365 Places: Barmah National Park

Day 73: Barmah National Park, Yorta Yorta Country, Australia

Today I go back to thinking about interconnecting stories, cultures and worlds. One of the ways I have been influenced to think about the connectedness of place, identity, culture and life has been through my experience with First Nation Peoples. In an earlier post I talked about Yorta Yorta Nation and the work that this community has done with scientists.

For example, one project titled A monitoring program to determine the watering requirements of floodplain populations of the southern pygmy perch, Nannoperca australis, in Barmah-Millewa Forest focuses on the pygmy perch, an endangered species found in the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. The summary text on the Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre website states that:

The pygmy perch has undergone a dramatic decline in NE Victoria over the last 15 years (now ‘Vulnerable’ (VIC) or ‘Endangered’ (NSW). Despite this species’ attractive appearance, its ecology is poorly understood.

This project is a great example of how scientists have had the good sense to engage the people who have lived in this area for 60,000 years. Like the ecology in which this particular species resides, there is a larger story here, one that connects through the food chain and through time.

Murray River turtle, Image Credit: http://www.mdfrc.org.au/projects/featured/SPG.asp

Murray River turtle, Image Credit: http://www.mdfrc.org.au/projects/featured/SPG.asp

When I think about the connectedness of our world and of our part in it, I am drawn to consider more deeply the role of knowledge. In our society, expert opinion is usually assuaged to formal knowledge, the learning and research of institutions: ‘book’ learning. This I believe is a blinkered view, one that removes the other types of knowledge that is embedded in sharing stories, oral histories and lived experience. However, the research I have seen through my connection with the Yorta Yorta Nations, demonstrates how linking in the environmental knowledge of the First Nations peoples brings about a more robust and complete picture of the land.

Other academic researchers do not seem to be so aware. For example, this post, titled Be the protector of my species recently published on the La Trobe website does not acknowledge any of the vast research that has already been done on other fish species in the Murray. What seems to be an even bigger omission is to talk about the surrounding environment as a great ‘supermarket’ without acknowledging the land management practices of the Yorta Yorta and neighbouring nations over thousands of years.

To highlight another example from Yorta Yorta Nation, a recent article titled All Strings Attached: Negotiating Relationships of Geographic Information Science talks about the erasure of Indigenous groups when it comes to geographic representations. To provide some detail from the abstract of the paper:

GIS ontologies comprise categorised labels that represent lived contexts, and these ontologies are determined through the shared worldviews of those labelling spatial phenomena for entry into GIS databases. Although Western ontologies and spatial representations reflect Western understandings of human experience, they are often inappropriate in Indigenous contexts. In efforts to be represented in courts and land management, Indigenous groups nevertheless need to engage Western spatial representations to ‘claim space’. This paper examines what GISs are and do and shows that GIS technology comes with strings attached to the myriad social contexts that continue to shape the field of GIScience. We show that Intellectual Property Rights Agreements can sever and control these ‘strings’; the agreement between the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation and university researchers reframes GIS from a technology of erasure to a technology of opportunity that enables Indigenous groups to define their own engagement. The visual and narrative outputs will contribute important understandings of the environmental crisis facing the Murray–Darling Basin and connect older and younger generations through knowledge sharing.

This paper covers some very interesting ground (pardon the pun) and looks to how GIScience needs to address the social constructs in which the science operates. By using an example of how researchers have worked with the Yorta Yorta Nation, the article explores some highly relevant topics, such as how community-based and participatory mapping can have positive social benefits and contribute to community empowerment. The conclusion of the paper argues that “GIScience is a fundamentally relational praxis that always expresses particular world views through its immersion in social relationships.”

Cover Image, The Biggest Estate on Earth<br /> Joseph Lycett "Aborigines using Fire to Hunt Kangaroos" Watercolour, c1820

Cover Image, The Biggest Estate on Earth
Joseph Lycett “Aborigines using Fire to Hunt Kangaroos” Watercolour, c1820

Historian Bill Gammage’s book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia is a richly illustrated and detailed text that acknowledges the impact that First Nation’s people had on land management. He draws on a range of sources which fall into three main categories:

  • writing and art depicting the land before Europeans changed it
  • anthropological and ecological accounts of Aboriginal societies today, especially in the Centre and north
  • what plants tell of their fire history and habitats.

Bill Gammage also acknowledges that because this text focuses on the whole of the continent, he did not draw many sources directly from Aboriginal people. This was because he was drawing a picture of the land and its history from the European context and did not want to make presumptions. He comments that:

I had neither the time nor the presumption to interrogate people over so great an area on matters they value so centrally.

In Gammage’s case, the fact he is drawing from other forms of knowledge (writing, art, plants plus anthropological and ecological accounts) one step removed from direct consultation with Indigenous Peoples, serves to strengthen his argument that indeed Australia was not a virgin wilderness. His proposition is that the land was managed in a sophisticated and holistic way and that once Aboriginal people were no longer able to tend to their country, it became overgrown and vulnerable to bushfires.

I often reflect on how different Australia would be if Europeans came to this country to learn about the land and not to impose values from another hemisphere; which have wreaked so much damage on the land and its plants and animals. One only has to think of the Cane Toad to realise that lack of foresight and common sense that has been used. No one thought about the bigger impact that Cane Toad would have, thinking only of getting rid of the beetle that was destroying the sugar cane. Now, the Cane Toad has invaded most of Australia’s north and there is no way to stop it. It destroys ecosystems in two ways – by eating everything in it wake and killing everything that tries to eat it, as it has poisonous flesh. Short term solutions without thinking of long-term effects – this seems to be the only answer.

But I am no scientist and it would be foolish of me to try to engage in a scientific discussion about the peculiarities of an introduced species and the vulnerabilities of a threatened species. For me, I think there is an urgent need to think differently about how we still compartmentalise the world; believing that one event is removed from another to start to see the connections between our behaviour and the impact that it has. The Yorta Yorta and other First Nation communities all over the world have managed to care for their environment for thousands of years by acknowledging and respecting the delicate balance of the ecology. Liz Bentley states in her article The Earth is a Sentient Living Organism

The strong Gaia hypothesis states that life creates conditions on Earth to suit itself. Life created the planet Earth, not the other way around.

This quote reminds me that as living beings our impact on our earth doesn’t have to be passive. By opening our eyes and learning about the places where we live from the people whose culture extends back for thousands upon thousands of years, we can actively learn how to repair some of the damage done and improve the  environment for all living things.

NB. This post has been written in consultation with Lee Joachim, Research Manager, Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation.