Indigenous knowledge and land and sea management

The 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Science–Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services notes that recognising the knowledge, innovations, practices, institutions and values of Indigenous peoples and local communities, and ensuring their inclusion and participation in environmental governance, often enhances their quality of life and the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of nature, which is relevant to broader society (IPBES 2019). The Indigenous chapter describes how connection to kin and Country is kept alive through Indigenous knowledge and actions on Country (see the Indigenous chapter).

Australian Indigenous people hold detailed information on past and current environments and trends that is increasingly informing ecological understanding and conservation management. For example, the Yolŋu Senior Knowledge Custodians of the Laynhapuy Indigenous Protected Area in northern Australia recently expressed concern about the dieback of culturally significant coastal melaleuca (paperbark) stands. Melaleuca dieback was observed in 3 species: nämbarra (M. viridiflora), raŋan (M. cajuputi) and gulun’kulun (M. acacioides). A partnership between senior knowledge custodians and western scientists using cross-cultural methods identified causal factors that would not have been understood without the Indigenous ecological knowledge. The declines ultimately correlated primarily with feral ungulate activity and changes in soil salinity (Sloane et al. 2018).

Cross-cultural information elicitation methods are also being used to inform improved species distribution models (Skroblin et al. 2021), drive the re-emergence of Indigenous fire practices (see case study: Arnhem Land Fire Abatement program, in the Carbon capital assets section in the Land chapter) (McKemey & Patterson 2019, McKemey et al. 2020), document species, and share traditional Indigenous names and stories of plants and animals with other Australians (ALA n.d.).

Work is ongoing to improve Indigenous participation in land management and biodiversity conservation. Successful programs rely on opportunities to provide ongoing employment, as well as knowledge exchange and cultural learning, particularly with young Indigenous peoples who may not have previously spent time on their Country. More traditional knowledge is slowly being integrated into biodiversity and land management programs, and with strong and positive results, particularly in the face of the challenges of drought, fire and climate change.

In Australia, Indigenous land and sea management (ILSM) is the fastest-growing sector for Indigenous employment. ILSM includes a range of objectives and activities: management of fire, water, weeds and feral animals; monitoring and protection of threatened species; revegetation; harvesting of bush foods; pastoralism; and artistic work (Schultz et al. 2019). Although investment in ILSM programs was initially designed to support improved conservation and environmental management through the increased involvement of Indigenous people, over time it has been more frequently reported as being able to improve the wellbeing of Indigenous people (Larson et al. 2020). Cessation of ILSM and removal of Indigenous people from their lands contributes to both poor wellbeing outcomes and biodiversity loss.

Indigenous ranger groups are exchanging and sharing their skills and knowledge with other groups across the country and globally. For example, in Australia’s desert regions, arid-zone ecologists with the Threatened Species Recovery Hub are blending Indigenous tracking skills with ecological science. More than 40 Indigenous ranger groups used sand-plot surveys to monitor the presence of animals, track changes over time and identify important environmental conditions for key species. In 2018, there were 120 active Indigenous ranger groups, and, combined with the Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) program, more than 2,900 Indigenous Australians employed in land and sea Country management ranger positions.

The 2016 Social return on investment study (SVA Consulting 2016) on the IPA and Working on Country programs documented success across a broad range of outcomes. This report concluded that from 2008–09 to 2014–15, an investment of $35.2 million from government and a range of third-party investors has generated social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes with an adjusted value of $96.5 million.

Indigenous people are also contributing to research on biodiversity conservation across Australia. The National Environmental Science Program (NESP) research hubs monitor research activities against performance indicators relating to Indigenous engagement and participation in research projects, tracking how the views and traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples and local communities are incorporated in research, identifying the co-benefits of that knowledge exchange, what employment opportunities have been realised, and how research outcomes will benefit Indigenous peoples and local communities. In 2018, more than 100 Indigenous people were employed on NESP research projects, and more than 450 Indigenous people trained in the use of biodiversity management tools and techniques on Country.

A recent review of 46 IPA management plans (Wensing & Callinan 2020) to assess the impact of NESP outcomes, which should be considered an authentic reflection of the aspiration of Indigenous Australian about their perceptions of biodiversity and the threats to their land and sea Country, identified the following topics relevant to the Biodiversity chapter, for consideration in the design of the second phase of NESP research:

  • Improve biodiversity data baselines to better understand the health and value (tangible and intangible) of Country.
  • Address knowledge gaps for threatened species, species of special conservation and/or cultural significance and their habitats that occur on Country.
  • Continue to investigate the impacts of threats, such as
    • altered fire regimes and wildfire on Country and how to implement appropriate ecological burning regimes (mosaic/patch burning) for the enhancement of biodiversity values
    • sea level rise and tidal surge on marine turtles, dugongs, benthic habitats, and species of cultural and customary importance
    • weeds, feral animal (e.g. pigs, buffalo, deer, camels) and overabundant native species on the wellbeing of Country.
  • Improve wildlife and habitat monitoring to better understand ecosystem health and the sustainable use of natural resources.
  • Investigate opportunities for commercialisation of wildlife and bush harvesting.

A common tenet of all plans assessed was the need to incorporate western scientific approaches with traditional ecological knowledge (right way / 2-way science) (Lincoln et al. 2017, Woodward et al. 2020), and in so doing ensure that natural and cultural traditional knowledge about plants, animals, Country and culture were harmoniously captured and managed in ethically appropriate ways (Wensing & Callinan 2020).