How traditional owners and officials came together to protect a beautiful part of Australia’s coast
Recent disasters such as the Black Summer bushfires and the destruction of Juukan Gorge have underscored the need to put indigenous peoples at the center of decision-making regarding Australia’s natural places. But what is the right way to combine traditional ancient wisdom with modern environmental management?
A project off the northwest coast of Western Australia offers a potential way forward. For the first time in the history of the state, indigenous knowledge was central to the design of a marine park.
The protected area will cover 660,000 hectares northeast of Broome, encompassing the beautiful Buccaneer Archipelago and the Dampier Peninsula. The area includes thousands of small islands fringed by coral reefs and seagrass beds. The waters are home to a rich abundance of species such as corals, fish, turtles and dugongs, as well as the humpback whales that calve in the area.
Often, Aboriginal input is solicited only in the consultation phase of park planning, after the maps have been drawn. But in this case, the traditional owners have co-designed three marine parks with the state government and will jointly manage them. Traditional ecological and cultural wisdom has been adopted and valued, enhancing Western scientific knowledge on a fragile part of the Australian coast.
Caring for Sea Country
The co-design of the marine park is a collaboration between the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions and the traditional owners of Bardi Jawi, Mayala and Dambeemangarddee. It will include three contiguous protected areas, each managed jointly by a group of traditional owners.
The Buccaneer Archipelago region has the highest concentration in the state of traditional owner communities living adjacent to an existing or proposed marine park.
Local indigenous peoples call these areas “land of the sea”. They have relied on water for food and traditional practices, and have been caring for it in a sustainable manner for thousands of years.
But to date, the state’s conservation reserve system has not sufficiently protected these unique and exceptionally diverse marine ecosystems.
Industry, fishing and tourism exert pressure on the region’s environment. In particular, the recent sealing of Cape Leveque Road has improved access to the Dampier Peninsula and will result in a massive increase in tourism and boating.
In addition, marine heat waves and other climate-related changes pose a serious threat to corals, macroalgae and seagrass.
Read more: Why indigenous knowledge should be an essential part of how we govern the world’s oceans
True two-way partnerships
Combining traditional indigenous knowledge with a western approach requires methods that are both culturally appropriate and scientifically sound.
In 2018, Bardi Jawi rangers and staff at the Australian Institute of Marine Science carried out “participatory mapping” to design a coral and fish monitoring program. Forest rangers and marine park planners then used this method when designing the marine park.
Participatory mapping begins with traditional owners and marine park planners documenting the ecological knowledge, cultural values and aspirations of traditional owners. From there, maps are developed and then built via observations over the country.
This process enables scientists to record and understand traditional knowledge of an environment in a way that is also useful for western conservation and management planning.
The co-design approach was built on real partnerships, mutual respect and two-way learning. The partnerships have developed over several years through other joint projects of scientists and rangers Bardi Jawi.
The ministry listened to and implemented this strong indigenous voice in the development of provisional plans for marine parks.
According to the traditional owners themselves, the sea is fundamental for spiritual, social and physical existence. Their diet relies heavily on foods from the sea such as fish, turtles, dugongs, crabs, and oysters. Under indigenous laws, traditional owners are required to protect important features of the sea, and for some groups, resources such as seashells are traditionally collected and used for ceremonies and trade.
A WA government document describes how the proposed marine parks contain “special use areas” to protect traditional culture and heritage. They allow for seasonal camping areas and places where traditional owners can collect customary food and other resources. They will also protect culturally important features such as reefs of cultural sites, seagrass beds and mangrove communities.
The document also states that the proposal protects places of “intangible” value related to traditional law, ceremonies and stories.
These areas are in addition to sanctuary areas protecting critical habitat areas and general use areas where sustainable activities are permitted.
Read more: Will your grandchildren have the chance to visit the sacred trees of Australia? Only if our sickly indifference to Indigenous heritage is healed
Protected areas in marine parks should be sized, spaced and positioned to allow “population connectivity” – the dispersal of eggs, larvae, juveniles and adults across the area.
My involvement in the design of the marine park included participating in a study which led to recommendations on how best to achieve this connectivity.
The study was part of a larger program to improve and integrate ecological and social science knowledge in this region. This information was incorporated into the two-way learning and planning, which fed into the proposed marine park.
Proven success in the field
The key to the success of the new marine parks will be the practical ability of traditional owners and custodians. Indigenous Marine Guard groups in the region have already shown that they can work with traditional Australian governance and knowledge structures and non-Indigenous Australian organizations.
In addition, the Bardi Jawi, Dambeemangarddee and Mayala peoples have their own healthy country plans. These plans clearly document how they have looked after the country for millennia and want to continue to do so in the future.
The Bardi Jawi and Dambeemanagrdee peoples have also established an indigenous protected area which they have been managing successfully since 2013.
Healthy countries, healthy people
Some recreational fishers believe the proposed exclusions are unreasonable. But it is increasingly clear that fish populations benefit from sanctuary networks. And many local fishermen recognize the growing threats to the region and welcome traditional owners playing a more important management role.
It is hoped that the final marine park plan will strike the right balance between the needs of traditional owners, commercial and recreational fishing, pearl farming and other uses.
By involving the traditional caretakers from the start, there is every chance that we will realize the ancient indigenous idea that a healthy country means healthy people – and it will benefit everyone.
The author would like to thank the traditional owners Bardi Jawi, Mayala and Dambeemangarddee and their culture, knowledge, beliefs and spiritual connection to the country. The author acknowledges that they are the first Australian scientists.