Our country, our way – why Australia must embrace Indigenous knowledge

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Our country, Our way

As a kid, I grew up in the city, but I was always out in the bush a lot. I always found a sense of belonging out in the bush, out on country.

That sense of belonging to country has shaped me in one way or another throughout my life.

Wiradjuri man and geographer Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher focuses on the patterns and processes that shape the world around us. Picture: Supplied

It’s something that drives me in my research, in connecting people, not only us Aboriginal people to country, but all of Australia to country.

Professionally, I’m a geographer, in particular I focus on the patterns and processes that shape the world around us. I extract sediment cores, I look at the layers of the earth and unpack the information that is stored in the layers of the earth to tell a story about how landscapes and environments have changed.

One of my key focuses is how people shape, create, maintain and manage landscapes through time. And how is the present landscape that we live in shaped and created by human activity.

We need to understand the historical sequence of events that have produced modern landscapes if we hope to manage, maintain and live on and in the country we live in.

Australia faces a number of environmental crises right now.

We have one of the fastest rates of biodiversity loss on Earth. Species have been going extinct in this continent since the late 1700s. We also are experiencing, particularly in the southeast, but all over our country, an accelerating rate of catastrophic bushfires that are becoming more frequent, more intense and larger.

I feel like we are constantly traumatised by things like catastrophic bushfires, by environmental tragedies like the loss of the Great Barrier Reef or mass deaths of fish in the Murray-Darling system.

The language around fire is ‘fighting fire’, but fire is integral to the Australian landscape. Picture: Getty Images

So how did we get here? Well, it’s my contention that many of the environmental problems that Australia faces today can be traced to the devastating and continuing effects of the British Invasion and subsequent colonisation of the Australian continent.

Fire was first used by humans, or our progenitors Australopithecines, 1.7 million years ago, and the evolutionary trajectory of humans or hominids is inextricably linked to fire. It’s been our main tool and still is our main tool for landscape management.

Fire has also been critical in shaping who we are.

It has unlocked the potential of our food to power this immensely energy demanding organ that defines Homo sapiens. It’s enabled us to extend our waking hours beyond the rhythm of day and night, sitting around a campfire, conversing, talking in abstract terms, planning.

And it’s also changed many parts of our physiology. The requirements of our body to procure food, move around landscapes, control landscapes has influenced our form and structure from our body structure to our teeth. We are a fire organism.

People arrived here being fire users, intelligently using fire in the landscape. Then we have the subsequent 68,000 years at least of people living in Australia using fire to manage country.

So, what does it mean to manage country?

Landscape management helps create a predictable, bountiful and safe environment around us. Picture: Supplied

Well, landscape management is designed around three key purposes. It’s to create a predictable, bountiful and safe environment around us. The guiding principles of any kind of landscape management is to get predictability in the landscape, to create resources or resource availability in a landscape and to provide a secure place to live.

This is scientific knowledge. This is knowledge that’s been gathered scientifically. Indigenous knowledge is science. It’s gained by observation, executing a plan, observation, refining your plan, executing a plan, observation.

This accumulated knowledge of 68,000 years, more than 3000 generations of people, has seen the passing on of how to live on country.

Yet this knowledge of how to live on country faces challenges. Now, you might assume this challenge comes from the overtly racist, the deniers, the history revisionists, those who seek to and cannot recognise that Aboriginal people are humans.

But the challenge comes from both sides. And perhaps more insidiously, from those who purport, and espouse an empathy for Aboriginal culture and the impact that the British Invasion has had on us.

I’m referring to the wilderness or conservation movement.

If we think about what ‘wilderness’ is, it’s an idea that is born from a European ideology, European epistemology. It means an uncultivated, uninhabited and inhospitable region.

Total known species extinctions in Australia based on Woinarski et al (2019) Biological Conservation. Graphic: Supplied

It’s rooted in the idea that to be human, you must have a built environment, you must have large crop plants, you must have high population density, night-time lights, all of those sorts of things. It ignores the fact that people live on country, influence country and influence environments in all sorts of ways that don’t include these very discrete and narrow set of factors.

This ideology of wilderness destroys country in Australia.

So, you end up with this irony, where a large sector of the conservation or wilderness movement – many of them the same people who espouse the need to shift to more sustainable ways of living – ignore consciously or not the very cultures that can show them the way of how to live sustainably on country based on accumulated knowledge over thousands of generations.

And in many ways, this is dehumanising.

In Australia, this has a deep history. A deep, deep history. The whole premise of terra nullius is based on the fact that Aboriginal people weren’t seen as humans.

So, it’s no wonder that modern Australia has trouble understanding the profound influence that Aboriginal people have had on the landscape.

Aboriginal people were managing country right across Australia. In southeast Australia, Aboriginal people were systematically massacred. People were removed from country.

We still maintain a strong connection to country. And we’re still here. But this resulted in a massive disruption to our management of country.

Australia has an accelerating rate of catastrophic bushfires that are becoming more frequent, more intense and larger. Graphic: Supplied

Shrubs and trees have increased across the landscape, resulting in high fuel loads. So that when climate shifts, when droughts occur, when we have high fire weather or extreme fire weather, the fires are getting larger and larger. And hotter and hotter.

We’re also experiencing the fastest rate of biodiversity loss on Earth, which began at the British Invasion and has continued apace since then and now is compounded by the impact of climate change. This is because people are no longer managing country.

We need people back on country.

We understand that if we care, look after, and fulfil our obligations and responsibilities in our country, we benefit, and country benefits, and we are both healthy.

In terms of fire, there’s reduced landscape fuel loads, less connectivity between the ground and the canopy, so you don’t get these big catastrophic fires.

I would argue, that a large part of the problem – environmental and social – that modern Australia faces, stem from our inability to connect properly with the country we live in. The importation of European ideas, the attempt to convert this country into another place, the inability to embrace and accept where we are and what it means to be on country in Australia, on country in this country.

This is really obvious in our attitudes towards fire. The whole language and attitude around fire is fighting fire. But fire is integral to the Australian landscape. And the futile attempt to fight it is just creating more and more problems.

People arrive here being fire users, intelligently using fire in the landscape. Picture: Getty Images

And the people, the humans, who you need to engage are here. We’ve been here for 68,000 years, if not more.

You need to engage with us, to help you through this, to help all of us through this, to help heal the country and heal the people, heal the scars that large parts, if not all of Australia, have experienced following the repeated catastrophic bushfires that tear through this country and rip people’s lives apart and destroy biodiversity.

We need to trust Aboriginal people. This is a big one.

The public needs to embrace Aboriginal people and Aboriginal knowledge, and the media has to wake up. It needs to cast off antiquated notions of wilderness, antiquated notions that country is better off without people, notions that we can win a war against fire.

We need to know that this country needs fire.

I think, importantly, we need to educate ourselves and educate our children. They’re the ones who will steer us out of these problems.

We need to educate them on the way this country needs to be, the way this country can be, and about the people who created this country.

This is an edited extract of Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher’s 2020 Narrm Oration the University’s key address that profiles leading Indigenous peoples from across the world in order to enrich our ideas about possible futures for Indigenous Australia. A full version of the Oration is available here.

Banner: Getty Images

This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.

Do you believe there is a lack of trust in the land management skills of our Indigenous people? Has Australia been too slow to make use of those skills?

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Total Comments: 12
  1. 3

    Please spare us from this stuff. So many stories about how the traditional knowledge, based on surviving lore, almost all from the semitropical north where vegetation and the population is mostly sparse, can save us all; it beggars belief that people in the southern colder areas think that those methods will be the same in their environment.

    I have lived and worked as an ecologist in the NT, and WA, and north Qld, and many of the old practices have some merit, IF you wish to live a nomadic, subsistence life with minimal technology. Virtually nobody does this anymore. We have overpopulated this land, and those methods mostly do not have a place. White settlers overgrazed and overburnt, but desertification was already well underway over vast areas – it suited the aboriginal nomadic lifestyle in some places. Those old days are gone. We need to move on. Get over it.

    Scientific ecological research using modern analytical processes has demonstrated that there are ways to decrease environmental impacts of fire – for a start, we need to stop lighting them, as over 80% of fires are human caused.

    If you think carefully, humans have been in Australia a blink in time – a mere 50,000 years, over the hundred of millions of years of ecosystem development. Answer me this: who “managed” the forests in the millenia before humans arrived??

  2. 1

    Yes the Aboriginal people lived in Australia for some forty thousand years and never left a mark on it now the Liberal Party has wrecked it in twenty years and they are still not finished.

    • 2

      So floss, in 40,000 years there has never been a Government other than Liberal?

      No doubt you yourself have benefitted from many of the changes that have occured in Australia in the last 200 years so your own hands would not be so clean either!

  3. 0

    I want to respond to Floss. Please don’t be one eyed and pick on a political party, they are all the same when it comes to protecting and preserving our great Country. If the real truth is known, MONEY has caused allot of the trouble in how we don’t follow the traditional way regarding the land.

  4. 3

    “Do you believe there is a lack of trust in the land management skills of our Indigenous people? Has Australia been too slow to make use of those skills?”

    I don’t believe that it’s a matter of trust, it’s more of an ideology by the Greens and the hard left that won’t accept that Aboriginal people have shown how to manage a fuel load successfully with the judicious use of fire. The Greens and hard left want to protect all the plants, all the birds, animals and insects and stop digging holes in Australia. To meet this ideology they run campaigns to stop mining, stop hazard reduction fires and spread lies about what is causing all of the problems.

    I take issue with Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher over a few of his statements and I hasten to point out that I don’t have his qualifications. There was no British invasion as the word “invasion” suggests an armed conflict to subjugate the native population and beat them into submission. Historical records show, time after time, that Governor Phillip wanted to talk with the natives living around Sydney Cove and he instructed his men to treat the natives with respect. The casual comment about “the loss of the Great Barrier Reef” is concerning because the Great Barrier Reef is alive and well and not under threat of total loss. As has happened since records have been kept, parts of the reef undergo bleaching but over time have recovered.

    The loss of species is easily explained and is not unique to Australia. Countries that have been settled for thousands of years in Europe and Asia have lost countless species but no records have been maintained. America has lost over 1,000 species since white man settled it 500 years ago, New Zealand has lost almost 90 species since white man arrived. Progress causes species loss and, in Australia’s case, feral cats, foxes, feral dogs, feral buffalo, feral camels, feral goats and feral horses and donkeys have done most of the damage.

    We then get to the amount of time that Aboriginal people have been in Australia. I’d like some definitive proof of the years stated by various claimants. When I was young the figure was 8,000 years which some time later was revised upwards to 20,000 years followed by 40,000 years. This figure was accepted until fairly recently when 60,000 became the number and now Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher claims 68,000 years. There was a ridiculous claim made on local radio that Aborigines have been here for 500,000 years but we can ignore that.

    I note that Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher has mentioned climate change and, thankfully, he has not suggested that it is man-made. I assume his qualifications and research will have shown that climate change is cyclical. Yes, there is climate change, of that there can be no doubt, and as previous climate changes have brought very cold weather or very hot weather, man has adapted and survived. Nobody can explain how spending billions of dollars will make any difference to the climate or by how much the temperature of the world will be reduced by money.

    • 1

      Archaeologists found evidence in 2017 that took the time span out to 60000 years, so there is that.
      On your climate comments, The Role of Human Activity

      In its Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nations, concluded there’s a more than 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet.

      The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 414 parts per million in the last 150 years. The panel also concluded there’s a better than 95 percent probability that human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have caused much of the observed increase in Earth’s temperatures over the past 50 years.
      Please tell me your sources of information are not Allan Jones, Ray Hadley, or others from Sky News etc. There is a lot of science on this you could read.

  5. 0

    Janus’s comments I suspect are pretty close to what I suspected. Whether firing of landscape say in the NT was related to food production I do not know. In any case a lot of fires are started by lightning. Caves for habitat will remain. Not so for houses which can be burnt to the ground. Which raises another point. Whatever the consequences of Capt Cooks voyage to this ‘great southern land’ what followed such as unintentional diseases etc, the term ‘invaded’ never sits right with a lot of non-indigenous people even though there was a lot of move over, we’re going to farm here (my words), and children separation. (god yes, that must have been terrible). But today we have houses with hot and cold running water, roads to take us anywhere with cars buses or bikes. Shops for food and clothing. Also doctors, hospitals, and dentists and other facilities all powered by that wonderful invention called electricity. Sorry, but I just cant see that “managing fires” is a great contributor to modern society even though we must respect how things evolved in centuries past. So what would our indigenous people today prefer. I’m all ears.

    • 0

      When you raise the issue of ‘children separation’ can you also make the point that white children were also ‘separated’ from their mothers by force and handed to others for adoption without consent of the mothers. I am not saying that two wrongs make a right (and they are absolutely wrongs) but lets not pretend that it was worse for one group than another.

    • 1

      The reason for the separation of children from mothers was mainly because the children were at risk of harm, malnutrition or general neglect, be they black or white. The sad thing about the uproar about a “stolen generation” is that Aboriginal children were left too long in the care of mothers who couldn’t protect them and they should have been removed for their own safety. That is the result of do-gooders getting publicity about the wrong reasons and children were raped, infected with venereal diseases and maltreated.

  6. 0

    Horace should read the report finding of the Human Rights Commission into the Stolen Generation, particularly the bit about how children were selected to be taken. Nothing to do with “saving” them from their own families. That thinking, and obviously it still exists, was used to “justify” the theft.

    • 1

      With the result now McDaddy is that Aboriginal children are still left far too long in dangerous and harmful situations because of the ‘fear’ of being accused of creating a second ‘stolen generation’. Meanwhile, generational trauma is being passed down to children who don’t deserve to carry the events of the past just because it makes parents and grandparents feel better.

  7. 0

    The study SUGGESTS 65,000 years.
    Artefacts in primary depositional context are concentrated in three dense bands, with the stratigraphic integrity of the deposit demonstrated by artefact refits and by optical dating and other analyses of the sediments.
    The above is from the report in “Nature”. The dating is a wish, not as yet a fact.



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