Caring for Country

For Indigenous people, caring for Country is an obligation and an honour. In caring for Country, Indigenous Australians draw on laws, knowledge and customs that have been inherited from ancestors and ancestral beings, to ensure the continued health of lands and seas with which they have a traditional attachment or relationship. This is a reciprocal relationship, whereby land is understood to become wild or sick if not managed by its people, and in turn individuals and communities suffer without a maintained connection to Country. It is well understood by Indigenous people that if you ‘look after Country, Country will look after you’ (Woodward & McTaggart 2019). As caring for Country is embedded in cultural heritage, it includes caring for culture: stories, songlines, language and connection to Country.

For Torres Strait Islanders, ‘Ailan Kastom’ incorporates a reciprocal obligation to care for place, just as with caring for Country on the mainland of Australia.

For many Indigenous people across Australia, colonisation has severely impacted their ability to continue to manage Country and ensure its continued health. The mismanagement of Country for several generations drives the urgency for many Indigenous groups to seek management options that recognise and include Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous communities in environmental work. Throughout Australia, Indigenous people call for greater recognition of cultural practice, to strengthen language, culture and social connection to fulfil obligations to ancestors and future descendants.

The marked disparity in health outcomes for the Indigenous population of Australia, coupled with the success in terms of biodiversity enhancement and health outcomes (direct, proven benefits for people and Country) through the inclusion of Indigenous people and their knowledges in on-Country programs, presents a powerful case for expansion of on-Country opportunities, both in urban and remote settings (Burgess et al. 2009).

What should caring for Country look like?

Indigenous people around Australia have expressed a need for greater Indigenous involvement in all stages of caring for Country development – policy, planning, performance and delivery. In the community consultation for this report, the following clear themes emerged as to what caring for Country should look like (Murawin 2021c):

  • inclusion of Indigenous people within the system as a valued partner
  • recognition of traditional knowledge and traditional science in the Australian system of environmental care
  • genuine engagement by government – where government listens to Indigenous people and communities, and outcomes from engagement are tangible
  • Indigenous peoples having the autonomy to care for Country
  • localised community-led approaches tailored to each community’s needs
  • adequate resourcing.

Our culture, our lore, our religion and our customary law as opposed to the me, myself and I, attitudes and behaviours driving devastation to Country. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Northern Territory (Murawin 2021c)

Indigenous people are not just stakeholders; they should have a guaranteed seat at the table for determining what happens in local places and local country and their traditional lands. They should be decision-makers about the whole structure of grants and funding; they should not be competing with big industry groups in terms of who has a say over a place. The whole system needs to be changed. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Western Australia (Murawin 2021b)

Seasonal understanding

Indigenous people’s close interaction with their Country and attention to seasonal change across space and time was once critical to their survival. Today, many groups still draw on an intimate understanding of weather events and seasonal changes, and the resultant influence on phenology (plant lifecycles) and animal behaviour, to discover the availability of plant and animal resources to harvest, and to trigger land and sea management activities. Moreover, this knowledge has been used to promote sustainability through an awareness of animal breeding times, as well as availability of plants and medicines (Foster 2018, Indigenous Knowledge Institute 2021).

Seasonal calendars have been developed in collaboration with diverse Indigenous groups to capture and demonstrate the wealth of local place-based Indigenous knowledge of the natural environment. For example, CSIRO has worked to support the co-development of Indigenous seasonal calendars, as management and education tools, with several Indigenous language groups (CSIRO 2021b). These depict seasonal ecological knowledge embedded in each of the languages, as well as commentary on culture and a diversity of land-based activities (DITRDC 2020). This series of seasonal calendars depicts the temporal and spatial use of local land and sea Country, as well as highly valued species and critical stages of their lifecycles.

The documentation of these calendars has helped inform scientific understanding of the relationship between people and the use of land and sea Country, which is critical in environmental planning and management. Seasonal calendar frameworks have been adopted by many Indigenous land and sea management programs to guide annual management plans and as a basis for monitoring ecological change (CSIRO 2021b).

An excellent example of the depth of ecological knowledge and language contained in seasonal calendars is the fire and season calendar made by the Banbai nation community at the Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area in northern New South Wales. University of New England researchers and the Firesticks Alliance supported its development (McKemey et al. 2021).

Senior knowledge holders of the Ngan’gi set of languages from the Daly River region, Northern Territory, recognise 13 overarching seasons within each annual weather cycle (Woodward & McTaggart 2019). The timing of the Ngan’gi seasons varies, if only marginally, from year to year as the onset and duration of weather events and the associated seasonal happenings can be significantly different each year, reflecting regional, national and global weather systems (Woodward & McTaggart 2019). A key feature of the Ngan’gi seasonal cycle is the dominance of the local speargrass ‘Wurr’ (Sorghum intrans) as an indicator for seasonal change. Seasonal lifecycle events are biological indicators for the availability (or otherwise) of food resources and strongly guide harvesting behaviour (Woodward et al. 2012, Woodward & McTaggart 2016).

Many Indigenous cultures have also relied on traditional forms of meteorology, incorporating sophisticated understandings of the positioning of stars and constellations, as well as seasonal patterns and general weather changes (Foster 2018). These knowledges have been retained and passed on generationally to assist in navigation, timing of social and cultural practices, and food resource management (Boutkasaka 2018).

Plant and animal totems

Indigenous people are connected to their Country and to each other through totems, law, language, song, story, dance, and through lived experiences and knowledge passed across generations over millennia. Totems are ‘a natural object, plant or animal that is inherited by members of a clan or family as their spiritual emblem. Clan groups have caretaking responsibilities for their totems. Totems define peoples’ roles and responsibilities and their relationships with each other and creation’ (Deadly Story 2021).

Totems reflect the Indigenous knowing that all things are connected and related. Totemic systems ensure caring for Country as they put people in direct custodial relationship with species to ensure they are looked after, respected and can proliferate, keeping everything on Country in balance. Indigenous people have a responsibility to play an active role in managing their totem, both physically (such as by protecting its condition) and spiritually (such as by conducting ceremonies).

Environmental damage affects this balance and cultural practice. For example, the Western Desert Lands Aboriginal Corporation and the 10 Deserts Project have both reported large-scale dying-off of kangaroos. Loss of this animal has cultural repercussions because it reflects the inability of communities to fulfil their caring for Country responsibilities, and because an animal’s demise affects dietary and cultural stories and law related to kangaroos in those regions (Murawin 2021a).

While the importance of totems is rarely acknowledged by non-Indigenous environmental managers, totems are central to the way that Traditional Owners manage and protect species. For example, the Ya’awa (reef manta ray; Mobula alfredi) is an important totem of the Wuthathi peoples (Shelbourne Bay, Cape York, Queensland). Any activity that may impact this totem species within the Wuthathi sea Country area would concern the Wuthathi Traditional Owners. Wuthathi people have set out how they want to manage Country in their Healthy Country/Indigenous Protected Area plan (unpublished). Non-Indigenous environmental managers could strengthen their management plans by respectfully engaging with and incorporating Indigenous knowledge through these planning processes.

Fire as a cultural and land management tool

When we go to do a cultural burn, we do a welcome at the start with a small fire and smoke. This is to let the old folks, our ancestors, know we are on Country so then they can guide us. People need to understand that cultural fire is not just about burning Country, lighting it to reduce fuels, reduce risk to houses, or things like that. We use fire to put colour back into the landscape, as well make our ceremony, connect with each other, connect with our history, and that’s just the start. Mick Bourke, Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung leader (Bourke et al. 2020)

Traditional fire management is highly specific to the communities and Country in which it is applied, and this is why it has diverse terms and meanings across Australia. Fire has been an important cultural and land management tool for Indigenous people, both in the past and now (Garde et al. 2009, Altman et al. 2020, Bourke et al. 2020) (see the Extreme events chapter). Across Australia, Traditional Custodians have used deliberate fires to:

  • protect against dangerous fires that could threaten lives, destroy high-value resources found in fire-sensitive habitats and impact culturally important sites (including rock art and sacred sites)
  • shape the landscape, to promote open areas for ease of movement and hunting
  • create areas of new growth to attract grazing animals
  • reduce undesirable plant cover including weeds and thick grasses to improve access to waterholes, and improve visibility and reduce the likelihood of encountering venomous snakes.

Indigenous fire management involves lighting ‘cool’ fires in targeted areas. Timelines for burning are highly variable across Australia and always specific to the local knowledge of Traditional Custodians and the unique conditions of their Country. These fires burn slowly, reduce fuel loads and assist in the ecological regeneration of landscapes, greatly improving biodiversity (Crabtree et al. 2019).

Traditional fire management is being recognised as vital knowledge by land management organisations and government departments such as the Western Australian Parks and Wildlife Service and Department of Fire and Emergency Services, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and pastoralists that manage fire in the Kimberley by carrying out early dry season prescribed burning (KLC 2021).

Recent fire devastation has changed many people and has led to a wider recognition of Traditional Knowledge and the need to invest in mob. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Victoria (Murawin 2021c)

Need to ‘listen to ancient knowledge’. Look at what happened down south with the large bushfires that’s because they (government) won’t listen to Aboriginal people who know this Country, they know where to burn, they know where the water is and how to bring both water and fire together to manage and protect Country. SoE Indigenous workshop participant (Murawin 2021b)

Wiradjuri man Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher led a submission to the 2020 Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, with the submission stating (Fletcher M-S on behalf of the Cultural Burning Research Group 2020):

The openness of government, media and the public to engage with conversations about Indigenous fire practice has been a successful aspect of the bushfire response. A deeper engagement and commitment to working with traditional owners to undertake these practices is the next step.

The bushfire response was limited, and unable to effectively respond to worsening bushfires. This is due in large part to a lack of existing and coordinated strategies for implementing Indigenous land and fire management practices. It is also due to insufficient resourcing of traditional owners groups, Indigenous ranger programs and public/school education relating to Indigenous conceptions of and practices relating to fire.

The Climate and disaster resilience report (CSIRO 2020) made the following important recommendations:

  • Recognise that cultural burning is not just a recipe for landscape burning. It involves cultural protocols and landscape management practices done by Indigenous individuals who have obligations to care for their Country. Empowering cultural burning into decision-making protocols and on-ground practices supports integrated approaches to nourish the significant values of Australia’s landscapes.
  • Grow government and industry support for Indigenous cultural fire management as part of contemporary hazard reduction and land management activities.
  • Enhance and build Indigenous leadership in cultural burning and land management. Indigenous leaders can share their cultural fire knowledge to build the capacity of other fire managers (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) via training and mentoring programs.
  • Build fire and emergency risk management leadership and capacity in Indigenous communities. This could include resourcing interested Indigenous organisations and enterprises to develop and implement cultural burning strategies on all (government, private, Indigenous) tenures and deliver culturally appropriate emergency services.
  • Improve transport, communications and local energy provision systems in remote areas to reduce the impacts of fire and other natural disaster risks on remote communities.
  • Resource Indigenous-led approaches to embed elements of cultural burning protocols and activities into digital planning tools and planning aids that protect strong Indigenous cultural and intellectual property, and enable Indigenous and non-Indigenous fire practitioners to work together during fire planning and management.
  • Empower Indigenous communities to recover and build resilience after a natural disaster. This includes supporting Indigenous leaders to enable community-led design of recovery strategies, and health and wellbeing programs.
  • Resource culturally appropriate forums to enable Indigenous people to share insights with others to inform future cultural burning, land management and disaster management responses.

Indigenous land and sea management ranger groups have been working with partners to deliver the Arnhem Land Fire Abatement program across 80,000 square kilometres of Indigenous estate in northern Australia (Ansell & Evans 2019, Altman et al. 2020). The program is Indigenous led and deploys Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices together with western science and technology to deliver a sophisticated fire management program at a large regional scale, reducing carbon emissions (Fletcher et al. 2021) (see case study: Arnhem Land Fire Abatement program, in the Carbon capital assets section in the Land chapter).

Benefits of caring for Country

From improved environmental and economic outcomes to increased wellbeing and cultural revitalisation, caring for Country brings both tangible and intangible benefits for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Environmental benefits

There are clear examples where Indigenous caring for Country solutions are rejuvenating environmental management across Australia, drawing from Indigenous knowledge systems built through strong observational, practice-based methods. These solutions have sustained consecutive generations by adapting continually to local change over time, and they continue to be enacted and tested.

Environmental benefits of Indigenous land management include (Weir et al. 2011):

  • increased levels of activity in border protection, quarantine, fire management, bushfire abatement, carbon sequestration and trading, weed control, feral animal control, biodiversity conservation and fisheries management, generating benefits both for Indigenous people and the wider Australian society
  • improved environmental condition of lands under Indigenous management, with one study reporting lower rates of weed infestation and fire regimes that were more appropriate for maintaining biodiversity values than in adjacent lands.

Due to the investments in Indigenous land and sea management programs and activities across Australia, the environmental benefits of management actions are being realised in regions and locations that previously attracted marginal attention or resourcing from other land management bodies and agencies.

According to the National Environmental Science Program Threatened Species Hub, 153 projects were undertaken by Indigenous groups around Australia during 2015 and 2016 to manage threatened species or threatened ecosystems. Most of this was in remote areas of western and northern Australia. Almost 25% of all threatened animals and 2% of threatened plants were the subject of some formal conservation action by Indigenous people (see case study: 10 Deserts Project).

Climate change adaptation

Indigenous people are leading the way with diverse approaches to climate adaptation, including through new seasonal calendars, research plans, networks, dialogues, land restoration and other projects (Nursey-Bray et al. 2019).

There needs to be more efforts to educate people about the reason why what they are seeing and experiencing is actually happening with climate change. There is a greater need to bring people together to share information and experiences. There needs to be improved balance between access to services and access to Country. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Northern Territory (Murawin 2021c)

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


Economic development

Recent analysis of expenditure on Indigenous land and sea management programs (ILSMPs) show that they generate positive spillovers for Indigenous businesses (even those not engaged in land management), albeit with a 3-year lag. ILSMPs achieve a wide range of short-term benefits and may also be catalysts for Indigenous business development, fostering sustainable economic independence (Jarvis et al. 2018b). ILSMPs help close the income gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and make a vital contribution to economic development in regional areas, particularly to those people enduring the highest levels of socio-economic disadvantage (Jarvis et al. 2018a, Pert et al. 2020).

Indigenous connection to Country has huge economic potential and creating economic independence if done right. There should be greater consideration of tourism potential, carbon sequestration, solar power generation and biodiversity research and development. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Northern Territory (Murawin 2021b)

A 2018 study from the Interplay project in remote Australia showed that Indigenous land management programs had a return of $96.5 million for a $35.2 million investment over 6 years, or 29% per year. This analysis included benefits such as skill development, happiness at work, income generation, being able to provide for families, and the ability to facilitate economic and community development (Schultz et al. 2018).

Indigenous economic development involves balancing commercial interests with cultural values. It includes using alternative approaches, conceptualisations and models for Indigenous economic development (Brueckner et al. 2011) The importance of principles such as self-determination are reflected in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Business Reference Guide that relates key principles to business activities (UNGC 2013).

In 2019, the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, released the report Methods for estimating the market value of Indigenous knowledge (Blackwell et al. 2019). The report includes examples of commercial use of Indigenous knowledge in environmental management and biodiversity protection (Table 9) (Blackwell et al. 2019).

Table 9 Examples of commercial use of Indigenous knowledge


Ecosystem services model 


Indigenous carbon abatement projects

  • Carbon credits through voluntary agreements via the Emissions Reduction Fund
  • Estimated value of $30 million
  • Health and social benefits
  • Restoring traditional burning practices
  • Improved landscape heterogeneity
  • Improved condition of mammals, birds and vegetation
  • Rebuilding cultural identity
  • Improved Indigenous wellbeing in northern Australia (Sangha et al. 2018)

Warddeken – carbon abatement and biodiversity conservation

  • Carbon credits to ConocoPhillips
  • Kabulwarnamyo outstation, 14 balabbala (traditional shade shelters)
  • Built school for children to return to living on Country. The Nawarddeken Academy registered as a school in 2018
  • SVA documented social, environmental, economic and cultural benefits. Value of outcomes is $55.4 million for financial years 2009–15, an ROI of $3.40 for every invested dollar (Robertson 2019)

Northern Great Barrier Reef – Kalan Enterprises, Cape York Partnership, James Cook University and CSIRO

  • Managing Country, wildlife and water systems via partnerships
  • Fire management
  • Water quality improvement in Cape York, which benefits the Great Barrier Reef
  • Healthy people, healthy Country and healthy culture
  • Income from ecosystem services
  • Enhancing social benefits, such as employment, satisfaction, connection to Country for rangers, meaningful work (Barber et al. 2017, CSIRO 2021d)
  • ‘Our dream is to bring our Country back to life like it was before, by being on Country to protect our sites and share our proud culture with the rest of the world’, Allan Creek (Snr), Kaantju Traditional Owner, Elder (Creek n.d.)

SVA = Social Ventures Australia; ROI = return on investment

Carbon offsets

Indigenous people own large parcels of land and hold access rights that, when combined with caring for Country, can assist in the national carbon abatement agenda (Robinson et al. 2014). Increasingly, Indigenous people are becoming involved in the burgeoning carbon abatement industry, predominantly through the application of savanna burning methodology, but also through tree planting and feral animal abatement activities (Robinson et al. 2014).

There are potential benefits for Indigenous communities participating in carbon offset schemes, which could in turn improve social and economic wellbeing of local communities. However, an Australian case study undertaken by Robinson et al. (2016) concluded that carbon offset schemes can only deliver Indigenous co-benefits if they acknowledge and reflect the relevant Indigenous community’s understandings of stewardship and reciprocity between people and the environment.

Several Indigenous organisations have established programs. The Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (Northern Territory) earns and manages Australian Carbon Credit Units, which are sold to the Australian Government or to corporate buyers, or saved for future sale (see case study: Aboriginal Carbon Foundation) (see case study: Arnhem Land Fire Abatement program, in the Carbon capital assets section in the Land chapter) (Altman et al. 2020). In 2019, the Indigenous Carbon Industry Network was established.

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).

Plant use and commercialisation

Indigenous people are increasingly looking to realise enterprise opportunities based on their unique knowledge of plants for food, medicine, art and botanicals. The emerging Indigenous-led bush-products sector is growing in strength as alliances build, research and development opportunities grow, and appropriate business models to support cultural governance of local Indigenous knowledge are realised (Jarvis et al. 2021a). An Indigenous-led bush-products sector also presents the opportunity for a range of benefits, from economic (e.g. jobs, income, skills, related businesses), to health and wellbeing (e.g. diet and exercise, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, freedom and autonomy), and culture, community and Country (e.g. access, cultural practices, shared knowledge, ecological benefits, cooperation and shared activities) (Jarvis et al. 2021a).


The Australian native foods and botanicals sector is rapidly growing. A 2019–20 market analysis of a group of 13 native plant species, identified as being priority horticultural species by leading industry body Australian Native Foods and Botanicals, estimated their retail value at $81.5 million per year. This does not include the macadamia industry, which is worth $200 million alone (Laurie 2020).

The bushfood industry demonstrates the vast economic potential of indigenous plants but also the problems of lack of recognition (see Disempowerment and lack of recognition). Despite the huge revenue generated by this rapidly growing industry, only around 1% of the produce and monetary value of the entire bushfood sector is generated by Indigenous people and communities. Many and various challenges and circumstances have resulted in this outcome, including a lack of (Woodward & McTaggart 2019, Jarvis et al. 2021a):

  • land access and ownership by Indigenous people and communities
  • opportunity and support (including access to capital and business acumen)
  • government funding to support the research and development needed for successful market engagement
  • legal instruments to recognise and protect Indigenous cultural and intellectual property (also see Indigenous cultural and intellectual property).

Although sector development will offer significant and potentially self-sustaining opportunities, these are unlikely to be realised without appropriate actions to resolve knowledge and skills gaps and address significant social, cultural and legal challenges (Jarvis et al. 2021b). Greater support for Indigenous leadership in the growth of this sector has the potential to increase sustainable cultural and economic opportunities for Indigenous people, especially those living on Country outside of urban areas, where there are often few employment opportunities (Sultanbawa & Sultanbawa 2016).

Wiradjuri woman and research fellow Roxanne Smith, chief executive officer of social and commercial enterprise company Yadhaa Connect, compares the needs of the bushfood industry to protections developed in the realm of Indigenous art:

There is a risk of exploitation of Indigenous knowledge and communities in the industry by the bigger players. We could use a trademark and certification system like the arts industry to let buyers know that they are getting an authentic and ethical product.

Despite the challenges, Indigenous enterprises are increasingly contributing to this growing industry. Indigenous bushfood enterprises include those that engage in the development and sale of native plant and animal products, including native plant–derived industries (e.g. seed harvesting, nurseries, cut flowers) and botanicals-based products (e.g. bush medicines, essential oils, health and beauty products) (Woodward & McTaggart 2019).

The sector continues to grow and diversify across northern Australia (RIRDC 2012). For example, the Northern Australia Aboriginal Kakadu Plum Alliance is a consortium of Aboriginal enterprises ethically harvesting and processing Kakadu plum across northern Australia (see case study: Indigenous-led development of bushfood enterprises: the Northern Australia Aboriginal Kakadu Plum Alliance, in the Agriculture management section in the Land chapter). The Bush Food Industry Project (Cherbourg Aboriginal Shire Council), an Indigenous-led research protect in partnership with the University of Queensland, is supporting the investigation of sustainable bushfoods industries in the Aboriginal communities of Cherbourg and Eidsvold in Queensland.

Key Indigenous-led alliances are also being developed for the sector. For example, the First Nations Bushfood and Botanical Alliance Australia, established following the National Indigenous Bushfoods Symposium in November 2019 and managed by a board of Indigenous bushfood professionals, aims to increase Indigenous participation in the industry. The alliance’s vision is to establish a national standard for working with Indigenous people in the industry, develop processes for provenance and authenticity, lobby for changes to the laws to align with the Nagoya Protocol, and raise awareness of Indigenous cultural values and knowledge (FNBBAA 2020).

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.

New products and technologies from plants

Plants are valuable food products and may have many other applications and uses. For example, research into spinifex has demonstrated the technological potential of Australian indigenous plants and the many benefits of combining Indigenous ecological knowledge with western science. Spinifex is a grass widely used across Australia by many Indigenous groups to build shelters. It is also commonly used as a powerful resin in manufacturing technologies such as tools.

Indjalandji-Dhidhanu people partnered with scientists from University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology to develop a method of nanofibre extraction that is showing huge potential in the development of technologies to make roads and tyres, and latex products such as condoms and gloves. For example, spinifex nanofibres significantly improve the physical properties of latex, whereby condoms as thin as human hair can be made without any loss of viability or failure to reach accepted industry standards.

Associate Professor Colin Saltmere, Indjalandji-Dhidhanu man and managing director of the Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation, who are project partners, speaks of the importance of spinifex as a resource and a part of Country that must be respected and protected (AIBN 2021):

Spinifex grass is an ancient and sacred material to Indigenous people, but also a material we use all the time. We’ve used it for building shelters, making beds, and as a glue in making instruments like spears and boomerangs. And we know that the oils and the waxes can be used to treat wounds and in other medicines. In Aboriginal culture, a product like that becomes a sacred thing. It belongs to Country, and to us that’s what ‘sacred’ means.

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.

Case Study Bush Medijina

Bush Medijina is a 100% Indigenous-owned bush products enterprise led by Warningakalina women. Their vision is to support local communities in Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory, through the translation of traditional Indigenous native botanical knowledge into modern skin care. Governed by an Indigenous, all-female board, the sustainable enterprise enables traditional knowledge sharing between generations via the community-based creation of online-marketable products, founded on traditional processes for harvesting and producing local botanicals (Bush Medijina 2021).

Such enterprises deliver a variety of social, cultural and environmental benefits (Maclean et al. 2019, Jarvis et al. 2021a). In a region where employment opportunities are constrained, the enterprise creates opportunities for women to come together to learn and build skills, enhancing community cohesion and wellbeing by creating a sense of purpose governed by cultural protocols. Social benefits to individuals and the broader community arise from the opportunity to:

  • spend time on Country
  • share intergenerational customary knowledge (and, subsequently, strengthen that knowledge)
  • build skills, including business acumen, in creating and bush products
  • build community natural resource management capacity.

Being engaged in bush products–based enterprises can also create direct benefits for the environment, as economic returns finance Indigenous people’s access to Country and concurrent stewardship activities. Such activities include monitoring environmental resources and maintaining valuable bush products through active land management, like burning. Engaging in other cultural practices and traditions further nurtures and strengthens the knowledge base from which Indigenous land and sea management activities occur.

Wellbeing and cultural revitalisation

Indigenous land management delivers benefits to both Indigenous people and the wider Australian society.

Indigenous land management has positive impacts on Indigenous health. A study in remote Australia (Schultz et al. 2018)showed that greater participation in Indigenous land management was associated with several health benefits in 3 groups of risk factors:

  • behavioural and lifestyle risk factors
    • diet and nutrition
    • physical activity
    • avoiding trauma, aggression, and alcohol or substance abuse
  • psychosocial risk factors
    • cultural continuity and identity
    • coherence between Indigenous ontologies and agency
    • autonomy and self-esteem
    • relaxation and stress reduction
    • self-determination
    • spirituality
  • environmental risk factors
    • social cohesion and customary governance structures
    • employment and economic participation.

Cultural revitalisation programs that centre on all aspects of Country help Indigenous people to connect back into culture, including their language, Country and family. This results in significant improvements in financial, emotional, mental and health outcomes. Additionally, the care and maintenance of cultural practices can connect people to the future, empowering them to stand in the role of cultural custodians for future generations. Deep relationships to Country and past loss of culture through disconnection from Country is the evident cause of many of the negative wellbeing outcomes Indigenous people have experienced since colonisation began (see Impacts on wellbeing and cultural practices).

Looking after Country is more than just a job for me, it’s part of who I am. The trees, the soil, the water, the animals – we’re responsible for keeping them healthy. And when we keep Country healthy, it sets us right too. Joelwyn Johnson, Nantawarrina ranger (Country Needs People 2016)

The Interplay research survey showed that Indigenous people employed in land management in remote Australia reported greater participation in cultural activities and language knowledge (Cairney et al. 2017).