RIEL postdoc Beau Austin discusses major new research project 'Integrating Measures of Indigenous Land and Sea Management Effectiveness'
Djelk Rangers, Lawrence (left) and Moses (right), harvesting crocodile eggs near Maningrida, Arnhem Land
“People have been having this conversation about our project for decades,” reveals RIEL Research Fellow Beau Austin. “The ideas aren’t new. It’s been acknowledged for a really long time that this research really needs to be done but for whatever reason the stars just haven’t aligned.”
Beau is talking about RIEL’s ARC Linkage Project ‘Integrating Measures of Indigenous Land and Sea Management Effectiveness’. Only a couple of months into its three-year lifespan, the project aims to work in partnership with Indigenous people to come up with a better tool for measuring how well land and sea management in Australia is working.
“It seems to make sense that when we’re trying to figure out the best ways to manage the natural resources of our continent, we start with the knowledge base that’s already there and has been developed over tens of thousands of years,” Austin says. “That seems like a logical place to start. But it’s taken 200 years of trying to turn the Australian continent into Britain initially, and then realising that it’s actually a different place. We’ve been able to realise that with the environment, but we still haven’t been able to with Indigenous cultures. This project really is at the interface of Indigenous/non-Indigenous cultures.”
Beau says the project is essentially designed to act as a conduit for Indigenous people to convey how they do land and sea management: “I can’t pretend to be able to understand the concepts and practices that Indigenous people use in their land and sea management - their indicators for the abundance of bush foods, for example, or how many barramundi to catch at certain times of the year. Nor can I hope to understand all the ways such concepts and practices relate to Indigenous culture, society and livelihoods as well as the environment,” he says. “But my role in this project is not to represent people’s traditional knowledge, but to ensure that those practices are incorporated into the monitoring and evaluation frameworks that we use in Indigenous land and sea management space.”
The ARC project will enlist researchers from each of five communities over the duration of the project. Using the dilly bag research techniques devised by the Aboriginal Research Practitioners Network (ARPNet), the project will train up members of Indigenous land and sea management groups – most likely rangers – to become part of the RIEL team in gathering and providing data from their communities.
“It’s a plus that we get to give something of practical value back to the communities,” Beau says. “It’s a livelihood opportunity that’s pretty obvious in a lot of Indigenous communities: work as a consultant. Having people with existing relationships with the community and people who understand the local social, cultural and environmental landscapes is such a benefit – it delivers richer data results faster.”
The project involves a broad cross-section of brainpower. Coordinated by RIEL’s Professor Stephen Garnett alongside Professor Marc Hockings of the University of Queensland, the project will also incorporate four PhD projects as well as the collaborative input of Indigenous and non-Indigenous experts and scientists from universities (CDU, UQ), Indigenous organisations (eg: NAILSMA), and government as well as experienced consultants like RIEL Adjunct Dr Dermot Smyth.
At the moment Beau and the rest of the team are concentrating on making connections: “One of the things about working with the Indigenous mob is that how you start the project is the thing that influences the success or failure of the rest of the project,” he says. “The process of engagement and the initial partnership-building that you do is really, really important.”
“We’re inviting over 200 organisations to be involved,” Beau Austin reveals. “Hopefully by July we’ll have some research agreements in place.”