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Djenj Project shares traditional ecological knowledge with school children

School children in Kakadu and West Arnhem Land have been learning about local fish populations and waterways thanks to the Djenj Project – a program focused on Bininj traditional knowledge sharing and increasing employment opportunities.

Involving researchers from Griffith University and Southern Cross University, and Bininj elders and rangers, the Djenj Project aimed to teach young community members about Western fish and water research techniques and provide opportunities for traditional ecological knowledge sharing.

Southern Cross University Adjunct Researcher Morgan Disspain and Griffith University Associate Professor Lynley Wallis wrote in The Conversation that the program was crucial for ensuring a holistic understanding of the 65,000-year-old Madjedbebe site.

“As archaeologists, we wanted to find out how fish populations near the 65,000-year-old Madjedbebe archaeological site have changed over thousands of years. Evidence collected from the rock shelter suggests it’s one of the oldest sites on the continent,” they wrote.

“We wanted to know which fish Bininj inhabitants at the site ate in the past, where and how they caught them, what the environment was like then, and what impact humans and environmental change have had on fish populations.”

The connection of Bininj people to fish and water sources is extremely significant, with water bodies being an important meeting place; the health of water sources and fish is integral to the well-being of Bininj people.

Disspain and Wallis wrote that they wanted to bring the community on the research journey in order to engage with the work meaningfully and provide a means for knowledge sharing.

“Dozens of school children between the ages of seven and 17 were involved in the project. They helped us answer our questions and learnt a lot in the process,” they wrote.

“Beyond thinking about our scientific aims and questions, we put community-based benefits at the forefront of the research process.

“At the heart of the project were the core ideas of respect and two-way knowledge sharing, especially giving senior Bininj people the opportunity to share their knowledge and skills.”

The Kakadu National Park offers employment opportunities for Bininj to be involved in long-term environmental monitoring. By facilitating development of water quality and monitoring skills in Bininj youth, the project is laying a foundation for opportunities for them to work on Country.

Disspain and Wallis wrote that everyone involved in the project worked together to prepare teaching resources for long-lasting benefits.

“Bininj Elders shared traditional ecological knowledge with Bininj children, rangers (the Djurrubu Rangers of Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation and Njanjma Rangers), and Western (Balanda) researchers,” they wrote.

“Local teachers interwove The Djenj Project throughout the class curriculum for the entire year.

“Researchers ran monthly workshops to teach children and rangers how to collect and interpret scientific information from fish, such as species, length, girth and weight, as well as the capture location and the fishing method used.”

The project also involved a lot of fishing, with the specimens collected and processed in order to provide valuable information about species, including quality of water sources.

“Fish were then processed to collect otoliths (ear bones), and sometimes their entire skeletons. Otoliths provide valuable information about the fish’s life, such as its size, age, season of death, and the water conditions it lived in,” Disspain and Wallis wrote.

“While the Elders shared their knowledge about the local waterways, water monitoring specialists provided training in testing water quality for rangers and children. Children also learnt about the importance of water quality to the health of all living things.”

Furthermore, the project also focused on Indigenous languages, with staff from the Bininj Kunwok Language Resource Centre producing a booklet and app focused on fish.

“This resource is helping with language maintenance and revitalisation in the Bininj community, as well as providing Balanda with the necessary terms to have productive discussions with Bininj about fish and water,” Disspain and Wallis wrote.

The project also offers other organisations and researchers a model for collaborative research, teaching and learning that engages with communities to provide lasting benefits.

“The Djenj Project is a great example of how grass-roots projects can provide practical benefits for Aboriginal communities, while contributing to scientific research,” Disspain and Wallis wrote.

“The model of collaborative teaching and learning from each other can be customised to benefit other communities.”