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Giving back to the land

The Canberra Times
Rosslyn Beeby
Saturday, 30 September 2006

SPEND just a little time talking with Wreck Bay community elder Darren Brown, and it's immediately clear he has a deeply knowledgable connection to the land.

"When we were kids we learned about the bush from the old people," he says. "They told us how you have to treat the land with respect and always give something back, not just take from the land all the time.

"You'd go out in the bush around here with the old people and they'd tell you which plants were bush tucker and which were medicine.

"So you grew up learning which plants which take the sting away if you were bitten by bull ants, and which to chew if you had a toothache. You learn culture by living it, and that was how it was for us as kids around here in the community."

Walk with ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer through the banksia heathlands that are part of the traditional lands of the Wreck Bay Aboriginal community in Booderee National Park, and he's adamant that gifted indigenous people such as Brown must be given a leading role in Australian conservation.

"People like Darren are the future. The environment is their passion and if they get the right opportunities, conservation in this country will really take off in some exciting new directions," he says.

Lindenmayer, based at the Australian National University's Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, runs one of Australia's biggest fire ecology research programs in Booderee National Park at Jervis Bay on the NSW South Coast.

Brown, a 34-year-old elder with the Wandandian people, is employed as a trainee fire ecologist with the program, and is "doing brilliantly", radio-tracking bandicoots and diamond pythons to help researchers establish home range and habitat use. He's a valued and popular team member, and when Lindenmayer and his research team publish several academic papers later this year on the Jervis Bay program, Brown will be among the co-authors. Lindenmayer says, "He's done the research, he's made the observations and he'll get the credit for it."

The Jervis Bay Fire Response Study is a pioneering research project funded by the Australian Research Council. Covering 110 sites throughout the park, it's the first program to track the impact of bushfire on birds, mammals and reptiles.

"Darren was working as a parks ranger and applied for a traineeship with the fire program," Lindenmayer says. "He was an absolute standout because of his skills, his knowledge and his passion for the environment. Passion is everything. That's why Steve Irwin made such an impression on people."

Like thousands of Aboriginal children, Brown says he experienced a bewildering and "shaming" conflict between the state education system and the daily life and cultural values of his people.

"It was learning on the run, with an education system that set Aboriginal kids up to fail.

"So much of what the teachers talked about in the classroom had no connection with our lives - it was like learning about another planet. A lot of it was about colonisation - the history of people like Captain Cook was told to the class as if the Aboriginal people didn't exist. That's confusing for a little kid.

"You imagine being an Aboriginal kid in that class, and you're thinking, 'What about my people? Don't we matter? Are we nothing? Why doesn't the teacher mention us?'

"We couldn't make any connection to what we were being told to learn. It was so remote from who we were and how we lived, so the message you take away from that as a little kid is that you don't fit in and maybe you'll never fit in.

"The other day, one of my little stepdaughters brought home a school assignment on bush rats, and I thought, 'This is great. Why didn't I get school assignments like this?"'

Earlier this year, Lindenmayer made a moral decision - and a bold political statement - about the scarcity of funds for indigenous environmental training programs. At a black-tie dinner in Melbourne, he was announced as the winner of the inaugural DaimlerChrysler Australian Environmental Research Award - set up to honour leadership in environmental research - for a 10-year research project at Buccleuch State Forest near Tumut. It looked at the impact of land clearing on native wildlife and led to a revision of the codes of practice for establishing pine plantations in NSW.

Annoyed by bureaucratic delays in processing a funding application, Lindenmayer decided to use the $30,000 prize to pay for Brown to continue his training as a fire ecologist. He'd been "unable to budge" the federal Department of Transport and Regional Services - responsible for administering Jervis Bay as an Australian territory - to provide funding for Brown's traineeship.

"They were stuffing us around and I was planning to use book royalties to keep Darren's position going," he says.

Brown says he was " really, really humbled" when he heard the news.

"Yeah, it meant a lot that David had faith in me and he could understand some of the pressures Aboriginal people deal with in continuing their education."

Brown talks candidly about early difficulties in his life - family poverty, getting into trouble at school as a teenager, a youthful slide into the underworld of alcohol and drug addiction, teenage fatherhood and a recent battle with depression.

He says, "If you're an Aboriginal kid trying to learn things in school that have no connection to your life, you get bored - just like any kid. Then you're a troublemaker, and your friends are troublemakers. It goes on from there. I talk about these things openly because I want young Aboriginal people to know I haven't got to where I am now by always behaving like a saint.

"There are a lot of young people who are scarred by what they've gone through and I want to say to them, 'Hey bro, my life was no different to yours. I can do it, you can do it.' You can deal with the bad stuff and put it behind you."

Brown left school to work as a trainee horticulturalist at the botanical gardens in Booderee National Park, and later moved across to work as a parks ranger.

"I started in the gardens, working with my uncles and learning about the local plants. I knew the cultural names, but I had to learn the botanical names. I always wanted to work in the park. It didn't make sense to look for work outside because my community was here and the work was here."

Professor Arthur Georges, head of the University of Canberra's faculty of applied ecology, has worked on conservation projects with indigenous people in northern Australian for almost three decades. "We need to involve more Aboriginal people in conservation, but government frameworks must be more flexible if we're going to give communities better access to meaningful education," he says. "That's the key - meaningful education. If we can open up more conservation opportunities for Aboriginal people, it'll pave the way for some incredible changes. They'll be bringing in fresh perspectives from a richer connection with the land."

Georges says he believes many of the social problems affecting Aboriginal communities in northern Australia are caused by disempowerment and despair. "It's a terrible struggle for many people, particularly young people who can't see a future. Is it any wonder they tip over the edge into despair? You've got to be really strong to get through some of the problems they encounter. The ones that do make it through are pretty remarkable."

According to a national report by the Australian Legal Information Institute, there are few opportunities for continuing employment of Aboriginal people in conservation.

It emphasises the importance of distance learning to allow trainees to spend time in home communities and advocates competence-based assessment " rather than knowledge-based proficiency".

The report warns that future employment "is somewhat doubtful", as funding is uncertain. Many Aboriginal ranger-training programs don't "provide much scope for full-time employment, except at unemployment benefit rates".

The report concludes, "It would be a great pity if some arrangement could not be made to facilitate the continued employment of these people [Aboriginal community rangers], in recognition of the important environmental protection work they are doing, not only for their own communities but for the benefit of the whole community."

Both Georges and Lindenmayer say the situation doesn't make sense given that Aboriginal communities own about one-fifth of Australia.

"Given their experience, their cultural heritage and the amount of land they control, Aboriginal people have a big role to play in conservation throughout this country," Georges says.

"I think what David has done by donating his award to furthering indigenous education is really important. It acknowledges that there are many dimensions to environmental education."

Lindenmayer says working with Brown "cuts two ways as a learning process".

"It's an eye-opener for me. We're just not doing enough to connect with the incredible knowledge Aboriginal people have about the environment. They are fantastically skilled, but we don't acknowledge it, and we lack the educational opportunities that will further develop and use these skills.

"We've got to have educational opportunities that will recognise and honour cultural differences. With the kind of social and emotional pressures most Aboriginal communities are facing, you can't have the kind of inflexible tertiary courses that insist on people turning up to class every day or getting assignments in on time.

"If someone dies in an Aboriginal community, the community withdraws and everyone goes though a ritual of grief. You can't have an educational system that won't take those moral and cultural obligations into account."

Brown says working with Lindenmayer has enriched his cultural perspectives by "bringing in the science to broaden out the picture".

He's helping an Albury-based researcher with the Jervis Bay project gather data on diamond pythons for a master's thesis, and has enrolled in a distance-education diploma in conservation management. When that's completed, he wouldn't mind having a shot at doing a master's degree based around some of the work he's been doing in Booderee National Park.

"I think David can see the merit in supporting indigenous people in environmental issues and education - that's important, and I really thank him for that. The work I'm doing now is really interesting and I've got a change to give knowledge back to the community. My kids are really proud of what I'm doing, and want to be part of it and hear stories about what I'm doing.

"The elders here always told us that we don't own the land, it owns us. Learning about mammal trapping, learning all the different bird calls and frog calls, the botanical names of the flowers brings in another dimension to the cultural connection to the land.

"It's like there's so much to lean that you could keep on learning forever. I don't want to become a walking dictionary on the different plants and animals, but it's fascinating to learn the science of how everything is interconnected in the different ecosystems.

"I love it and I want the learning to go on forever".

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