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 to be part of the information management design and direction from the beginning, and the workshop provided the first of many steps in developing the most culturally appropriate information management system. The development of a cultural heritage management system takes into account multiple uses, including use as an educational tool, a data archiving tool, a tool to monitor and manage cultural sites, areas and tracks, a tool for administering Native Title rights and responsibilities, and a tool for ensuring that significant cultural heritage information is retained. The system will potentially be available to a broad range of users with different levels of expertise and will cater for use at both regional and local scales. The Kuku Nyungkul were the first group to complete the Cultural Heritage Mapping Training in 2007. They have successfully obtained an Environfund grant to help with biodiversity and cultural management in their territories.

Cultural heritage mapping in the WTWHA continues under the aegis of Terrain Cultural Resource Management (www.terrain.org.au/programs/people-a-country/heritage-mapping.html). When the project is completed, the Commonwealth Government of Australia will be approached to re-nominate the WTWHA under the World Heritage Convention for re-listing as a biocultural landscape. The crisis occurring with the rapid loss of Aboriginal languages and associated knowledge is a part of the imperative for this kind of action by state, commonwealth, and international agencies. These Aboriginal languages can be expected to form an important part of the case for re-nominating and re-listing the area as a biocultural landscape.

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