Healing Country - Indigenous Environmental Management

This year's NAIDOC theme “Heal Country, Heal our Nation” is so important in many different ways. It highlights the significance of Country within Indigenous culture and the importance of traditional knowledge in protecting our precious environment. For 60,000 years First Nations people have lived on this Country learning to care for it and sustain it. This is incredibly valuable knowledge that needs to continue to be utilised. With the rise of climate change, now more than ever is the time to make changes for the good; to manage our environment in a sustainable way so future generations can continue to enjoy our beautiful Country.

Cool Burn by Mandy Martin. Courtesy of Common Ground, 2016.

“Caring for Country” is a phrase that is often used to describe Indigenous people’s unique relationship with land and water, and their deep care for it. “Country” is a term Indigenous people use to describe the lands in which they have a traditional relationship with. As described by in a report by CSIRO (2013), Country is often seen as an entity:

“Country in Aboriginal English is not only a common noun but also a proper noun. People talk about Country in the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to Country, sing to Country, visit Country, worry about Country, feel sorry for Country, and long for Country.”

Care for Country is based in laws, customs and ways of life that have been passed on from generation to generation. First Nation people’s connection with Country can be encapsulated in the saying “healthy Country, healthy people,” meaning if you look after Country, Country will look after you. Being on Country is a crucial part of Indigenous people maintaining their connection to culture and traditional knowledge. Unfortunately, many people nowadays have become astray from their relationship to their home lands. This is a key issue that this year's NAIDOC theme aims to address. Indigenous land and sea management allows people to reconnect with their country and has incredible environmental, social and cultural benefits (AIATSIS, 2011).

Kakadu Indigenous rangers partner with CSIRO using drones to combine modern technology and traditional knowledge. Courtesy of Government News, 2019.

Nation-wide there are several Indigenous ranger and environmental management programs emerging. These programs are tackling issues including changed fire regimes, managing the devastation caused by introduced species such as cats, foxes and camels, and looking after cultural heritage sites such as waterholes and burial grounds. ‘Country Needs People’ runs Indigenous Ranger and Protected Areas programs that protect the health of Australia’s natural heritage and the lives of Indigenous people. Through these programs, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people harness traditional knowledge and combine this with modern scientific conservation methods to improve the health of the environment and wellbeing of communities (Country Needs People, 2020). In 2020, the National Environmental Science Program launched Indigenous partnerships, bringing together traditional owners, land managers, policy makers and non-government organisations. These groups collaborate and focus upon embedding Indigenous knowledge systems into the protection of biodiversity, such as protecting threatened species (National Environmental Science Program, 2020). It is programs and initiatives such as these that need to be continued and increased; programs that value Indigenous knowledge and connection to Country.

Returning to Country and looking after Country through fire. Courtesy of Social Ventures Australia, 2020.

Caring for Country not only has environmental benefits but can also have a positive effect on the social-political, cultural, economic and physical and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous people. For many Indigenous people, caring for Country is closely linked to maintaining life, identity, spirituality and health (Mickan, 2018). Country is the place where knowledge comes from and is taught - caring for Country is an essential part of the continuation of culture.
Being on Country helps preserve culture, language and the continuation of traditional knowledge and stories. Indigenous ranger programs have an incredible influence on people's physical health through providing a healthier and more physical lifestyle. Indigenous land management also helps fuel jobs giving many communities and individuals economic independence (Country Needs People, 2020). Caring for Country has a hugely positive impact on the lives of Indigenous communities and individuals.

“Heal Country, Heal Nation” acknowledges the need for our nation to come together and listen to First Nations people’s knowledge to protect the environment and their cultural heritage. This means participation in government decision making and policy making, and taking direct action to protect land, water, sacred sites and cultural heritage. It is incredibly important that - for the health of our beautiful country - Indigenous knowledge is heard and practiced.