal representative bodies are turning to negotiated native title settlements to provide greater certainty of outcomes, and more efficient use of public resources. The act of asserting connection to country through demonstrating traditional knowledge should be afforded greater value in these processes. Support for community-based initiatives that value and apply knowledge, based on a ‘karparti approach’, is likely to deliver resolutions more cost-effectively, efficiently, and respectfully than technical and adversarial legal processes.

Recognizing that there may be more than one knowledge system about a resource is critical to managing that resource cooperatively. Respecting knowledge enables knowledge to be shared; an important starting point for the sustainable management of land or saltwater country. The cooperation involved in genuine joint management of national parks, for example, unlocks a range of other environmental and social benefits, such as improved protection and management of biodiversity through the application of Aboriginal knowledge and practices, and enhanced protection of cultural land- and seascapes through the direct participation of Aboriginal managers. It is that sharing and respect for knowledge that can lead to coexistence, and ultimately, to reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. The ‘karparti’ approach
  4. North Kimberley Traditional Owners’ Ethnobiology Project: A case study
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References
  8. Wandjina and Wunggurr: Creators of the northwest Kimberley

This article was inspired by the work and ideas of Balanggarra and Wunambal-Gaambera Traditional Owners. The authors thank the Traditional Owners for their teaching and guidance, and their authorization to tell this story about management of Ngauwudu. Cultural information and images in this article are the property of Wunambal-Gaambera people, and shall not be used without written permission of the Wunambal-Gaambera custodians. The North Kimberley project was funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Savannas (http://savanna.ntu.edu.au). The Indigenous Land Management Facilitator project for the Kimberley, in its third year, is funded by the Natural Heritage Trust (http://www.nht.gov.au/ilmfsum.htm) through the Land+Sea Management Unit of the Kimberley Land Council.

References

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  2. Introduction
  3. The ‘karparti’ approach
  4. North Kimberley Traditional Owners’ Ethnobiology Project: A case study
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References
  8. Wandjina and Wunggurr: Creators of the northwest Kimberley
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Wandjina and Wunggurr: Creators of the northwest Kimberley

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. The ‘karparti’ approach
  4. North Kimberley Traditional Owners’ Ethnobiology Project: A case study
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References
  8. Wandjina and Wunggurr: Creators of the northwest Kimberley

By Wilfred Goonack and Wunambal Traditional Owners

Wunambal Law is centred on the belief that the northwest Kimberley was created by the Wandjina and Wunggurr. One old man who has now passed away, explained, ‘the Wandjina came from the wind and travelled the land and made this earth, and sea, and the mountains, the rivers, the waterholes, the trees, the plants, the animals, the language and then the people. Wandjina made everything. Wandjina then gave us the law to follow and gave us the land’.

As major fertility figures, Wandjina are associated with regeneration, the creation of rain, renewal of resources, and continuation of life. Wandjina left themselves throughout the region as landscape features and distinctive cave paintings (featured in the Olympic Games opening ceremony).

Wunggurr are creator snakes, their winding travels through the country with Wandjina breaking rocks, making rivers and watercourses, and creating living things. Many came from the sea, and now live in deep pools and waterholes.

The Mitchell Falls are part of Punamii-unpuu, a powerful creation place where live the spirits of children, and other living things not yet born. Punamii-unpuu is an important part of the Wunggurr travels, and is now one of the main homes for Wunggurr, a Wandjina–Wunggurr ‘cathedral’ where the snakes ‘meet and show each other’.

The senior Traditional Owner, Wilfred Goonack, tells the Lalai (Dreamtime) story that ‘the snakes all meet up here, and say ‘right, where are we going to camp? We’re camping at Punamii-unpuu, this is our home.’ Lalai, Creation, in the history. That’s the Law.’ Under Wandjina–Wunggurr Law, such powerful places must be cared for and strictly protected.

Wunggurr are intimately associated with Wandjina, ensuring water flows and good rains, showing themselves as rainbows in the spray over the falls during the wet season. ‘The rainbow is made from that snake’, says Goonack. ‘When you see that rainbow, that snake comes out of the water.’

In a similar way to the Traditional Owners of Uluru who are concerned about people climbing the rock, Wunambal people require that visitors to Mitchell Falls behave correctly and swim in the river ‘on top’ or ‘low down’ (above or below the falls), and not in the deep pools where Wunggurr live.