Indigenous and Western science caring for country

Indigenous and Western science caring for country

A unique collaboration between scientists and Aboriginal people in remote south-eastern Arnhem Land is building knowledge about country and how local people can better manage it.

Justine Rogers and Maritza Roberts

In the last nine years the Ngukurr Wi Stadi bla Kantri (We Study the Country) Research Team has discovered species new to science, found new populations of threatened species, preserved culturally-significant wetlands, and documented the community’s plants and animals in eight local languages.

Led by ecologist Dr Emilie Ens from Macquarie University and Ngandi Elder Cherry Wulumirr Daniels, this citizen science research is also working with the Yugul Mangi Rangers to better manage the new threats facing their country—like feral animals, weeds, climate change and altered fire regimes.

The project is blending ecological methods with traditional knowledge and ways of seeing country. "Our ancestors were rangers. We were rangers for 40,000 years and are rangers today," Cherry says. "It's a responsibility for us to look after those things."

"We are not doing it for ourselves. We are doing this for our country and for our people and for the sake of our culture, keeping our culture alive and strong."

The project has brought people from the remote Aboriginal community of Ngukurr back to country, and through the Ngukurr School's involvement with the research, produced the community's first university students in over 30 years.

More than 300 community members have been directly involved in the research and the project has indirectly reached every person in the community of 1,000. It has also brought over one million dollars of scientific research funding into the community.

The research team is helping to maintain endangered traditional languages through the production of a 143-page community flora and fauna field guide with the Ngukurr Language Centre. The guide lists 275 species names in 10 languages—eight local Aboriginal languages and the species' English common and scientific names. And this information is being added to the Atlas of Living Australia, the national public record of biodiversity.

“This project is not just about citizens collecting data, but about being integrally involved in all stages of biodiversity research to empower community decision-making about remote land management,” Emilie says.

The Ngukurr Wi Stadi bla Kantri (We Study the Country) Research Team is the 2017 winner of the Australian Museum Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science.

Macquarie University also received a $256,000 citizen science grant from the Australian Government in June 2017 to expand Emilie’s cross-cultural biodiversity research with the Ngukurr team. The project will further develop tools for cross-culture biodiversity assessment in collaboration with the Atlas of Living Australia and expand across 40,000 km2 of eastern Arnhem Land to work with local schools, Aboriginal communities and the neighbouring Numbirindi and Yirralka Rangers of the SE Arnhem Land and Laynhapuy Indigenous Protected Areas. 

The Ngukurr Wi Stadi bla Kantri  team is co-led by Emilie Ens, Macquarie University, with: Cherry Daniels, Ngandi Elder and South East Arnhem Land Indigenous Protected Area cultural advisor, Ngukurr community; and Julie Roy, Yugul Mangi Rangers coordinator, South East Arnhem Land Indigenous Protected Area.

Macquarie’s role in the project builds on the unique cross-cultural research of Dr Ens and brings in other University scientists Dr Rachael Gallagher, Dr Maina Mbui, Associate Professor Adam Stow and Dr Rachael Dudaniec who will contribute expertise on modelling species distributions, conservation planning and conservation genetics respectively.

Find out more here

Watch the team’s Eureka Prize video here

Published on August 29, 2017.

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