Countering Fish Stock Depletion through Traditional Knowledge, Tenure, and Use of Marine Resources in Papua New Guinea

Project Contributors: Martha Macintyre, Simon Foale

Fish stocks around Lihir Island in PNG are threatened by over-harvesting, as determined by research conducted by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. There is a real need to understand current and projected use of near-shore fishery resources in the context of rapid social and economic changes driven by a large mining operation that commenced in the area in 1997. The project “Traditional Ecological Knowledge Relating to Marine Environment and Fishing on Lihir”  is a collaboration among communities on Lihir, the University of Melbourne, and the Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program at The Australian National University. The project focuses on how the people of Lihir understand local marine resources, marine tenure systems, and methods of use, both in the past and at present. The study examines traditional fishing techniques, ideas of ownership and management of resources and restrictions on marine exploitation associated with the local belief system. The effects of more intensive fishing, which occurs because of introduced technologies and increase in population, are communicated to the people on Lihir. Low-impact exploitation strategies are encouraged in the attempt to influence local-level policy to reduce over-exploitation of fish stocks.

Those involved in the project consider it to be a resounding success. The project was carried out with proper consultation at all levels, and interviews were conducted with requisite cultural sensitivity. The main challenge is, however, that most people aspire to a better life, materially, than they have at present, and are shifting from a subsistence economy based on fishing and growing yams to a cash-based market economy. At the same time, they are worried about and dismayed by the many negative social impacts that have accompanied mining and a greater engagement with the global economy.

Mining and Cultural Loss: Assessing and Mitigating Impacts in Papua New Guinea

Credit: Simon Foale

Project Contributors: Martha Macintyre, Simon Foale

Kinami Mountain on Lihir Island, PNG. Credit: Simon Foale

Lihir Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a site for gold mining by a large multinational company – Lihir Gold Limited (LGL), which is projected to be operating for thirty-five years. The mining involves open pit extraction with deep-sea tailings disposal—a system that has been strongly criticized by some international environmental groups (Macintyre and Foale, 2004). The adverse environmental impact of mining in PNG has generated major social disruption, including the loss of cultural and environmental knowledge in several areas of the country where mining has taken place. The project “Social, Environmental and Economic Sustainability in the Context of Melanesian Mining Projects”  is a collaborative effort between the Australian Research Council (ARC), the University of Melbourne, and the Lihir Management Company, and is being implemented in three areas in PNG. This interdisciplinary project aims to integrate social and cultural analysis with agrarian and environmental studies, focusing on the development aspirations of local people, based on their understandings of social and environmental impacts at various stages of mining and on issues of long-term sustainability. The research addresses problems of cultural loss in the context of mining. It documents traditional uses of the local flora and fauna such as hunting and medicinal plants, as well as access to water, forests and land, and examines the effects of certain pressures, such as mining and population expansion, on traditional knowledge and its relation to ideas of biodiversity conservation. A local educational component is included, whereby schools participate in various research projects. The results are compiled, and findings, photographs, and other relevant materials are presented in posters, booklets and videos that are made available to the schools.

The project has been considered successful, but not without various setbacks along the way. The mining company lost interest in, and reduced support for, the project after it started, and this made work more difficult for some team members. Also, there is a profound tension locally between the desire for a better standard of living—which is facilitated by royalties, compensation, employment, and development programs associated with the mine—and the negative social impacts of mining, including loss of cultural and environmental knowledge and a pervasive disruption to traditional governance structures. This tension between aspirations for a more affluent life and the obvious loss of some aspects of tradition is not limited just continue reading–>

Putting Australian Aboriginal Cultural Values on the Map: The Wet Tropics World Heritage Area as a Biocultural Landscape

Project Contributor: Bruce White

The project “Mapping Aboriginal Cultural Values in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area”  was originally supported by the Aboriginal Rainforest Council Inc. (ARC), and is now supported by The Aboriginal Rainforest Advisory Committee, which comes under the Wet Tropics Management Authority, as well as the Queensland Natural Resource Management Ltd. The management authority broadly represents 18 Rainforest Aboriginal tribal groups on land and cultural heritage matters across the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area (WTWHA) in North Queensland. The project objectives are to overcome Rainforest Aboriginal Peoples’ social, economic and cultural disadvantage in the region, to assist and ensure their future cultural survival and to help coordinate their efforts to protect and manage Aboriginal cultural heritage and values in the Wet Tropics region.

A significant element of the project has been cultural mapping, which maps Aboriginal values onto the landscape by visiting their places of origin and recording Aboriginal beliefs, knowledge, heritage and practices for future collaborative management of the region as a biocultural landscape. This is a landscape where biological diversity is intricately tied to a diversity of Aboriginal knowledge, values, and practices over generations. The project anticipates that Aboriginal Peoples’ cultural contribution to biodiversity conservation will lead to the collaborative development of innovative, creative, and informed approaches to dealing with present-day problems facing environmental scientists and land managers in the WTWHA. Guidelines for equitable partnerships between Aboriginal peoples, all levels of government and the broader community to address a wide range of social, cultural, environmental and economic issues are contained in the Aboriginal Natural Resources Management Plan. The Management Plan takes an approach that is different from other resource management plans, in that it raises national awareness of the pivotal role that Traditional Owners play in the ecologically sustainable development of northern Australia. In so doing, it aims to increase opportunities for and involvement of indigenous peoples in local and regional resource management.

A Cultural Heritage Information Management workshop was held for Traditional Owners in the WTWHA in November 2006. The aim of the workshop was to share ideas on how cultural heritage information and traditional knowledge are being managed within and outside the Wet Tropics region. The workshop was meant to empower Traditional Owners to provide advice on the development of appropriate design for cultural heritage information management systems in the WTWHA. The project emphasizes that it is critical for traditional owners in the region continue reading–>

Integrating Local and Scientific Knowledge: The Wik, Wik-Way & Kugu Ethnobiology Project in Queensland, Australia

Project Contributor: Sarah Edwards

Dramatic changes to Aboriginal societies in Australia, which started with European colonization over 200 years ago and led to severe cultural erosion and the extinction of many Aboriginal languages, continue today with globalization. Environmental degradation, as a result of ranching, mining, and the influx of feral animals and invasive species, is contributing to overall loss of local knowledge and biodiversity. The change from subsistence economies to one predominantly based on “passive welfare” has also contributed to loss of traditional knowledge, languages and practices. In Aurukun, Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, Australia, a breakdown in traditional pedagogy among Wik Aboriginals was caused by the closure of “sacred schools” more than 30 years ago. It was at these schools that young Wik men reaching adulthood were segregated from the rest of the community and instructed in both sacred and practical aspects of “caring for country”. The loss in continuity of traditional knowledge is summed up well by one Wik-Alkan Traditional Owner, who lamented in 2002, before passing on: ‘My parents taught me the name of every tree, every plant, every fish… In twenty years this will all be forgotten. Young people today prefer to live in the busy world.’ (Aurukun Ethnobiology Database Project, 2006).

The project “Wik, Wik-Way and Kugu Ethnobiology Project”, based in Aurukun, is a cross-cultural, collaborative initiative between Western-trained scientists and local experts who belong to the Wik, Wik-Way and Kugu Aboriginal groups, including local rangers from Aurukun’s Land and Sea Management Centre, who mediate on behalf of Aboriginal Traditional Owners. Wik are a number of closely related Aboriginal groups linked through kinship and totemic affiliations and who speak related languages or dialects (e.g. Wik-Mungkan, Wik-Alkan and Wik-Ngathan). Kugu are similarly comprised of several closely related groups, although Kugu languages are considered to fall under the Wik umbrella term. Wik-Way are considered apart from the main Wik and Kugu grouping, having traditionally been separate culturally.

The crisis in loss of local languages that is occurring rapidly across much of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area in northern Queensland is being addressed by means of language training programs. An Aurukun Ethnobiology Database has been developed, which integrates local Wik knowledge with scientific data, giving parity to both. The database documents Wik and Kugu names of elements of their environment as well as local plant taxonomies and traditional land management techniques (such as the use of fire) that continue reading–>

Bridging the (Digital) Gap: Aboriginal and Scientific Knowledge of Biodiversity in Northern Australia

Project Contributors: Helen Verran, David Turnbull

Several groups of Australian Aboriginal Peoples are seeking ways to use digital technology (computers, digital cameras, sound recordings), in particular contexts, to keep their own languages and ecological knowledge systems strong. The project “Biocultural Diversity: Elaborating Theoretical Issues for Communities and Policy Makers”  is one of several related projects that were conducted in 2003-2006 within the Indigenous Knowledge and Resource Management in Northern Australia program (, coordinated through the School of Australian Indigenous Knowledge Systems at Charles Darwin University. This program aimed to support and develop indigenous databases that maintain and enhance the strength of local languages, cultures and environments in Northern Australia, by means of research on how people are creating collective memory with computers in indigenous communities in Northern Australia. The project dealt specifically with ways to assess biodiversity by drawing on Aboriginal cultural knowledge. It addressed the challenge of how to devise forms of data collection that enable different knowledge traditions (indigenous and western scientific) to work together. The database TAMI (Text, Audio, Movies and Images, stores and manages data for indigenous peoples’ use. TAMI is a cataloguing type of software that provides a visually based system for people to manage their own digital resources for perpetuating collective knowledge traditions. The database system adheres to the principles and practices of indigenous knowledge production, is designed to be useful for people with little or no literacy skills, and encodes no assumptions about the nature of the world or the nature of knowledge – instead, it is the user who encodes structure into the arrangements of resources and metadata. The users themselves become the designers as they bring together resources, then group and order them, and create products, such as DVDs and printed material. The project worked at the interface between academic research and engagement in policy formulation and activism for indigenous peoples’ rights.