Location: Brisbane, Pallet Bar and Brew
Communicating the Reemergence of Country
On the 28th of April, approximately 50 people gathered at Pallet Bar and Brew to learn from the experience of Dr. Dermot Smyth on Communicating Country. Dr. Smyth began by explaining that most of his thirty years of work with Australian Indigenous people falls within two related themes: Country-based Planning (CBP) and Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs). Dr. Smyth’s journey from PhD studies in the ecology of cave-dwelling swiftlets to Communicating Country involved learning about and finding ways to apply the ancient Aboriginal concept of “Country” – which refers to the traditional estates of Aboriginal clans that in coastal regions extend beyond land borders, into the sea, and beyond geography all together, to include many aspects of identity, home, culture, livelihoods and spirituality.
After a long history of displacing people from their Country for creation of National Parks, since the late 1970s government agencies and other land management organisations increasingly began engaging with Aboriginal Traditional Owners during planning. Dr. Smyth explained that this, however, led to what he terms ‘”Well, anyway…” Planning,’ where planning groups consult with Indigenous groups, only to ignore their input and proceed as previously intended, or failed to understand the complexities of clan estate boundaries and other values associated with country. Dr. Smyth talked about the inherent complexity of genuine participatory approaches, as multiple country groups often recognize portions of the same National Park as their own and will only speak for their own country.
Dr. Smyth advocates a country-based, rather than resource tenure-based approach, where Traditional Owners, usually with the help of an independent facilitator, create their own plan for their whole country, including the portion of National Park or other areas or resource of interest to government and other parties (e.g. pastoralists or commercial fishers). This means that all aspirations are not squeezed into one relationship with the National Park and there more diverse economic options. CBP is a non-legal, quasi treaty-making process. Tensions between country groups are often dampened, as the focus of each group is no longer the one, government-defined resource or tenure. This country-based approach has also been used in regional marine planning (Sea Country Planning), where plans include both the land and marine parts of coastal clan estates.
- Apply to an area (usually whole of country) determined by an Indigenous group;
- Are made by an Indigenous group
- Are tenure blind
- Include cultural and natural values
- Include livelihood values
- Include other values, issues and threats
- Produce strategies and actions
- Include other stakeholders
As a facilitator of CBP, Dr. Smyth’s aim is to ensure the least powerful voices are heard and valued through an inclusive process. He provided members with some tips – e.g. that the planning process usually begins with small meetings of single stakeholder groups, followed by larger meetings, to introduce different groups and to exchange perspectives. Dr. Smyth suggested there be no surprises in the CBP process, with participants being fully aware of what it will involve. Outputs of CBP can include publications (books, posters, web pages), strategies to address concerns and aspirations, partnerships with commitments and implementation frameworks. Frameworks include governance structures, commercial arrangements and Ranger groups. These frameworks can help to create and protect livelihoods, particularly when employment positions (such as Rangers) are created that can only successfully filled by local Traditional Owners.
Indigenous Protected Areas are voluntarily declared by Traditional Owner groups associated with the area. Dr. Smyth has been involved in the policy development of the IPA concept since the mid 1990s and there are now 64 IPAs across Australia, contributing over 40% of nationally protected land. There is no legislation underpinning IPAs but all Australian state and territory governments recognise that IPAs are consistent with international protected area guidelines and therefore are considered part of Australia’s National Reserve System (NRS).
Where indigenous people have not been granted legal tenure over their traditional country, they can still declare an IPA, to rejoin their fragmented Country once they have developed collaborative partnerships with agencies and organisations with legal interest in the land. The process involves educating stakeholder one by one, bringing them to an understanding that the process of declaring an IPA is a non-threatening process. Opinions and knowledge are respected and each ‘stakeholder brings what they have to the table,’ to become partners in the process. By bringing together the concepts of country-based planning and IPAs it has been possible to establish IPAs on multiple tenures and on combined land and sea areas to provide a new pathway for establishing marine and coastal protected areas.
Members asked Dr. Smyth what some of the challenges have been. He said one of the primary challenges was overcoming the fact that many Indigenous people have been ‘burned’ in development activities in the past. Initially some people have resisted giving CBP a go, as they believed the process would be just like the others, leaving them further disadvantaged. A reality of IPAs is that they will cease to be recognised if Traditional Owners are no longer interested in protecting their country since they are not underpinned by legislation. However, no Traditional Owner group over the last 17 years has so far lost interest in their IPA once it has been established – and many more groups are seeking to establish IPAs on their country.
A major challenge in remote Indigenous communities is to develop jobs and economies that local people are interested in pursuing. Many Indigenous people are not attracted to work in mining or tourism, but are very keen to work as Rangers and artists. These roles are sometimes call “propitious niches” because they meet the needs of local people as well as provide service to the wider society. Finding funding for Rangers can be challenging and is sometimes sought from a range of sources, both government and non-government. There has also been a movement towards re-introducing traditional, carbon-saving, burning practices funded by large corporations as a way of obtaining carbon credits. This is another source of livelihoods Traditional Owners in remote areas.
Members were interested to know what jobs are available in this field and Dr. Smyth reflected that most of this work is done by self-employed facilitators at the moment, as it is difficult for employees of government and non-government organisations to play the role of independent facilitator.
The evening concluded with members discussing how the reemergence of Country as a planning scale might affect their own C4D practice.
More about Dr. Smyth’s work can be found at http://www.sbconsultants.com.au/