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Appreciating First Nations knowledge of environmental management

Posted: 20 June 2023

Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Scholars Platform, Sri Lanka, In Australia, Scholar,

Ahead of World Environment Day, Australia Awards scholars from South Asia & Mongolia in Victoria were invited to an Indigenous environment tour at the Koorie Heritage Trust (KHT) in Melbourne. Wet weather couldn’t dampen the spirits of scholars eager to learn about the First Nations environmental management and share their cultural backgrounds.

Over 20 scholars gathered over two days on the land of the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung and Bunurong Boon Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation to tour the facilities at the Koorie Heritage Trust and experience a Birrarung Wilam (River Camp) walk along Melbourne’s Yarra River.

When wet weather made for unsafe outdoor conditions on the first day, scholars had a hands-on tour of the Koorie Arts Collection, learning about the significance of the beautiful hand-crafted tools, weapons, and fabrics on display. The guide taught scholars that ‘Koorie’ describes Aboriginal Australians of southern New South Wales and Victoria.

Sri Lankan scholars Rathany Balasuntharam, Ruwandini Ranatunga and Sambavi Arulananthan marvelled at the similarities between Kulin Nation tools such as a ‘boomerang’ and the Sinhalese ‘boomarangaya’ or Tamil ‘boomarung’, a wooden tool used by the Vedda, a Sri Lankan indigenous community.

Ruwandini, who studies a Master of Education at La Trobe University, remarked on the diversity amongst Australia’s Indigenous communities. ‘Whilst the Veddas in Sri Lanka are a small community, I was surprised to know there are shared words and tools of the Koorie People, and that there are many hundreds more individual First Nations groups across the continent of Australia’.

At the end of the tour, scholars enjoyed a robust discussion with the host at the KHT, who challenged the scholars to read about the agricultural practices of the First Nations farmers. ‘Look to the writings of Bruce Pascoe. His work in Dark Emu helps us know we have had a vibrant role in the environmental management of our lands. The fact that this knowledge has been lost over the past 200 years, compared to the 60,000 years of successful land [and water] management, means we need to revitalise the knowledge. We can no longer look to ‘sustainable’ practices. We need to rejuvenate and regrow, and we’ll do this with the knowledge from our Elders.’

Indian scholar Ranjot Singh shared his experience hearing Indigenous Australian rules footballer Gavin Wanganeen speak at the Australia Awards end of year event in 2022. After his career as a sporting leader, Mr Wanganeen turned his hand to storytelling and art after exploring his Indigenous heritage. ‘I love that [Mr Wanganeen] was able to learn he could be skilled at many things and still express his Indigenous identity through sport and art.’

Scholars hear about Koori art forms during the Birrarung Wilam walk along the Yarra River.

Sunnier weather the following day meant that scholars could undertake the exterior tour of the Yarra river’s Birrung Marr. Meaning ‘beside the river of mist and shadow’, Birrung Marr is the Kulin language name for what is now known as the Yarra River. The scholars learnt about local and state government initiatives that will incorporate Indigenous knowledge, like the Greenline Project, which aims to reintroduce native flora and fauna to the area and may include a billabong (a still body of water that forms when a river alters course).

Scholars viewed contemporary artworks featuring intricate lines and markings that detail the border of the Yarra River in honour of art forms passed down from generations past. The guide explained that geometric shapes and symbols representing the landscape and animals speak to the purpose of the community, to know and care for the country in which they lived.

The guide explained to the scholars that the people of the Kulin nation traditionally lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle with a cyclical understanding of seasons. Communities understood that they lived with the land, not simply on it. Everything was shared; therefore, ‘Caring for Country’ was specific to that space. When they were ready to move, communities would intentionally and conscientiously burn the land to clear it for the next season.

Scholars enjoy the Birrarung Wilam walk along Melbourne’s Yarra River.

Bangladeshi scholar Lam-ya Mostaque marvelled at the commitment of the Indigenous communities to celebrating and demonstrating their Caring for Country knowledge, from which she believed indigenous communities in Bangladesh could learn. ‘[Bangladesh’s indigenous peoples] don’t often have the power to demonstrate their caring for country knowledge,’ Lam-ya shared.

These events were part of a number of activities conducted by Australia Awards – South Asia & Mongolia to mark World Environment Day.