A shared path to conserving our country

By Clare Watson 12 July 2017
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A guide to what we can learn from Indigenous landcare.

“THIS IS A BEAUTIFUL privilege to welcome you to my Country, and I’ll do it in my language,” Uncle Paul Callaghan says warmly, his back to the ocean, hands wide and feet grounded in sand. He continues in Gathang, the language of the Worimi people of the Great Lakes region and Port Stephens area, on the lower north coast of New South Wales.

For an Aboriginal perspective on caring for the land, the Hunter branch of Intrepid Landcare recently invited Uncle Paul to take their group of young conservationists on a walk through Country to learn about Indigenous culture – the oldest, continuous culture on the planet.

“Ours is a culture to be shared,” Callaghan says firmly. “The lore belongs to the Country, which is why you are just as welcome to it as me, if you love Country and care for it. In fact, it’s my obligation to share my knowledge with you so that you have an understanding of the traditional ways of loving this place.”

Intrepid Landcare is a youth arm of Landcare, a nationwide grassroots movement that has been that actively restoring the Australian landscape for over 30 years. Young people from Brisbane to Gippsland are finding their tribe with others who share a sense of adventure and are driven to create change for a sustainable future.

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Uncle Paul Callaghan, standing, welcomes Hunter Intrepid Landcare to Country following a cleansing smoking ceremony and before leading the group on a cultural immersion tour to Yacaaba Headland, pictured in the distance. (Image Credit: John Hembraa, Hunter Intrepid Landcare)

With retreats that bring together emerging leaders, Intrepid Landcare empowers young people to kick start groups in their local area and lead adventures with purpose. The Hunter tribe, formed almost a year ago, have been busy guiding kayak missions to restore coastal saltmarsh, a habitat for endangered shorebirds that is encroached by mangroves and other weeds, and bushwalks with littoral rainforest regeneration along the way. Their events call upon the expertise of park rangers, ecologists, other conservation groups and local Aboriginal elders.

As a Worimi man, Uncle Paul hosts cultural immersion tours along the sand spit to Yacaaba Headland, near Hawks Nest, north of Newcastle. The tours are an educational, historical and spiritual experience but mostly, a sincere invitation to learn about Aboriginal culture and from one another. “You’ll teach me some things today,” he says to the group. “You guys are the botanists.”

Beginning with a cleansing smoking ceremony and closing with a traditional dance, the tour was threaded with lessons from Indigenous history. On the walk, Uncle Paul shared his culture’s deep ecological knowledge, the many uses of different flora and harvesting practices by the season, and his own story of how he reconnected with his Aboriginal heritage.

“The day allowed us to connect to the land in ways that are unfamiliar to the mainstream culture – through story, song, dance and painting up in ochre,” says Kara Agllias, event organiser and co-leader of Hunter Intrepid Landcare. “Each of these activities built a connection and understanding of the local area in an entirely new way.”

Agllias and Intrepid Landcare recognise the importance of learning from the knowledge, experience and philosophies of our Indigenous people who have lived on this continent for tens of thousands of years. In this time, Aboriginal people have adapted to rapid and significant environmental changes with an intricate knowledge of the land. Country sustains them and in return, they care for their Country. The connection is deeply spiritual and unwavering.

Despite the extraordinary insight that this cultural longevity engenders, traditional Indigenous ‘Caring for Country’ practices typically do not fit the standard model of conservation. The familiar motto ‘Take only photographs. Leave only footprints’ echoes conventional natural resource management where humans are seen as destructive, their presence should be limited, and nature is a resource managed within boundaries. In Indigenous culture, people are a part of the natural world, tied to the land since the Dreaming, and they engage with Country on many levels.

“Aboriginal people don’t manage the land as we do in national parks,” explains Associate Professor Michael Adams, School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, and Indigenous Studies Unit, University of Wollongong. “They work out an appropriate way to cooperate with all the species that they live with – and that’s not how we think about conservation.”

Aboriginal landcare

Uncle Paul Callaghan, pictured on right, explains some customary uses of local flora in Worimi Country. Here, Uncle Paul is holding the flowering spike of a grass tree (genus Xanthorrhoea), which can be made into a spear, while resin from the stump can be used as an adhesive. (Image Credit: John Hembraa, Hunter Intrepid Landcare)

Associate Professor Adams, with Dr Heather Moorcroft, mapped the overlap between Indigenous lands and designated conservation areas, such as national parks. He says the formation of Indigenous Protected Areas, where Aboriginal communities can re-establish their own methods of caring for Country, revolutionised the conservation landscape in Australia. “It has created a large opportunity for Aboriginal ranger programs, which have been found to be hugely successful – not just for ecological outcomes but in social outcomes for Aboriginal people, getting people back on Country and caring for Country.”

Reinstating customary practices, such as periodic slow burns to prevent future bushfires, is useful and effective, says Associate Professor Adams. The recent ‘My Country, Our Outback’ report from Pew Charitable Trusts documents the latest success stories from Australia’s heartland. More informally, learning to appreciate Aboriginal culture is the seed for new conversations between intrepid conservationists and traditional custodians. “It’s important to look at this Country with old eyes,” says Uncle Paul.

Intrepid Landcare co-founder Megan Rowlatt, who before Landcare worked for NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services, wants to honour traditional Aboriginal practices in the design and delivery of conservation projects with the next generation. Our human future is intertwined with that of the natural world, as Indigenous knowledge should be integrated with conservation efforts.

“An Elder once shared this with us on a project,” Rowlatt recalls. “He said ‘This is the ultimate form of reconciliation for me, people from all backgrounds, all generations, coming together and healing Country through land care’. We couldn’t agree more.”