Caring for Country: An Australian Approach to Indigenous Land Management

The Tanami track is a rough, corrugated ‘bush highway’ that cuts across the Central Australian desert from Alice Springs northwest to Halls Creek in the Kimberley. While an important artery serving Aboriginal communities and mining operations, this route traverses one of the more remote and unforgiving regions of the country, offering few amenities to the uninitiated traveler. From my home in Alice Springs it was a 650 km drive up the Tanami before reaching the turnoff to Lajamanu, the Warlpiri Aboriginal community where I worked, a further 230 km north.

Employed by the Central Land Council’s Land Management Unit last year, I gained a unique glimpse into life in the northwest Tanami desert and the land management issues its traditional Aboriginal custodians face in “caring for country”. My initiation into this field of work offered a steep learning curve and an experience rich in gems, thorns, opportunities and contradictions. I couldn’t have asked for a more challenging and engaging position.

Appointed as an “Indigenous Protected Area Development Officer”, my role was to consult with the Lajamanu community on a broad range of natural resource management issues and facilitate on the ground programs that encouraged greater community involvement in land management activities. Funded by Environment Australia, the position was created to assess the feasibility of Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) declaration in the northwest Tanami, a national initiative that seeks to promote biodiversity and cultural resource conservation on Aboriginal lands. As a liaison between community elders and government conservation agencies, I had to learn to walk between the worlds, acting as a bridge between traditional ways of caring for country and contemporary western land management principles.

Home to about 700 Warlpiri and Gurindji Aboriginal people, Lajamanu was established as Hooker Creek Reserve in 1948 by the Northern Territory government’s Native Affairs Department. At the time nearly 400 Warlpiri people were forcibly transferred from Yuendumu (a community about 500 km southeast) and the surrounding region to this new settlement on Gurindji land. While many people walked back hundreds of kilometers to their homelands, after repeated relocations some Warlpiri people adopted the community as their home. Issues continue to arise over the ownership and use of the Lajamanu area. However as the population today is primarily Warlpiri, many of the Dreaming stories and cultural responsibilities associated with the area have been passed on to them from Gurindji people.

Today Lajamanu is a dynamic community continue reading–>

Tales of Biocultural Diversity

Photo: Petul

Petul and I had just finished recording a Tzeltal Maya elder, Don Antonio, who was telling us some of the old stories about people, plants, places, and spirits. The man had been talking for hours, showing no sign of getting tired, in spite of his age. Petul and I, instead, were exhausted. As we sat back, taking a rest, I asked him—my invaluable collaborator through two years of doctoral fieldwork in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, in the early 1990s: “Well, Petul, I guess this is what you folks normally do at night, sit around with the elders telling stories?” From the puzzled look on Petul’s face, I figured that something wasn’t exactly as I had imagined. “Huh—said Petul after a moment of reflection—actually, that was the way it used to be… But now, you see, the kids are going to school, and when they come back at the end of the day (if the school is close enough that they can come back daily at all), they have homework to do. So that’s what happens at night: they sit at the table under the light bulb and do the homework. Some of the people, also, now have TV, so they sit around and watch TV at night. We don’t spend that much time visiting one another and listening to stories anymore. The kids often think that the old stories are weird, anyway, because of what they learn at school, or see on TV…” continue reading–>

Maya Jiro Mithe

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A folk tale from the Great Andamanese tribe that explains why birds are conserved in the Andaman Islands. The last speaker of the Bo language, the late Boa Sr., who died in February 2010, was seen talking to birds, as she believed that birds of Andaman understood her language. This is a story of a boy who belonged to the Jero tribe and lived near the seashore. continue reading–>

Filling the Gaps in Biocultural Diversity Conservation

What do we need to do to further promote biocultural diversity conservation?

Since the existence of an “inextricable link” between cultural and biological diversity was affirmed in the pioneering 1988 Declaration of Belém, the field of biocultural diversity (BCD) has grown organically out of a variety of sources in the natural, social, and behavioral sciences, humanities, applied sciences, policy, and human rights. It has developed as an integrative approach that sees biodiversity, cultural diversity, and linguistic diversity as three interrelated and interdependent aspects of the diversity of life. BCD research has also shown that there is a “converging extinction crisis” of BCD: BCD is in significant decline globally, under the cumulative and synergistic effect of environmental degradation and rapid socio-economic, cultural and political changes driven by economic globalization and cultural homogenization. These changes affect in particular Indigenous peoples and local communities, who represent most of the world’s cultural diversity and are the main stewards of BCD.

Efforts are underway all over the world—many of them spearheaded by Indigenous peoples and local communities themselves—to sustain and restore cultures and biodiversity, often against tremendous odds. Efforts are also underway to further advance knowledge and understanding of BCD and impart this approach in education, as well as to promote the adoption of bioculturally friendly policies at international and national levels. In short, BCD is becoming an increasingly accepted paradigm; yet, the overall prospects for sustaining the biocultural diversity of life remain precarious. The very fabric of life in nature and culture continues to unravel, leaving our biocultural world increasingly fragile and the outlook for humans and all other species increasingly uncertain. What more needs to be done to foster a global shift in values toward a new paradigm that celebrates, cherishes and protects the biocultural diversity of life, in order to ensure that sustaining and restoring BCD becomes a primary societal goal and a fundamental object of political, social, and economic action? What obstacles need to be overcome, what opportunities need to be seized?

In our book Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook (Earthscan, 2010), Ellen Woodley and I identified a number of gaps and needs at various levels: in research and field work, in policy, in synergizing with other germane approaches and common interest communities, and in education. Some examples are:

In research and field work:

Identify causal links between effective conservation and the maintenance of traditional and local values, beliefs, continue reading–>

Conserving Biocultural Diversity: Approaches and Conditions

How do we conserve biocultural diversity? It may sound like stating the obvious, but it is worth reminding ourselves at the outset that the best way to “conserve” the diversity of life is to make sure that it does not get depleted in the first place—that is, that it continues to thrive when it is still vital and resilient! When local cultures are alive and well, and people and their local environment are not threatened, biocultural diversity can be sustained in an implicit and spontaneous way, through the continued unfolding of traditional values, beliefs, knowledge and practices, as well as through the sustained use of local languages. And, indeed, there still are areas in the world where local cultures have maintained their vitality without imminent threats, or where they show resilience to such threats.

But the threats to biodiversity and cultural diversity are pervasive and far-reaching worldwide, and as a consequence the vitality and resilience of many local cultures and environments is rapidly eroding. In such cases, support for biocultural diversity often takes the form of explicit and conscious efforts at “revival”: that is, attempts to sustain cultures, languages and the environments when damage is imminent or has begun, or to restore them after they have already been damaged. Revival approaches are prevalent in the case studies included in our book Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook and presented in the project gallery on this portal. This underscores the urgency of the situation and the need to understand what conditions need to be in place in order to address the threats and restore vitality and resilience to bioculturally diverse people and places.

The projects we analyzed in the Sourcebook exemplify a great diversity of approaches to this challenge.  Each project addresses aspects of a whole constellation of issues that are critical for the achievement of biocultural diversity conservation and global sustainability. Looking at the projects as a kaleidoscope of human ingenuity put to the service of confronting some of the most pressing challenges of our times serves to highlight their very diversity as the key feature, instead of singling out individual projects as examples of “best practices”. It is the collective dimension of these projects as a whole, rather than the features of any one “model project”, that reveals the variety and richness of “good practices” that are and can be deployed according to need and circumstances. The diversity of continue reading–>