Being Stewards of Country

Catriona Nguyen-Robertson Catriona Nguyen-Robertson,
RSV Science Communication Officer

I am a city girl, and while I have always loved visiting the countryside and being surrounded by nature, my home has always been the inner suburbs of Melbourne. I do not have to travel more than fifteen minutes to reach the closest hospital or shops – and that is such a privilege.

Most Australians are like me – congregated around the coastline. But this land is vast, and while we might not populate it, we all need to be part of the solution when it comes to protecting it for generations to come.

There is no denying that climate change is here. In many of the articles I have written for the Royal Society of Victoria, climate change seems to be a common thread woven among them. In Australia, this means warmer temperatures, less rainfall, and more extreme weather events. How do we ensure our land is ready for the change that is already happening and continues to intensify? All the RSV presentations I have heard over the past few years only reinforce in my mind our desperate need for better land management. We need to protect our damaged ecosystems so that they are conserved and regenerated for future generations in the centuries to come. And it is possible.

For over 65,000 years, these lands have been cared for and protected by Traditional Owners, but in just over 100 years since European invasion, they have seen devastating cultural destruction and a dramatic loss in biodiversity.

Although many stories on this topic start off with “doom and gloom,” that is, in fact, where many good stories start. If you think about your favourite stories, there is always a problem or some sort of tension that the heroes need to solve. There are many people – heroes – working to change the planet’s trajectory. The stories of our lands and seas may get a happy ending yet.

The Stewardship of Country series, presented by the Royal Societies of Australia and Inspiring Victoria, showcased discussions of the landscape and environmental stewardship. Later in the year, Inspiring the ACT and Inspiring Victoria also hosted a National Science Week panel on Indigenous Food and Agriculture. These discussions bridged Indigenous knowledge with agricultural, scientific, economic, and social perspectives to address the question of ‘who we are becoming, as Australians faced with an increasingly unpredictable and challenging future?”

It seems like common sense that these groups should all be collaborating. We always look to experts when we want medical advice, a building constructed, etc. Why not listen to experts, First Nations Australians, whose traditions truly understand how to care for the land?

The first Stewardship of Country webinar explored the convergence of knowledge traditions: Australian Indigenous knowledge, ecological sciences, and European-based farming practices. The second focused on untangling those frustrating knots in our system that impede change. The third reflected on the natural history of this land to define an approach for the future. It is important that we look to the past and to traditional knowledge to determine how we can move forward and better adapt to address present and future challenges.

There seems to be a great deal of inertia when it comes to creating change. That is why we need catalysts. To use a chemistry analogy, all reactions have an energy barrier: the amount of energy needed for the reaction to occur. Catalysts lower this barrier so that it becomes easier to cross. If we have catalysts who are driving systemic change in the way we look after Country, it might be easier for our society to jump over the hurdle and escape from the familiar, comfortable “business as usual”. Otherwise, we will continue to talk about environmental problems without anything being done about them.

Frustratingly, policymakers make grand announcements again and again and create frameworks containing all the words we want to hear – without focusing on how to deliver them. Dr Nicholas Gruen described ways in which, even when people at the top begin with the right intentions, when push comes to shove, they may say one thing while doing another. We need to call out these problems and find ways to leverage the system to fix them and protect Country.

Drawn from the traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, the term “Country” is quite layered. It describes the relationships and interconnectivity between the land, waterways, people, and culture. We use this term to respect the oldest continuous cultures and knowledge systems on the planet. We also use it as a reminder that land, nature, and culture are all connected – if one topples over, they all do.

Uncle Dave Wandin, a Wurundjeri Fire Elder, spoke of Bunjil the Creator’s First Law of Country: that we should look after mother. Our mothers take care of us early in life, and we, in turn, look after them later in life as they grow older. This also applies to the spirit of mother. In Melbourne, that is Naarm. The spirit of Naarm is older than the human race, but it is growing tired and weary. We have to take care of her.

Kombumerri person, Adjunct Associate Professor Mary Graham, holds a similar philosophy: the Law of Obligation. Land is the inventor of everything and we are therefore obliged to look after it. ‘Stewardship is looking after everyone, but principally, looking after land first,’ she says.

We are all individuals, but we are connected because we live on the same land. Mary spoke about having autonomous regard and respect for each other and the land. Cooperate and don’t compete, share and don’t hoard. It only takes one person to take more than they should for others to then feel like they also need to or else they will be outcompeted, spiralling quickly into a chain reaction. Mary hopes that the Law of Obligation becomes a template for our society.

Cultural severance has drastic consequences. The separation of nature and culture results in dramatic declines in ecosystems, species diversity, and landscape quality. European invasion turned the
landscape upside down. Conservation should be about caring for the land in ways that we need to learn from its Traditional Owners.

Dr Chris Brady, Peter Christopherson and Justin O’Brien of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation propose a stewardship approach: acknowledging connections between social justice and environmental health, and importantly, involving community discussions. They are working to rehabilitate the Ranger Uranium Mine. Justin works with the Mirarr, Traditional Owners of
Jaibaru and Kakadu areas, to mitigate the damage from contaminated water and millions of tonnes of waste rock upstream of local communities.

Mirarr never wanted uranium mining on their country. And they have been living with the social, cultural and environmental fallout from the Ranger uranium mine for 40 years. In recognition of the negative impacts of mining, the Northern Territory government established a legacy mine unit in 2013. They promised remediation of the sites as a priority, but communities are still waiting for action.

Hearing about the situation makes me quite ashamed, firstly for being ignorant of it, but mostly for what we have done. Even if I have not contributed personally, it is still my country’s leaders, and even possibly my tax money, that support these practices.

‘Mining inevitably leads to change,’ says Chris. It creates hills, voids, and changes how water flows through an area. This is particularly important to Aboriginal people in the area, as Creation teaches the interconnectedness of landscape. You shouldn’t mess with that. Chris and Peter therefore ensure Traditional Knowledge has a practical effect by conveying it in a way that scientists, engineers, and stakeholders can understand. They particularly want to empower Aboriginal people to integrate their knowledge in the rehabilitation of lands once used for mining.

Greater than 80 percent of the value of minerals extracted from the Northern Territory comes from mining on Aboriginal-owned land, amounting to more than $1 billion a year. They deserve a say in the matter. It is incredibly embarrassing that they have been largely denied one.

Barney Foran advocates for the embracing of Indigenous knowledge given the strong Indigenous ownership of these lands. He advises us to become more systemic about problems in our rangelands, and each region should be empowered to govern their own lands. With a heightened awareness of environmental protection and sustainability, social licence to operate is becoming increasingly important. If companies are using precious natural resources without taking care of the environment or residents, it will fail to build trust and confidence of the community in which it operates. In
2020, Rio Tinto detonated explosives in a part of the Juukan Gorge, destroying two ancient rock shelters in Pilbara dating back 46,000 years, devastating the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. This travesty is a prime example of how this trust can be completely shattered. We can do better.

Uncle Dave has brought cultural burning back to Coranderrk Station near Healesville after the Wurundjeri people were forced off the land for nearly a century. Following much neglect, the property was covered in weeds, and native seeds struggled to germinate because of introduced pasture grasses. Uncle Dave used a series of carefully controlled burns to promote the growth of native seeds and clear away the pervasive weeds. It took eight weeks to clear the 800m driveway alone, but now the land is bouncing back.

Trees are growing, helped by the Indigenous students Uncle Dave teaches. Birdsong now fills the air, and wombats, wallabies, echidnas, and other animals have returned. We should be learning from cultural knowledge holders so that Victoria’s native plants and wildlife are conserved for future generations – just like they are now thriving on these 200 acres.

Not only do Traditional Land Custodians need to have a seat at the table, but farmers do too. Carolyn Hall leads the Mulloon Institute to form connections between farmers and politicians so that they can share their land management knowledge and ensure that policy meets in the middle. There is an enormous body of knowledge held by land managers that does not seem to break through and resonate with policymakers. Jody Brown shared her personal experience transitioning to regenerative practices and sustainable land use in agriculture. She works at La Trobe Station, a family-run farm in central west Queensland. After 20 years of farming, the family started to see a decline in parts of their farm’s landscape, motivating them to move into rotational grazing practices. Jody was up for the
change, but her parents, not so much.

Changing mindsets is important when making transformational change in the landscape, and the motivation can be different for different people. Jody’s father wanted an evidence based approach: to hear from people who have been using these alternative practicing in areas with similar climate and landscape before making any changes himself. This led to an online call with ranchers reversing desertification in the Chihuahuan Desert. Mexican ranchers worked with local conservation groups to accrue funding and successfully altered their grazing management in a similarly arid area. Jody emphasised that it is these collaborations and peer networks that will help communities take their first steps towards more regenerative practices as it helps them feel more comfortable with changing their way of life.

But many farmers have given up on the idea of rotational grazing on the Southern Range lands of Western Australia. David Pollock, who works on the range lands, is concerned about the damage caused by unmanaged goats, kangaroos, rabbits, and other animals. Competition and land degradation by these feral animals is a key threat to biodiversity, soils, crop yields, and livestock. Even rotational grazing does not help pastoral lands recover as these animals go where they please, decimating native trees and shrubs as they go. Even small amounts of grazing can have big impacts in areas of low biodiversity and has caused local plant extinctions. According to David, dingoes are the only cost-effective, long-term solution.

This blows my mind. Relying on dingoes sounds counterintuitive. The misinformation that dingoes are “the enemy” is widespread – and perception is everything. It goes to show that farmers and people who work on the land should be the ones calling the shots, and not people making assumptions about what the land needs. David advocates for the discontinuation dingo elimination as there is a mounting body of evidence that they are needed within the ecosystem. Even if some livestock are harmed by foxes, they would not last long otherwise if we cannot restore the soil and grasses, or if
they trip over rabbit holes scattered across the land. We literally cannot afford to deny dingos their role at the top of the food chain.

Providing some hope, Nigel Sharp, shared his successes in restoring landscape through investment in biodiversity. He founded Odonata to empower landholders and entrepreneurs to bring the landscape back to life. He encourages landholders to create large, migratory corridors and provide sanctuaries that support threatened species. Already, Eastern Barred Bandicoots, Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby, Eastern Quolls and Tiger Quolls populations have bounced back because of this. If people already have fenced lands, it seems like a no-brainer to house native animals that, in fact, provide benefits such as soil turnover and nourishment. It’s a win-win.

As we push nature to its limits, we have brought about the sixth great mass extinction. Nature is declining faster than ever before. Since European invasion, there have been 110 extinctions recorded (likely an underestimate) and the accelerating extinction rate shows no signs of slowing.

Isolated from the rest of the world, Australia is a biodiversity hotspot. The southwest corner alone developed a whole raft of species and has many endemic plant families. To put this into context, the UK, also an island, has none. In recent decades, there has been an explosion in the number of botanic species identified – even in his own backyard, Professor Kingsley Dixon has discovered new orchids. Seeds spread from the southwest across the land over tens of thousands of years to create a rich tapestry of diverse plant species.

But it did not take long for it to be torn apart. ‘65 million years in the making, 200 years in the breaking,’ says Kingsley. In two centuries, we have cleared, burned, and infected land in the south-west Australian biodiversity hotspot. The landscape has become fragmented, and we are not giving time for species to adapt to our crushing presence.

Since European invasion, there have been 110 extinctions recorded in Australia (likely an underestimate) and the drastically accelerating extinction rate shows no signs of slowing. Since the 1500’s, we have lost around 2% of species globally. After hearing a presentation by Professor Brendan Wintle, Director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, again, I was embarrassed. More plant and mammal species have been declared extinct in Australia than any other country – that is not something we want to be leading the world in.

As Professor Peter Bridgewater says, ‘we, the only species left of our genus, are responsible for this planet.’ People arrived on the Australian continent more than 60,000 years ago, crossing through an extraordinary range of climates from tundra to tropical. These First Nations people gained an understanding of the way the lands changed and how to adapt with them. Different groups had different ways of maintaining Country, but they but they all had one view, basic law and philosophy that united them.

The Law of Obligation is something that we need to follow as a society. Dr Michelle Maloney helps people rethink governance systems and affirms First Nations sovereignty. “Governance” is a term frequently used but I sometimes wonder what it means – and whether the people using it understand what it means too. To Michelle, it means a group of people finding values, rules, and ways of working together. To support more effective stewardship of country, we need deep systems change – it is not merely about people going to the “Outback” and caring for a patch of land. It comes down
to the deep-rooted ideas that influence our actions. Some of our ideas lead to actions that cause great harm to the natural world. We have allowed and supported practices such as land clearing and mining. ‘History of European invasion is the history of western ideas coming to these ancient lands,’ says Michelle.

There are 89 bioregions on this continent – the way that Mother Nature defines itself in different regions. They (perhaps not so coincidentally) overlap with many of the borders of distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language, social and nation groups and do not abide by the straight lines mapped out as states and territories. Michelle urges us to rethink the straight lines and our way of life.

Professor Will Steffen has highlighted that we have has such a large impact on Earth’s systems that we have entered a new geologic epoch. It is one of our own making and has therefore been named the Anthropocene – after humanity, which brought it about. It is therefore on us to change the planet’s trajectory away.

So how then do we escape “business as usual” and create meaningful change? Everyone needs to work together: Indigenous knowledge holders, scientists, economists, communities, policymakers. Policy frameworks can create obstacles that distract from the real problems and solutions. There is not enough support from the top to facilitate regenerative practices and a sustainable future. Sometimes I wonder whether we are screaming into the void – or more of an echo chamber. But change can happen. We can be the catalysts. Many people – First Nations people, climate
scientists, conservationists, economists, etc. – whom I have heard from over the years have given me hope because of the creative and innovative solutions they put forward. We all can support them, and we all can play a role in conserving and rebuilding Australia’s ecosystems and biodiversity. We can be Stewards of Country.