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By Cathy Robinson (CSIRO) 8 July 2016 4 min read

Traditional landscape burning plays a role in threatened species conservation.

Indigenous land management enterprises are opening up new ways to build total system health outcomes from Indigenous-led environmental and biosecurity surveillance activities.

These outcomes include building better knowledge systems to tackle contemporary landscape management issues, jobs for Indigenous people, and positive human health and wellbeing outcomes. They are the result of analysis of social, economic, cultural and ecological factors that enable Indigenous land and sea management and partnerships.

Through innovative collaborations with industry, government and neighbours, Indigenous communities across Australia are engaging in different partnerships and payment for environmental service schemes to deliver healthy outcomes for the environment and for Indigenous people.

Two key services are feral pest and fire management. CSIRO has spent the better part of two decades working on these issues, designing effective and appropriate cross-cultural and collaborative approaches to these issues that deliver multiple outcomes for people and the environment.<1>

Respecting culture and country

The design, delivery and evaluation of environmental management and biosecurity programs is informed by a systems approach, recognising that healthy country is sustained by land management practices that respect sacred sites, stories and different types of country, such as rainforest and savanna.

There are many aspects to a systems approach. First and foremost is Indigenous people’s health and wellbeing. This is the starting point for effective enterprises, as people need to be healthy enough to work on and for their country.

Cultural and customary institutions need to be strong to pass on knowledge and ways of knowing, and to protect intellectual and cultural rights. In order to manage country well, enterprises also need to be resourced with rangers, vehicles and knowledge. Partnerships that support traditional owners across all of these aspects deliver total system health outcomes that benefit us all.

Landscape burning for biodiversity

Fire is a powerful and enduring force that has a profound influence on Australian landscapes. In regions across Australia, Indigenous communities are now applying, adapting and rejuvenating Indigenous fire knowledge and landscape-burning regimes through a range of land management activities and partnerships.

A program of work supported by the National Environmental Science Programme (through the Northern Australia Environmental Resources and Threatened Species Recovery Hubs) is finding pathways that provide Indigenous and environmental benefits through fire management activities.

With three-quarters of Australia’s most threatened species found on Indigenous-owned lands, Indigenous on-country enterprises and communities are pivotal to securing the future of Australia’s biodiversity.

Scientists, environmental non-government organisations, industry groups, government agencies and Indigenous communities are working together to find out if, and how, traditional landscape burning can play a role in the conservation of these threatened species. Indigenous communities are highly motivated to engage in threatened species management as long as management activities align with their efforts to sustain on-country enterprises and care for their community and country.

Robust collaborative partnerships and activities are needed for this to work. For example, in some contexts, species or habitats earmarked for urgent conservation efforts may not be a priority for local Indigenous people. In other cases, Indigenous fire management programs across northern Australia have generated significant economic benefits (through carbon abatement offset agreements, for example) but there are significant ecological, economic, social and institutional challenges that can frustrate the delivery of multiple economic and environmental benefits from such efforts.

Biosecurity surveillance systems

This cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary effort also tackles the particularly challenging issue of feral and introduced species, using Indigenous knowledge and social networks to help with the enormous task of maintaining Australia’s biosecurity.

For a country the size of Australia, keeping a look out for invading pests of any size is difficult. This is where eyes on the ground are essential for early detection.

CSIRO is now developing partnerships with Indigenous communities to develop a total system approach to risk assessment that can help inform smarter biosecurity surveillance systems. These systems will not only lead to good biosecurity and health outcomes for the region, but also form a critical ingredient to sustaining Australia’s healthy population, environment and economy.

As with fire management, biosecurity surveillance partnerships with Indigenous communities need careful negotiation and design.

Animals and plants judged as a ‘pest’ from environmental or agricultural perspectives may be valued as a source of food or loved as part of historical identity for Indigenous people<2>. This can affect the ways that surveillance information is interpreted and shared by Indigenous rangers charged with reporting biosecurity outbreaks. It can also affect the design of biosecurity management strategies that are implemented on Indigenous lands.

Knowledge partnerships for total system health

Indigenous people are now tackling complex issues in their communities and on their lands. CSIRO is playing a critical role in building and brokering integration science approaches that build Indigenous and scientific knowledge partnerships to tackle a range of contemporary sustainable development issues.

This work continues to grow to improve the health, livelihood, biosecurity and biodiversity outcomes from Indigenous surveillance, environmental service and environmental partnership programs that exist across Australia.

<1> This work was recently recognised with the 2015 Innovator of Influence Award, Australian Science and Innovation Forum and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

<2> Robinson CJ, Smyth D, Whitehead PJ. 2005. Bush tucker, bush pets, and bush threats: cooperative management of feral animals in Australia’s Kakadu National Park. Conservation Biology, 19(5): 1385-1391

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