Chapter 6. Indigenous perspectives on biodiversity

This chapter looks at the perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on Australia's biodiversity, its importance and management.

Australia's biodiversity: Indigenous perspectives: Watch an interview with author Dr Fiona Walsh (07:50)

Show transcript

[Music plays and text appears: Australia’s biodiversity – Indigenous perspectives]

[Image changes to show Dr. Fiona Walsh – Ethnoecologist]

Dr. Fiona Walsh: Across Australia there are many, many different Aboriginal groups of people, some who are defined by their language, and we know that there’s four to 600 or more languages that were once in Australia.

[Image changes to map of Australia and text appears: 400–600 language groups]

There’s quite a number of them that are still actively spoken as a first language.

[Image changes to a group of Aboriginals with Dr. Fiona Walsh]

[Image changes to Dr. Fiona Walsh with an Aboriginal woman]

[Image changes to a man spearing a lobster in the ocean]

Where I speak from is mostly influenced by the areas of country where I work, so I haven’t had experience in coastal environments where Aboriginal groups are using their country, or in the Torres Strait, but I think it’s really important to acknowledge and recognise that their practices there are unique to them.

[Image changes to a rock and text appears: A long history caring for country]

[Image changes to Aboriginal artwork on a rock and text appears: 50,000+ years of history]

[Image changes to footage of a bushfire]

From an archaeological perspective Aboriginal people have occupied Australia for at least 50,000 years, so that’s 50,000 years of burning, of manipulating water sources, of hunting, and affecting the landscape through other tools and ways, the landscape and the species within it.

[Image changes to a creek and text appears: Brewarrina Aboriginal fish traps Baiame’s ngunnhu]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

[Images of escarpments and text appears: Jukurrpa – Dreaming; the laws of the Country and people]

And then from Aboriginal perspectives the care is manifested through peoples relationship through Jukurrpa, and that... or dreaming, or the laws of the country.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

There’s no direct translation of care, but there is within a number of certainly desert cultures a term that for the western desert side is called Kanyirninpa, which means to hold, but also to be held by.

[Image changes to Aboriginal artwork and text appears: Kanyirninpa – to hold and be held by country]

So there’s this sense of a reciprocal relation between people and place.

[Image changes to a picture of plants and bark and text appears: Translating the concept of biodiversity]

[Image changes to a picture of an outback landscape]

The word biodiversity is an unfamiliar one to many people.

[Image changes to camera panning across various landscapes]

Within Aboriginal languages to what I’m familiar with, there’s no direct translations of the word biodiversity, but there are translations of words which have a sort of conceptual similarity.

[Image changes to camera panning over a town and text appears: Anpernirrentye – relatedness between all things]

There’s a term Anpernirrentye, which talks about the relatedness between all things.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

And so it’s a term that brings together people, and species, and Jukurrpa, and country, and is focused on the interconnections between those. And there’s similar terms we know from other Aboriginal languages.

[Image changes to a picture of plants and bark and text appears: Importance of biodiversity]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

Well those things that make up biodiversity, you know from what I hear, are important to very many Aboriginal people, a surprising number, including people who live in urban city context.

[Image changes to a picture of artwork and text appears: Reki Rennie, Melbourne street art]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

Where that comes from is people’s entire economy and lives was directly reliant on eating the plants and the animals, and finding the waters, and using the resource of the landscape for their food, for their medicine.

[Image changes to various people, landscapes and plants]

So it was the bush supermarket, the bush pharmacy, the hardware shop, all those different resources had to be gathered, and so it was part of people’s health, their economy.

[Image changes to a woman collecting a plant to treat her hand]

[Image changes to an Aboriginal woman carrying a plant]

It is also a focus of people’s personal identity.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

Here’s the really good example of where biodiversity is important to people. So I’m sitting here next to a forkleaf corkwood.

[Dr. Fiona Walsh points to a tree beside her]

Now this one tree has within it at least five different values where it’s useful to local people.

[Image changes to Dr. Fiona Walsh holding a flower]

There’s a flower which is a source of nectar for people.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

So that flower was sucked or dipped into water to make a fermented drink.

[Image changes to Dr. Fiona Walsh holding a tree follicle]

There’s the follicles of the tree which were used as play items by kids. They’ve got very dense black charcoal on the bark, and that’s used as a medicine for skin conditions.

[Image changes to a picture of a tree]

Shade’s a really critical resource, and it provides really dense shade. It’s a habitat for a number of animals that are hunted by people.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

So it’s got these sort of multiple uses within the one plant that then connect it to people, and connect it to other species.

[Image changes to a rock and text appears: Monitoring biodiversity]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

How people monitor biodiversity and changes over time is through accumulated long term observations, lifelong observations.

[Image changes to a picture of a family wading through wetlands]

[Image changes to birds in wetlands]

The state or condition of plants or animals is a really common topic of discussion day to day.

[Image changes to a picture of a family in a field]

You know, as we might sit around the breakfast table and talk about the weather for the day, Arrernte people might sit round and look at what the ants are doing, and what that tells them about the weather for that day.

[Image changes to ants crawling along the ground]

So there’s daily observations which are part of everyday conversation, and then there’s remembered observations that sort of track back over time.

[Image changes to various landscapes]

And then there’s knowledge which is accumulated from people, from their grandparents and parents, which accumulates across generations.

[Image changes to various people flashing across the screen]

And then people travel a lot, and so there accumulating observations over space as well, and seeing land in different states and conditions.

[Image changes to a group of people travelling in vehicles]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

So in this country we’ve had a rapid proliferation of the weed buffel grass in the last 20 years, and many people would grow up to seeing buffel as a normal part of the landscape.

[Image changes to an Aboriginal woman standing in an open field]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

Unless they go out with older people, from whom they hear the stories of how it was otherwise, how there was a much wider diversity of plants, than just this new plant, this stranger plant that’s come.

[Image changes to a picture of plants and bark and text appears: Impacts of biodiversity decline]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

So there’s a range of impacts upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from biodiversity decline that’s caused by invasive species and other threatening processes.

[Image changes to a picture of hares]

[Image changes to a wild pig in the bush]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

And worldwide Indigenous people are some of the first people to be impacted and affected by declines in species, because it’s very often those people who are subsisting on those local resources.

[Images change to show various local resources for Aboriginal people]

And as they decline they’re experiencing food shortages, can’t find the particular medicines they want, there’s a shortage of the timber artefacts they need to make tools.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

So for Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the scarcities are felt first and foremost.

[Image changes to a rock and text appears: Managing biodiversity across cultures]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

I think it’s recognised that Aboriginal people, through their long residency, through their multiple connections to a particular place, and through their commitments to supporting younger children, want to play a part in natural resource management, species management, biodiversity management.

[Image changes to a group of Aboriginals in the bush and text appears: Tiwi carbon study]

[Image changes to two men and text appears: Cape York biodiversity monitoring]

In my experience lots of Aboriginal people are really keen to learn about well presented, clear accessible science ways. And I think increasingly more scientists are curious about the knowledge of local people, including Indigenous people.

[Image changes to people working in the bush]

[Image changes to a picture of people back burning and text appears: Ngadju fire management]

And so, you know, a significant benefit is a better understanding of each other, and hopefully with that a better respect.

[Image changes to a man holding a water hose, talking to a group of people]

[Image changes to groups of people talking and text appears: Daly River Aboriginal water values]

And there’s this movement to actually look at an integration, or I prefer the term complementarity, looking out for where the complementarities, the similarities and the differences are between the two.

[Image changes to a group of people referring to a map]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Fiona Walsh]

With the idea that if we have a rich array of sources, we’ve got a rich array of solutions for the future.

[Image changes to a rock and text appears: DISCLAIMER: Aboriginal Australia languages map – This map is just one representation of many other map sources that are available for Aboriginal Australia. Using published resources available between 1988–1994, this map attempts to represent all the language, social or nation groups of the Indigenous people of Australia. It indicates only the general location of larger groupings of people which may include smaller groups such as clans, dialects or individual languages in a group. Boundaries are not intended to be exact. This map is NOT SUITABLE FOR USE IN NATIVE TITLE AND OTHER LAND CLAIM. David R Horton, creator, © Aboriginal Studies Press, AIATSIS and Auslig/Sinclair, Knight, Merz, 1996. No reproduction allowed without permission]

[Text appears: MUSIC – Tjintu Desert Band, CAAMA Music; ARTWORK – Amy French and Lily Long, Martu Mili Artists Reko Rennie, Melbourne street art photographed by freyapix (Flickr); SPECIAL THANKS – Sandra McGregor and Peter Christopherson; ADDITIONAL IMAGES – Randy Larcombe, Brand Moggridge, Central Land Council Indigenous Ecological Knowledge project, Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, Veronica Dobson, Fiona Walsh, Suzanne Prober, CSIRO Alice Springs, CSIRO Darwin, CSIRO Floreat]

[Music plays and CSIRO logo appears with text: Big ideas start here www.csiro.au]

Hide transcript

Indigenous concepts that connect people to their Country and to living things through a web of relationships are akin to the meaning of the English term biodiversity.

Chapter overview

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today rely upon Australia’s biodiversity because bush foods, medicines and materials are components of their economies, personal identity and culture.

Indigenous peoples are aware of changes to Australia’s biodiversity through long-term observations, sustained residence and oral history. Their solutions to declines in biodiversity focus on people and on practical on-ground actions, particularly burning and manipulating target species for hunting and gathering.

Download the chapter or the whole book [PDF and EPUB versions available]

Chapter authors

Fiona Walsh, Peter Christophersen and Sandra McGregor

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