In Western Australia’s remote northern region of The Kimberley, Indigenous seasonal and ecological knowledge is playing a crucial role in building resilience to climate change.
by Mikki Cusack
This story is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network LEDE Fellowship.
In May, the barramundi used to swim upstream but now, there are none to be seen. Octopi that once turned green to announce the coming spring now remain blue. The low humdrum buzz of the dragonfly indicates the salmon will be biting. Yet every year, the dragonflies are appearing later in the seasons.
For Anne Dwyer, a Karrajarri woman and traditional land owner, these occurrences are sure signs of climate change. Dwyer, who works with western scientists to combine Indigenous knowledge and customary practices, uses this combination as complimentary science to mitigate climate issues in remote areas of The Kimberly in Western Australia.
In the neighbouring Indigenous nation, Dr. Anne Poelina, a woman of Martuwarra and a traditional land owner, also tirelessly advocates for the Martuwarra River Country. Together, they are ‘Caring for Country,’ a phrase used for the traditional management of land and sea by Indigenous Australians.
‘Caring for Country’ is a comprehensive concept that encompasses different sustainable land management practices and initiatives that Indigenous peoples undertake. This is reinforced by the belief that all living things are connected and are in a deep lifelong relationship with each other.
Ewan Noakes, one of the Indigenous rangers from The Kimberley Land and Sea Unit, has invited me down to visit with his team of rangers, and discuss their country and the changes he’s been seeing.
Mosquitoes buzz around me as I sip a strong coffee in Bidyadanga Aboriginal Community. Named after the Emu Watering Hole (pijarta), Bidyadanga is on Karajarri Country, approximately 190km south of the township of Broome in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
The rangers hope to encourage more Karajarri families to adopt sustainable livelihood by living on the land and within harmony with the land or Country. For Indigenous Australians such as Karajarri people, the indicators are important. Indigenous calendars often have seven seasons, representing their seasonal and ecological knowledge.
“You can see it changing,” says one of the Karajarri Ranger’s.
“Dragonflies mean salmon coming, ay,” Noakes says.
“Flowering on trees will say, ‘Go boys, time to make a spear’,” Senior Karajarri Ranger Jessica Bangu explains to me.
It is this understanding of the seasons, the land forms, and food availability at different times that is critical for bush survival and hunting.
Indigenous Australians hold a responsibility to pass down the knowledge on how to protect the land. Here, at ‘Bidgy’, as it is fondly known by locals, the red dirt ingresses in unexpected places. The bathroom sink is stained the colour of the unsealed dirt road I drove on.
My camera lens is covered in a fine film of red dust. Later, when I reach home, a layer of red rolls off my skin in the shower. As we sit and talk, I ask if the Karajarri rangers are worried about the world. They are.
The story of The Kimberley
Red dirt, white gum trees, and rugged ranges abound Western Australia’s remote northern region. Crocodiles gather in billabongs and pools, overlooked by dramatic gorges. The largely isolated coastline plays host to an azure blue sea and white sand. Inland, you can find striking red desert and wetlands like The Marrdoowara/Martuwarra (Fitzroy River). The Kimberley is unlike any place I have ever been to. One of the world’s greatest wildernesses, it is a vast landscape that is equally harsh, as it is beautiful.
For the Karajarri people, Native title (which is “the recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have rights and interests to land and waters according to their traditional law and customs as set out in Australian Law”) was awarded to them in 2002, and 2004 by the Federal Court of Australia. For Indigenous Australians, it has always been their country. For me, The Kimberley feels alive.
The region, however, is currently facing two significant environment issues: hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and Fitzroy River water issues. Fracking is the process of drilling into the earth to release trapped gas. Hotly debated both in and out of parliament, a scientific inquiry was undertaken, to assess both the environmental, social, and economic impacts of fracking in Western Australia.
Concerns around climate change through the production of gas, biodiversity effects when clearing of vegetation and animals to make way for the pipeline, and public health were found to be valid in a scientific inquiry into hydraulic fracking.
One of the positive outcomes of fracking, would be a lower cost in natural gas. Further, economic benefits from the growth in natural gas production – from fracking – could provide jobs, and reduce reliance on other countries for energy.
Caring for Country stands for the traditional management of land and sea by Indigenous Australians.
Western Australia (WA) Mines and Petroleum Minister Bill Johnston agrees: “An independent scientific inquiry into hydraulic fracturing found that the risks to people and the environment is low and can be safely managed under the State Government’s world-class, strict controls.”
In November 2018, a moratorium towards fracking in WA regions was lifted. Yet, fracking is not currently allowed in WA until the landowner consents and code of practice are implemented, and no legislative amendments will be passed until after the WA State Election.
“The WA Government recognises the right of traditional owners to make decisions regarding hydraulic fracturing, whether that is to oppose or support the practice,” said Minister Johnston.
Dr Poelina told Australian news website Crikey that some Indigenous landowners in the Kimberley were simply unaware of the environmental impacts of fracking.
As custodians of the land and water, Indigenous peoples are bound by their spiritual beliefs to protect the Country from environmental threats, such as fracking. As such, the majority are opposed to fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing production will not be approved until Traditional Owner and private landowner consent requirements have been implemented – even if an Indigenous Land Use Agreement has been signed, production will not be approved until the process has been completed.
Indigenous people have held intimate knowledge of the land and seasonal signs for thousands of years. By interpreting the stars, tides, weather, and other physical and biological indicators, they have survived for thousands of years off of the land. Agriculture is a fundamental part of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs, of their connection to the earth.
Currently, the Karajarri Traditional Lands Association (KTLA) Rangers are working in partnership with the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) with biodiversity work including management of weeds on Native Title land. Unlike western calendars that are built on time, Indigenous calendars are built on ecological signs.
We sit in the vegetable thickets, cross-legged in the red dirt. The coconut fruit and the white berries aren’t flowering today. At times, the birds will beat the rangers to the fruit. Other times, perhaps it’s the wrong time of day. Today, the rangers aren’t sure which.
Jess Bangu is carefully arranging small sticks, and leaves into a campsite, as we sit cross legged in the red dirt. Ewan sits with us as we hold a comfortable silence, intercut with knowledge shared, or warm jokes. It’s a normal day for the rangers, one that is slower than usual. A fog has hovered until late morning, which interrupts our ability to see.
The rangers are developing agriculture, and market garden initiatives to monitor the changes. The food system had been consistent for as long as people could recall, and real concern over the indicators is present.
Another Karajarri ranger Jacqueline Shovellor (Jacko) hands me a small jar — a mixture of flora typical of the area — as she tells me that this balm is useful for cuts, and healing. “May I try it?”, I ask gingerly.
As custodians of the land and water, Indigenous peoples are bound by their spiritual beliefs to protect the Country from environmental threats, such as fracking.
Bush medicine offers a wealth of knowledge about the land, alongside healing. Weed management is crucial to bush medicine which in turn is crucial to the general well-being of the communities.
I rub the balm on the two spots on my chin which healed almost completely in the next 24 hours Perhaps, it was vitamin D from the sunshine and the fresh air.
In this quiet sharing, I felt like we bonded with the land, and with each other. I’ll take home my experience, I’ll turn their words, and knowledge into this story, and hopefully in turn, reach others.
Biodiversity and fire management
The Kimberley, one of fifteen Australian biodiversity hotspots, has at least 230 plants, 16 freshwater fish, 10 frogs, 31 reptile, two bird and six mammal species found nowhere else.
The introduction of cattle from early settlers impacted the land significantly, with the land suffering from human impact since colonisation. The introduction of sheep and then cattle from early settlers impacted the native grasses, grains and tubers as food sources, have been removed from this cultural landscape, possibly forever.
Here, Indigenous groups are striving to cope with the challenges by focusing on their traditional knowledge, as Indigenous science and sharing this with western science in a complimentary knowledge system, required to respond and manage biodiversity loss, water scarcity and food insecurity. Indigenous people working and living in Country use Indigenous science for restoration and regeneration of Country.
Bushfires are a part of Australian life. Since the beginning, Indigenous people have used fire for various purposes. Traditional fire management continues to be used to manage vast estates and could be used in all areas of Australia to reduce fire loads and season.
As the Aboriginal people were moved out from their lands, to make way for extensive pastoral grazing, the land became impossible to manage as vast areas of Country were given to pastoralist and other developers. Fuel loads became more continuous, leading to larger sweeping fires. What suffers the most? Biodiversity and native animals.
Ranger programmes such as The Kimberley Land and Sea Units programme work to include weed management, fire management, biodiversity surveys, and cultural site protection among other things. The KTLA rangers are undertaking biodiversity monitoring on monitoring plots at Munroe Springs, Mangkuna (Corkbark) and Pajalpi.
Fire suppression activities, and fuel management is arduous work for the rangers, yet the 2019 fire season in Northern Australia was considerably less damaging than the fires that ravaged the east coast of Australia.
In the Kimberley’s early dry season – between March and July – Indigenous rangers such as Ewan begin their fire management. This involves the lighting of fires in specific, and targeted, areas.
They allow the fires to burn, slowly. This creates fire breaks, and reduces the fuel load for later. Later, when the weather is extremely hot, there is less fuel for fires. This is important as hot fire burns release more toxic emissions into the atmosphere.
The fires are lit intuitively, based on seasonal indicators, rather than the western practice of calendars. Managing fire over a great landscape is a logistical challenge; today, Karrajarri rangers are also using aerial burning approaches.
By monitoring data with satellite technology, the Karrajarri rangers are able to provide evidence that burning may be key to avoiding fires such as the devastating fires that occurred on the east coast of Australia in January.
This data is being exported to the world via a pilot for Botswana’s Okavango-Zambezi region; one of the world most affected areas by savannah fires. The burning leaves a patchwork of area that is burnt, and unburnt. The habitat is then protected for species of mammals, reptiles and other species.
Other organisations and government departments such as the Department of Parks and Wildlife, Department of Fire and Emergency Services, Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Pastoralists assist in this early dry season prescribed burning. This Indigenous savannah fire management practice is world-leading.
Western fire management practice alone also has controlled burning elements, named hazard burns or prescribed burns. However, unlike the Indigenous fire management which is based on specific timing with indicators, western practice is planned without consideration to the ecosystem. Other practice includes the mechanical removal of fuel, which is costly.
The fires are lit intuitively, based on seasonal indicators, rather than the western practice of calendars.
By working together with combining traditional knowledge with western science, communities around the world are able to mitigate fire damage. Even with these clear benefits, cultural burning is not widespread across Australia. In Northern Australia, like the Kimberleys, cultural burns are integral. Yet, in the Eastern side of the country, cultural burning is uncommon.
Following the recent Eastern States bushfire crisis which charred more than 10 million hectares, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has assured an inquiry into which many hope will include Indigenous burning knowledge.
In WA specifically, the prescribed burning programme runs via Parks and Wildlife Service already draws on this Aboriginal culture and local community knowledge, along with applied science and research, operational experience.
According to a Parks and Wildlife Service spokesperson, prescribed burn planning is done in consultation with traditional owners and joint management partners in the Kimberley region. The spokesperson emphasised that one of the aims of Parks and Wildlife Service is to maximise the involvement from Aboriginal rangers and traditional owners during both aerial incendiary operations and when undertaking on-ground burning to protect cultural heritage sites.
The importance of storytelling
Storytelling is a fundamental part of Indigenous Australian culture.
The Dreamtime is the chapter in which life was created. The Dreaming is the viewpoint for understanding the world, and Country; the stories and the beliefs ground the meaning and importance of creation.
“What is logic? What is the truth? What is the reasoning?” says Dr. Poelina when speaking of the Dreamtime.
Dr Poelina shares how storytelling is evolving with technology: “It’s all about story. We need podcasts, songs, comics, print, film – multiple ways to share a story, so it has meaning to all different types of people.”
She writes stories, poems, and plays and travels the world showcasing her stories. At times, it may be a two-minute film. Other times, it will be a full length play. Either way, the message is powerful in any of its form: protect our country, land and each other.
“How do we take the modern knowledge that we are connected to, and bring in the ancient wisdom, to be able to share. We all need to share our collective wisdom when we deal with complexity and when we work together we learn how and why these stories which are usually transmitted through stories with animals. We learn to coexist with nature and we learn that animals and the environment can teach us how to live in harmony and balance with nature, and with each other.” she says.
In my beach side home, my three year old often would collect shells from the beach to return to me. When I sat at ‘Bidgy’ sharing stories with the rangers, Bangu shared a Dreamtime story about taking something from the land or river.
For me, when she shared this story, I heard a moral within: if everyone takes something from the land, there will be nothing left. Underpinning the story, was a message about protection. If everyone took something from the beach, it would amount to a significant amount of destruction. Each individual action count. We are all in this together.
With a simple story, I reconnected with the land.
Waking up the collective consciousness through storytelling is a significant part of building resilience to climate change for Indigenous Australians who have lived through changes of the earth for thousands of years. Aboriginal people have survived ice ages, and other extreme changes. Stories are integral for passing on knowledge, and wisdom to the generations.
The rangers spoke of positive changes they saw when the pandemic hit earlier in the year. The Indigenous communities in The Kimberleys are located in a very remote section of the world. During the pandemic, food and water were difficult to find. The communities turned back to their land.
“People who you didn’t see fishing, were suddenly out on the reef fishing,” said Bangu.
Dr. Poelina confirmed this sense of re connection with the land for some: “very focused back on Country, living with the Country, off the Country; it made people realize how precious the Fitzroy River Country is to our major life source.”
People were taken back to Country, and unified. “How to wake up the consciousness of the people, to develop an ethic of care and love?” says Dr. Poelina, “It is most likely that when we share with others they will fall in love with The Kimberley, and through that process of learning, they learn to care and share with others, why this place is so special and why each and everyone of us should care.”
It’s a message for both Indigenous and Western cultures. The planet is our home, and we should all ‘Care for Country.’ Until then, the seasons will run and Indigenous rangers, researchers, and all of us will observe.
All cultural and ecological knowledge is the intellectual property of the Indigenous peoples. Through their guardianship, authority and care over countless generations, Indigenous peoples continue to manage these assets in “commons” as stakeholders in a sustainable way for current and future generations of all Australians.
I would like to acknowledge the Karajarri Traditional Owners who graciously hosted me at Bidyadanga Aboriginal Community to allow me to share their stories.
Notes on terminology: This story uses the term ‘Indigenous’ rather than ‘Aboriginal’ to refer to the First Nation Peoples of mainland Australia and traditional landowners. ‘Country’ and ‘Indigenous’ have been capitalised.