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 were being lost. The database acts as an educational tool as well as a tool for use in conservation and land management. Local biocultural understanding has contributed to development of policy at the regional level (such as in relation to control of feral animals and weeds), as well as of a national oceans policy. The Wik, Wik-Way and Kugu Land and Sea Management Centre has a policy of following the International Society of Ethnobiology Code of Ethics. Additional aspects of the project are the development of tools to promote intergenerational transmission of knowledge, and the identification of potential commercial opportunities for the local community of Aurukun, based on the sustainable use of wild species.

Practical challenges that had to be overcome in this project included collecting primary Wik and Kugu data about local biodiversity for the database, since much of the traditional knowledge relating to a clan estate (including plants and animals that are found there) belongs to the traditional owners, is often considered sacred, and thus is rarely divulged to outsiders. To overcome this difficulty, the principal scientist and data collector in this project worked closely in partnership with traditional owners who led the data collection process. Further, one of the community’s Songmen (main traditional knowledge custodians) early on in the project “adopted” the scientist as his own daughter, thereby giving her kinship rights and thus allowing Wik protocols to be adhered to.

It is difficult as yet to assess the actual impact of the database and how it is being used in practice, but Wik youths used it to promote their traditional knowledge in a local eco-tourism initiative. A number of the original custodians of the knowledge incorporated into the database have passed away, thus making the database a valuable legacy and ensuring the knowledge is not lost altogether. Other Aboriginal communities in northern Australia have expressed an interest in developing a similar kind of database, so the Aurukun Ethnobiology Database may serve as a prototype for other areas (Aurukun Ethnobiology Database Project, 2006).

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