Case studies

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Case Study 10 Deserts Project

Written with Indigenous Desert Alliance

The 10 Deserts Project is an Indigenous-led land management collaboration across Australia’s desert Country. Covering around one-third of the continent, desert Country is highly important, as it has significant biodiversity and continued Indigenous custodianship of the land.

The project aims to build the capacity of Indigenous people and organisations to ensure healthy Country, healthy people and a strong Indigenous voice for the desert (IDA 2021b). It is a significant example of a large-scale collaborative landscape management model. Launched in Canberra in 2018, the project is now managed by the Indigenous Desert Alliance (IDA), a member-based organisation that is dedicated to empowering desert people to look after their Country.

The 10 Deserts Project focuses on maintaining people’s connection to Country and collaborating across official borders to support the wellbeing of communities and landscapes. This is done through caring for Country, looking after cultural heritage, supporting career development, sharing stories and building relationships. Nyapuru Rose, Nyangumarta Elder and Chair of IDA, says, ‘What matters most is that rangers and the people of the desert are supported through improved opportunities for collaboration and that better outcomes are achieved. We will have an even clearer and stronger united voice for the desert as we come together, making sure people know the desert is on the map’.

Peter Murray, Ngururra Traditional Owner and Chair of the 10 Deserts Project, says, ‘Through sharing our approaches, skills and resources, we can build a strong community of practice. Through regional projects like 10 Deserts we can help to build the capacity of all ranger teams in our sector and provide much-needed resourcing to help groups deliver the highest level of land management services’.

The 10 Deserts Project involves around 60 desert ranger groups. Ownership over the priorities for managing the desert is important to desert rangers. Lindsey Langford, chief executive officer of IDA, says, ‘Indigenous rangers are interested (in) managing desert Country to ensure a series of interrelated regional outcomes are being achieved and that collaboration at scale and from the ground up is key. Rangers view desert Country as a whole, which is why it is so important to be resourcing large-scale and multidimensional projects’ (pers. comm., 30 October 2020). Another key objective is ensuring that women rangers are equally valued and included in the workforce, which started off as male dominated.

Gareth Catt, the 10 Deserts Project Regional Fire Management Coordinator, says, ‘Deserts are broad landscapes that are culturally connected across official boundaries and borders, requiring a holistic approach to management’ (pers. comm., 17 June 2021). For example, the fire management program aims for a coordinated approach across the region, combining traditional practice and contemporary techniques (IDA 2021a). There are ecological, social and cultural benefits when rangers manage fire in the desert, including reducing uncontrolled wildfires, improving habitat, increasing employment, and increasing connection to Country and wellbeing (IDA 2020). The program includes a seasonal fire calendar to educate the community on the right time of year for burning (IDA 2019).

Other project activities include the management of invasive animal and plant species such as feral camels and buffel grass. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands, feral camels do much damage to remote country, threatening waterholes and cultural landscapes across the deserts. Another area is the management of buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris and Cenchrus pennisetiformis), a major weed that transforms native grass ecosystems into monocultures of buffel grass (Desert Support Services 2018). This displaces native plant species and affects the availability of food and shelter for native wildlife (Desert Support Services 2018).

Above all, the key aim of the project is maintaining connections between people and Country. In desert landscapes, people are part of the place. The 10 Deserts Project is finding ways to support this connection for positive environmental and social outcomes that are ultimately interconnected.

Case Study Canberra Nature Park

Source: EPSDD (2020)

Canberra Nature Park comprises 39 nature reserves covering approximately 11,400 hectares including the Aranda Bush Nature Reserve and the Goorooyarroo Nature Reserve in the environs of urban Canberra. More than 400,000 Canberrans have easy access to the Canberra Nature Park reserve. Within the area, there are several threatened species, including the superb parrot (Polytelis swainsonii).

The ACT Government’s Canberra Nature Park reserve management plan 2021 explicitly recognises the special connection of Indigenous people to land, and how access to Country can benefit Indigenous wellbeing and being actively engaged in managing land maintains Indigenous cultural identity.

The ACT Government acknowledges the Ngunnuwal people as Traditional Custodians and employs Indigenous rangers to care for ACT parks and reserves, including conducting cultural burns.

Canberra Murrumbung ranger Jackson Taylor-Grant explains the positive impact of providing opportunities for Indigenous rangers to work on Country (Allen 2018):

It is a job that comes with having to have a lot of passion for what you do. And you can see it just bleed out of Aboriginal people when they come into this landscape. We take hold of that passion, and we use it to take care of this landscape. Working as professional rangers for Parks and Conservation is a really good way of capturing that passion and using it to the advantage of the management of these areas.

Case Study Indigenous data sovereignty in a natural resource management context

Authors: Sam Provost (Yuin) and Cassandra Price (Muruwari), Maiam nayri Wingara Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Data Sovereignty Collective

The collecting and collating of Indigenous environmental data are relatively new initiatives in Australia. Natural resource management is, and has since colonisation, been the responsibility of the Australian and state governments, and is supported through legislation such as the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth). Often, while the data collected to support these processes include information about Indigenous flora, fauna and landscapes, Indigenous peoples have limited or no access to, or control over, these data. Moreover, where Indigenous environmental data are available, they are often outdated or insufficient for meeting community needs (Hill et al. 2013).

An example of Indigenous exclusion is found in lutruwita/Tasmania in the management of the short-tailed shearwater (Ardenna tenuirostris; yolla in Aboriginal language) whose chicks are subject to annual commercial and recreational harvesting (mutton birding). Harvesting mutton birds is a traditional Palawa practice and Palawa have historically been involved in the mutton bird industry. In contemporary times, Palawa people operate the commercial harvest and this activity is of high social, cultural and economic importance to the Aboriginal community throughout Tasmania (Skira 1990, Skira et al. 1996). Yet the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industry, Parks, Water and the Environment (DPIPWE) manage the annual harvest. DPIPWE collects harvest data (the number of chicks harvested annually) from the commercial and recreational harvest to inform management and policy decisions. And while external institutions and organisations can apply to access the data by establishing a data agreement, all these processes proceed without any oversight from the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.

Embedding Indigenous data governance in Palawa mutton birding would ensure the protection of Palawa knowledges while benefitting the industry as a whole. Indigenous data governance is defined as Indigenous peoples’ ‘power and authority over the design, ownership, access to and use of data’ (Lovett et al. 2019). In the case of the Palawa mutton bird harvest, implementing Indigenous data governance processes would allow for program design, data capture, monitoring and analysis that aligns with Palawa obligations to care for Country in a sustainable way. The development of data governance structures that foreground Palawa sovereignty could ensure that data collected are contextual and relevant, allowing the data to highlight the importance of natural resource management for Palawa futurity.

Case Study Salt water encroaching on freshwater habitats in Kakadu National Park

Source: Bayliss & Finlayson (2018)

Kakadu National Park is a jointly managed iconic World Heritage-listed site dominated by extensive low-lying freshwater wetlands and coastal floodplain systems. Traditional Owners highly value these biodiverse environments, as they support a range of values and activities that enable continued connection to Country through hunting, fishing, social engagement and as sites of intergenerational transfer of knowledge. The natural and cultural values of Kakadu National Park are highly interconnected, with Traditional Owners playing a central role in their management via a co-management arrangement with the Australian Government. Bininj/Mungguy people, the Traditional Owners of Kakadu National Park, have been acutely aware of environmental change in the area for many decades, and several management actions have been taken by Bininj/Mungguy to protect important cultural sites.

Feral pigs (Sus scrofa) and highly invasive weed species, including paragrass (Urochloa mutica), threaten the park. Future saltwater inundation because of climate-induced sea level rise and increases in extreme weather events including storm surges and flooding represent a significant risk. Historically, introduced buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) caused the destruction of levee banks, allowing salt water to intrude into freshwater systems. More recently, rising sea levels have converted culturally important freshwater billabongs into saline areas – resulting in a loss of habitat and key cultural species of interest to Bininj/Mungguy, including freshwater fish and turtles, magpie geese, and lilies and other freshwater plants.

Coastal communities in northern Australia, like those whose livelihoods depend on the continued integrity of natural and cultural values in Kakadu National Park, will be particularly impacted by climate change–induced sea level rises because they have the potential to exacerbate existing threats to the environment, such as invasive species. Such cumulative impacts risk reducing opportunities for biodiversity conservation and realising the benefits of ecosystem-based livelihoods such as ecotourism.

Case Study Indigenous peoples and scientists share knowledge on sea level rise

Provided by Djungan Neal, Samarla Deshong, Hilda Mosby, Kathy McInnes, Julian O’Grady

Djungan Neal, from the Djungan people, Samarla Deshong from the Konjimal people, Hilda Mosby from the Torres Strait Regional Authority, and Kathy McInnes and Julian O’Grady from CSIRO shared their knowledge on sea level rise, its impacts and possible solutions, at the National First Peoples Gathering on Climate Change held in Cairns in March 2021.

Indigenous peoples have witnessed and recorded many past changes to Country, such as volcanic eruptions and sea level rise, including the rapid rise of seas by around 150 metres in the past 20,000 years. Djungan people have stories about the crisis and how they got together and adopted new kinship and hunting laws, and kept caring for the Country under the sea.

In the coming years when (the places on Country) go back underwater it will still be culturally significant to us. Djungan Neal, Djungan Traditional Owner

Indigenous peoples in Australia have adapted to sea level changes of up to several metres in the past (Nunn & Reid 2015), demonstrating cultural resilience to significant landscape change.

A yarning circle at the Gathering identified that sea level rise has many impacts, including:

  • loss of culturally important sites, including burial sites in sand dunes and midden sites being washed away
  • saltwater intrusion into mangroves, which affects fish abundance, especially for the culturally significant salmon
  • coral bleaching in Torres Strait from sediments being pushed onto the reef during monsoonal weather
  • migration of fish and birds (e.g. the eels that travel up and down the Coral Sea)
  • decline in food sources and opportunities to hunt
  • higher tides on turtle nests
  • monsoon seasons becoming more intense, which impacts infrastructure (e.g. the Tiwi Islands have had infrastructure destroyed and there are no cyclone shelters)
  • monsoons causing environmental change (e.g. creeks drying out due to climate change, causing loss of species such as freshwater stingray and native fish)
  • the seasonal abundance of animals (seasonal calendars) – for example, sharks, rays and insects are out of step with the usual seasonal changes.

Konjimal people are currently losing vital cultural sites through sea level rise on the Country in the Mackay region. Figure 6 is a photograph from an aerial survey (circa 2006) showing a big fish trap that has since been damaged by erosion and sea level rise.

Figure 6 Koinmerburra, Mackay region, 2006

Photo: Matt Bloor

Six low-lying islands where Torres Strait Islanders live are currently dramatically threatened by sea level rise, as are numerous uninhabited coral cays. Coastal erosion threatens food and fuel delivery, increasing the already high cost of living. Hilda Mosby, Torres Strait Regional Authority, explained the rate of change is increasing: ‘Climate change changes the usual. Changes are happening faster than they have in the past’.

Scientists have measured about 30 centimetres of sea level rise in the past century. This means that king tides and storm surges are having greater impact, and this impact will increase in the future. Parts of Cairns are projected to be covered by a 1-in-100-year storm tide by 2050, and the much greater area projected to be covered by a 1-in-100-year storm tide by 2100 (also see Figure 7):

Many generations are going to be dealing with sea level rise … If we limit (climate change) to 2 degrees then sea rise will be between 0.2 and 0.6 metres, but if it doesn’t stop we can have 5 metres by 2300. Kathy McInnes, CSIRO

Indigenous peoples and scientists identified that disaster resilience plans that provide solutions from both Indigenous and western knowledge systems, based on equity between these knowledge systems, are needed to adequately plan for sea level rise. However, understanding the bigger picture is also vital – how climate change is interacting with impacts from tourism, mining and high carbon emission development. It is vital to provide resources for Indigenous people to be on Country, with governance systems that satisfy lore and involve more people, especially youth, in land management.

Figure 7 Cairns storm tide inundation projections for (a) 2050: 1-in-100-year storm tide (2.13 metres) + 0.27 metre sea level rise and (b) 2100: 1-in-100-year storm tide (2.13 metres) + 1.14 metre sea level rise

Source: CRA (2021)

More information: Morgan et al. (2019) and Morgan-Bulled et al. (2021)

Case Study Treaty-making in Victoria – the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria

By the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, Tommy Clarke and Ginger Ridgeway

The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria is the elected and independent body to represent Traditional Owners and Aboriginal people in Victoria on the journey towards treaty. The assembly’s role is to set up the process and the architecture for treaty-making in Victoria.

The assembly uses a model that is democratic and considers cultural practices and needs – a mixture of reserved seating for formally recognised Traditional Owner groups and open seats. A permanent ‘Elders’ voice’ is also being established to ensure that the wisdom and resilience of Elders can guide the assembly’s work.

Based on community discussions and input, the assembly has agreed that the treaty-making agenda must include both a statewide treaty for statewide matters and local treaties for individual Traditional Owner groups. It is now working to establish the ground rules and framework that will ensure negotiations can take place on equal footing. For example, discussions with the government are taking place about creating a treaty authority, which will serve as an independent umpire to facilitate negotiations and help resolve any disputes.

The shared journey to treaty is a historic opportunity to right past wrongs and tackle ongoing racism and injustices. But, at its heart, treaty is about securing structural change to improve the lives of Indigenous people in Victoria, to make sure that Indigenous people and Traditional Owners have the freedom and power to influence the decisions that affect community and Country.

Case Study Indigenous people and scientists connect to find solutions to climate change

The National First Peoples Gathering on Climate Change 2021 was part of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub, led by CSIRO.

Traditional Owners from more than 40 Indigenous nations attended the March 2021 event in Cairns. According to Bianca McNeair, Malgana woman and co-chair, Indigenous people are dealing with the impacts of a continuously changing environment. Gavin Singleton, Yirrganydji Traditional Owner from the Cairns region, said, ‘From changing weather patterns, to shifts in natural ecosystems, climate change is a clear and present threat to our people and our culture’ (CSIRO 2021a).

Gimuy Walubara Yidinji Traditional Owner, Gudjugudju, said that Traditional Owners can learn from each other on how to respond to a changing climate. ‘We need to understand and prepare for climate change now and into the future’, Mr Gudjugudju said.

At the conference, Indigenous knowledge holders and scientists agreed on guidelines for ethical and culturally appropriate partnerships, which are necessary for mitigating and adapting to climate change.

We’re learning from the scientists how to plant the seagrass, which was not something that was part of our traditional culture because we never really had to do that – it was managed through other means. We didn’t have this whole global warming, which is raising the temperature of our water. (Allam 2021b)

Figure 19 Crocodile dance at opening of National First Peoples Gathering on Climate Change 2021


Case Study Aboriginal Carbon Foundation

Lisa McMurray and Rowan Foley

Indigenous carbon farming is emerging as an opportunity for Indigenous landowners to generate Australian Carbon Credit Units and contribute to reducing climate change by adopting the approved savanna burning methodology.

If carbon farming can demonstrate environmental, social and cultural core benefits, then the voluntary market will purchase the credits for a premium price. As the Indigenous carbon industry grows, the demand will increase for a rigorous independent process of measuring core benefits. This will allow private purchasers to accurately demonstrate their carbon emission offsetting and more clearly identify how they are meeting Sustainable Development Goals through their investment.

The Aboriginal Carbon Foundation supports the development of a Core Benefits Verification Framework, which enables Indigenous ownership of the verification process. This will allow Indigenous people to be the experts in the verification of environmental, social and cultural values associated with community and economic development programs (AbCF 2021).

Case Study Victorian Traditional Owner native food and botanicals strategy

The Victorian Traditional Owner native food and botanicals strategy (FVTOC 2021) provides a good example of the potential links between culture, enterprise and economic benefit. The Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations facilitated the development of the strategy to enable Traditional Owner rights and interests regarding biocultural species and their associated knowledge and practices to be embedded in the industry as it develops. The process included engagement and workshops to enable a strong Indigenous-led design process and inclusion of Indigenous data and Indigenous cultural and intellectual property.

The vision is to establish an authentic, vibrant and growing native foods and botanicals industry that respects and recognises the inherent rights of Traditional Owners to enable a culturally appropriate approach to commercialisation and managing Country. The strategy focuses on 3 program areas – provenance, market and practice – that Traditional Owners identified as priorities to create opportunities in the industry. Within each area, there are certain objects, such as:

  • ‘Knowledge Healing’, where Traditional Owners are restoring and reclaiming knowledge, and the knowledge systems associated with native foods and botanicals
  • ‘Embedding Practice’, where embedding industry principles and protocols co-developed by Traditional Owners is an opportunity to improve the health and sustainability of Country, industry practice and operations within a cultural landscape.
Case Study Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation and the University of South Australia

Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation collaborated with the University of South Australia to identify plants for commercial use as medicines. David Claudie, a Kuuku I’yu Northern Kaanju Traditional Owner and Custodian of the northern Kaanju homelands, Northern Wenlock and Pascoe Rivers, and the holder of significant Indigenous ecological knowledge, developed the corporation. The patent for the products is co-owned by the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation and the University, and Claudie is recognised as a co-inventor. This is an innovative approach; in the past, Indigenous knowledge holders were recognised as informants and not inventors.