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World Environment Day: Australia Awards scholars experience First Nations Caring for Country

Posted: 2 June 2023

Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Scholars Platform, In Australia, Scholar,

Ahead of World Environment Day on 5 June, Australia Awards scholars studying in the Australian Capital Territory were recently invited to an Indigenous waterways tour and discussion at Tharwa, on the Murrumbidgee River.

Bangladeshi Scholar Fariba Halim Aurin experiences the Smoking Ceremony

Led by Ngunnawal Traditional Custodian Bradley Bell, scholars experienced a rich immersion into Indigenous cultural experience during the waterways tour. Mr Bell first invited the scholars to partake in a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony, with the intention to cleanse negative energy and move forward with an open mind. The scholars were impressed and heartened to see their own cultural traditions reflected through the Ngunnawal tradition.

“We have this same ceremony in my home country of Bhutan,” remarked Namgay Wangdi. The experience involved building a fire and creating billowing smoke by adding fresh eucalyptus leaves. “The smell of the smoke is so inviting and beautiful,” said Bangladesh’s Fariba Halim Aurin.

Ngunnawal Traditional Custodian Bradley Bell welcomes Nepali scholar Sibjan Chaulagain to Country

Ngunnawal Traditional Custodian Bradley Bell welcomes Nepali scholar Sibjan Chaulagain to Country

Mr Bell then took the scholars to the edge of the Murrumbidgee River to discuss the traditional practice of Caring for Country and his strong passion for river health management. Alongside the serene beauty of the scenery, the scholars also heard harsh truth-telling from Mr Bell. “The river used to be deeper, crystal clear, and full of wildlife,” he said. “This space was used as a strip mine for a long time, taking the topsoil for use in urban development.”

Mr Bell explained how the erosion of the riverbank has led to extreme sand deposition, reducing the capacity for fish breeds like Macquarie Perch (Macquaria australasica) and Black Fish (Gadopsis marmoratus) to lay eggs in the riverbed. The erosion also causes the river to spread out and widen, reducing the river depth, which then causes water temperatures to rise. This detrimental combination of changes has a negative effect not just on the natural flow of the river, but also on the natural flora and fauna growth and life cycles. These life cycle phases provided seasonal indicators for the land’s traditional custodians, the Ngunnawal People. Without these seasonal markers, customs cannot be performed, nomadic movement is halted, and traditions are weakened, eroded and lost like the riverbank.

This explanation of how anthropogenic changes have affected the Ngunnawal People’s capacity to Care for Country helped the scholars appreciate the significant challenges in policy development in the environmental sector.

Nepali scholars Sibjan Chaulagain and Sushant Rijal shared their experiences with respect to the damage to main waterways in Nepal and how damming processes have negatively affected the ecosystem. Sushant noted this introduction to Caring for Country had increased his understanding of consideration that needed to be given to balance the natural order in environmental management.

Drawing on her experience as a Project Manager in Bangladesh’s construction industry, Fariba shared her knowledge of how human intervention in river systems, such as sand dredging, could damage the ecosystem.

“There needs to be a better understanding of the knowledge of Caring for Country in each specific area,” Mr Bell said. “What needs to happen at one end of the river could be completely different in another. In Ngunnawal theology, we believe in ‘Snow to Sea, Water and Land’. We believe the river is a living entity, not a commodity. We must listen to the Elders to understand how to keep the river alive.”