Tropical Savannas CRC > Research > CRC Research 2001-2008 > Indigenous > Indigenous ecological knowledge

Indigenous ecological knowledge for land management

Project Leaders: Tom Vigilante, Kimberley Land Council, Derby
Peter Cooke, Northern Land Council, Darwin
Nick Smith, Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation, Cairns

Project 2.3.3

Summary | Ethno-biology/ecology | Threats to indigenous knowledge | Objectives | Regional research activities | Kimberley ecological knowledge | Indigenous knowledge in Arnhem Land | Indigenous knowledge in Cape York Peninsula | Project team |


The tropical savannas are areas of high biological diversity, and Aboriginal people hold many diverse and complex systems of knowledge. This includes knowledge about species, populations and ecosystems and consists of names, utilitarian and ceremonial uses, creation stories, distribution patterns, behavioural, seasonal and ecological information.

Aboriginal leaders from across the savannas perceive that the preservation of knowledge and the development of mechanisms that perpetuate this knowledge are of the highest priority.

This regional project comprises three sub-regional activities in the Kimberley in Western Australia, central and western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and Cape York Peninsula in north Queensland. The aim is to conserve Aboriginal knowledge of species and ecological processes and that will include Aboriginal aspirations for future use and management of natural resources.


The non-Aboriginal approach to the study of such traditional knowledge is referred to as ethno-biology or ethno-ecology.

Australia has a rich and diverse ethno-ecology but its study is a minor or non-existent part of the work of mainstream scientific and land-management agencies. Apart from protecting the most complex and tested understandings of the ecology of the savannas, ethno-ecology is necessarily the basis of collaborative natural resource research and management relationships between Aboriginal people and mainstream agencies. It provides the bridge between the forces that formed this region and the managers who are now trying to maintain it.

Threats to indigenous knowledge

While many of the threats to the continuation of indigenous knowledge across northern Australia are the similar, the nature of the knowledge itself varies considerably.

In simple terms, different Aboriginal language groups have different names and uses of plants, even though they may be using essentially the same plants and animals. Knowledge and conceptualization of the interactions between plants, animals and the landscape also vary between cultural groups.

Knowledge has been developed, tested and passed on over thousands of generations, but it is likely that as a result of tumultuous changes in recent generations, vast amounts of knowledge could be lost, probably over the next decade if current trends continue. Further, many of the opportunities to incorporate this knowledge into ecological management will disappear from northern Australia in a very short time.

There are large areas of country for which there is little knowledge recorded and existing processes for this knowledge to be passed on from one generation to another are inadequate. There is an urgent need, therefore, for a systematic approach to halting the loss of indigenous knowledge and to support programs that will help Aboriginal groups across northern Australia maintaining it. This includes ethno-biological research.

The issues are complex:

  • many traditional experts are reluctant to pass on knowledge because they lack faith in younger generations to put that knowledge to good use;
  • many people are growing up without the opportunity to learn about their country in situ from knowledgeable Elders;
  • inter-generational language change limits the capacity of Elders to pass on complex conceptual frameworks to younger people;
  • attempts to conserve traditional knowledge have rarely involved sophisticated linguistic expertise that could enable the description and conceptualisation of complex areas of indigenous ecological concepts and interlinked cultural and spiritual beliefs;
  • previous efforts have focused on the extraction of knowledge for ex situ 'conservation' or for use by other groups such as pharmacologists rather than the in situ maintenance of knowledge within the cultural groups;
  • technical, ethical and legal issues surrounding many previous collection processes limit the availability or utility of the information to traditional owners and managers;
  • no significant effort has been directed to developing methodologies for developing co-existent management regimes based on dual knowledge systems;
  • the complex cultural bases of ecological knowledge are intrinsic to its integrity and unless collection systems support the cultural framework for knowing they erode the things that they aim to protect. Knowledge is entwined with customary Law, and people carry important legal and social obligations in sharing and maintaining knowledge. Methodologies must incorporate and support these requirements.


Conserve Aboriginal knowledge of species and ecological processes, to include:

  • histories of environmental change;
  • perceptions of present environmental condition;
  • impacts of potential or actual resource use change;
  • contemporary resource use patterns.

For Aboriginal aspirations for future use and management of natural resources:

  • identify, develop and implement the appropriate processes to enable Aboriginal people to conserve and transfer knowledge of plants and animals (including the development of effective means of recording, storing and reporting information and the development of agreements for its use and dissemination);
  • apply Aboriginal ecological knowledge and resource management practices to inform co-management of land and sea;
  • develop the capacity for Aboriginal people to employ science in their land-management systems;
  • facilitate improved participation by traditional owners in statutory and other government processes for environmental planning and land-use decision-making;
  • identify Aboriginal agendas and priorities for collaborative research and development.

Regional research activities

The regional variation of the three activities in the project provides the opportunity to develop and test a range of methodologies as well as considering the utility of these under differing cultural, environmental, social, political and jurisdictional conditions.

The are:

  1. Kimberley ecological knowledge for Aboriginal land and sea management
  2. Strengthening indigenous knowledge conservation in central and western Arnhem Land
  3. Conservation of indigenous knowledge of plants and animals in central Cape York Peninsula.
Kimberley ecological knowledge for Aboriginal land and sea management

This project focuses on the Laura region with the Kuku Thaypan people. It is based on the following principles:

  • Participatory research priorities: study areas, information use and logistical organisation planned and undertaken with full and informed participation of the communities involved at all stages;
  • Community-based research and planning initiatives undertaken at the request of communities and with approval of senior custodians;
  • Collaborative research where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal scientists work together to incorporate Aboriginal knowledge and expertise in contemporary management practice, and Western knowledge in Aboriginal management practice;
  • Adaptive and flexible approaches that enable communities to engage in the research project on their own terms;
  • On country research and management planning undertaken with the appropriate custodians on country;
  • Mutual benefits in research activities that support two-way flow of information;
  • Ownership of information so that copyright and ownership of information will remain with custodians, through research agreements regarding collection, use, and presentation.
  • Record ethno-biologies for each major language group in the region in formats agreed to by custodians (e.g. video, photographs, bilingual/multilingual texts, CD–ROM, etc.) that are relevant for scientific purposes, applied management, community use, and knowledge transmission;
  • Conserve, maintain and ‘pass on’ traditional knowledge, through research methodologies with young and old people that parallel traditional teaching processes;
  • Document Aboriginal knowledge from taxonomic to ecological process levels, e.g. histories of environmental change, patterns of resource use, etc.
  • Conduct collaborative research exercises (e.g. ‘bush university’) involving Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal scientists aimed at information gathering and also creating greater understanding between people working in each or both of the knowledge systems;
  • Develop principles and plans for tropical savannas management informed by Aboriginal and Western sciences;
  • The project will also develop an information base for economic valuations of the contribution ecosystems make to subsistence economies;
  • Improve information for education programs, environmental restoration activities, pastoral management, tourism enterprises, joint management arrangements, and other land/sea uses
  • Strengthen Aboriginal management of homelands, improve Aboriginal participation in natural resource management with statutory agencies and improve Aboriginal access to information held by government agencies for natural resource management.
Strengthening indigenous knowledge conservation in central and western Arnhem Land

This project is researching the current state of ex situ knowledge conservation and documenting relevant policies. It will then produce plain language discussion papers. It is also exploring issues on the ground through a Natural Heritage Trust project in the Gumardir catchment.

Extensive mapping is taking place of indigenous place names across the Pine Creek/Arnhem, Central Arnhem bioregions, using existing data sets. It will fill gaps in areas not yet surveyed. Policies and protocols will then be developed with landowners and land councils to identify appropriate access to this information.

It is also identifying mapping needs, and will develop an appropriate template for storing and retrieving maps, images, text files, sound files, video files that is suited to the learning needs and preferences of indigenous land managers, schools and other local users.

Direction-setting discussions have already been facilitated involving senior indigenous knowledge holders and younger people to develop approaches to knowledge conservation.

  • With FATSIS and KCTWM develop programs and projects involving community rangers with senior knowledge custodians in land and wildlife management;
  • Identify schools, language centres and other organisations interested in providing more support for knowledge conservation and assist them to develop local projects and regional networks and regional projects
  • Identify group of senior indigenous experts who would like to have specialist knowledge recorded and published in varying formats (eg bilingual text; video; CD-ROM). Establish production team including indigenous interpreters
  • Work through indigenous organisations to facilitate ‘bush university’ knowledge camps and support with documentation when requested;
  • On-country camps, bush seminars, workshops and meetings involving young and old people, facilitated to focus on knowledge conservation issues;
  • Collaborative country surveys involving scientists and traditional experts aimed at data collection but also strongly at creating greater understanding between people working in each or both of the knowledge systems;
  • A multi-media learning product for traditional owners and community rangers linking Western and indigenous knowledge of plants, animals and landscape/biological processes;
  • A number of linguistically focused workshops involving senior indigenous experts, younger indigenous land management workers and collaboratively involved scientists seeking to better understand indigenous ecological concepts.
Conservation of indigenous knowledge of plants and animals in central Cape York Peninsula

Discussions about people’s country and their interaction with the country is taking place on their traditional lands, using research methodologies and approaches Aboriginal people will identify as appropriate.

Themethodological approaches needed for this project require long timeframes and are aimed at comprehensively addressing a large range of country and issues.

In the past Aboriginal people in Cape York have expressed that quick, highly extractive methodologies, such as the participatory approaches of Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) and Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)—which are rapidly becoming popular worldwide—are not appropriate. It is considered that they might lead to bad decision making, with the processes running the risk of being hijacked by inappropriate people. These and similar approaches will not be employed.

Existing cultural and political structures are being used to examine and record the economic, ecological, political and cultural parameters that govern land-management activities. A cognitive anthropological approach is also being taken based primarily on non-participant and participant observation. These two research methodologies will be employed to minimise the extractive components of the research.

  • Management options for longer-term knowledge conservation in the region, along with assessments of their benefits and costs;
  • Policy options and innovative strategies, developed through indigenous participation in equitable collaborative research, that have relevance for indigenous land-management agencies, Aboriginal organisations and government agencies, including analyses of their benefits and costs;
  • Capacity for indigenous land managers to employ science in the management of their lands through Aboriginal and collaborative/collegial research projects that address key local sustainability issues and are directed by Aboriginal land managers;
  • Information packages and training in their use to extend traditional knowledge that landowners want made available to indigenous land-management organisations or more widely to help maintain landscape health according to indigenous values;
  • Education packages developed through interaction and collaborative involvement of land-management education programs (e.g. the CRC’s Indigenous Capacity Building project, local schools, FATSIS, TAFE);
  • Recodings of Kuku Thaypan ethno-ecological information, including fire patterns and threatened species.

Project team

Peter Cooke, NLC
Dean Yibarbuk, NLC
Murray Garde, NLC
Ian White, NLC
Belinda Oliver, NLC
Indigenous Experts, NLC
Joe Morrison, PWCNT
Mark Horstman, KLC
Field Officer, KLC
Kimberley Ethnobiologist, KLC
Traditional Owners, KLC
Nick Smith, Balkanu Corp.
Victor Steffanson, Balkanu Corp.
Three Rangers, Balkanu Corp.
Yuri Banens, Balkanu Corp.


Mr Peter Cooke
Fire Management Coordinator
Wardekken Land Management Limited
Tel: 08 89790772

14 Lantana St

Mr Mark Horstman
ABC New Media/Science Unit, ABC Broadcasting Corporation
Tel: 02 9333 1532

GPO Box 9994

Mr Nick Smith
Research Associate
Care Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation-
Tel: 07 4051 9089

Fax: 07 4051 9088

PO Box 7573