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Aboriginal knowledge is taking bushfire response beyond recovery

In the wake of the 2019-20 "Black Summer" bushfires, the Australian Water Association launched the Victoria Bushfire Recovery Hackathon, gathering brilliant minds from across the water sector to approach some of the key challenges faced following the national catastrophe.

The Victoria Bushfire Recovery Hackathon included 56 participants in nine teams tackling six key challenges.

Challenge statements were developed in consultation with local water authorities, CMAs, local government, DELWP, Aboriginal Corporations, as well as other industry associations, to ensure that focus was directed to solving real problems that are important to those most affected.

The winning team developed Beyond Recovery, a tool aimed at incorporating and sharing Traditional Owner values into land management more holistically.

Beyond Recovery team member and Arup Process Engineer Sian Harrick said the premise for the tool acknowledged the growing awareness of just how important it is to ensure Traditional Owner values are incorporated into land care recovery and bushfire mitigation programs.

“The challenge that we selected was ‘how can Traditional Owner values be included in the recovery process of recreating a healthy waterway?’ The context of this is the damage to Country caused during the bush fires of 2019-20,” Harrick said.

“There's a growing awareness around the broader community about how Traditional Owner values are really crucial in how we approach land management and water. For the past two centuries, Traditional Owners have been displaced from their waterways and excluded from the conversation around water policy.”

Taking the right approach

Harrick said that their mentors and Traditional Owners groups helped the team navigate the issues present in the historic misappropriation of Traditional Owner intellectual property and define what would become the necessities of the tool.

They also helped the team gain a broad baseline understanding of the current positive developments in Aboriginal participation in water management in Victoria, as well as the remaining challenges.

“We had a couple of mentors during this process. One of them was Jason King, who is the Principal Aboriginal Advisor at DPJR, and the other was Jida Gulpilil, who holds many roles, including Aboriginal Water Officer for the Alpine First Nations groups in north east Victoria,” Harrick said.

“The Traditional Owners groups he works with are doing a lot of bushfire recovery work there.

“Where Traditional Owners have been engaged or consulted, some of the knowledge shared hasn't been appropriately used or given back to those communities. Understandably, there is a lot of wariness around sharing knowledge given that history.

“Furthermore, the Water for Victoria plan, released in 2016, was the first time that Traditional Owner values were officially recognised within Victorian Government water policy.

“We learnt through our engagements that, since then, there's been pressure to have Traditional Owners produce results in a really short amount of time, despite only being returned to their rightful place as carers for Country in the past four years.”

Transferring knowledge

With the Beyond Recovery tool, Harrick said these issues were of primary concern to the development of how the tool would be managed.

“The aim was to build a tool that would allow storage and protection of Traditional Owner knowledge, while also allowing beneficial transfer of knowledge between different Traditional Owners groups, as well as between Traditional Owners and other Victorians, where appropriate,” she said.

The Beyond Recovery tool was conceptualised as a web-based portal, set to include geospatial information systems, such as layered maps and boundaries across Victoria, including catchment areas as well as Traditional Owner boundaries, Harrick said.

“It would also incorporate geographical location-based information, including Western environmental science data. And then we would also have Traditional Owners' values, including seasonal information, or pre-colonial stories for particular locations or particular waterways.”

Harrick said it’s important to highlight that the Traditional Owner knowledge would be uploaded by Traditional Owners groups as they see fit in respect of the Aboriginal intellectual property. One of the key elements is that the information will have different levels of access permissions.

“Each piece of information that gets contributed by a Traditional Owner group would be categorised in accordance with Aboriginal cultural sensitivity, ranging from confidential through to open access, and that level of permission would be selected by the Traditional Owners providing that information,” she said.

“It might be completely secret information that stays with them. Or it could be shared across different Traditional Owners groups, but would still be outside of the public view and outside of government view. And then there would be an external layer that's completely public facing, which would be information that’s appropriate for sharing more broadly.

“The benefit of that external layer is to encourage greater appreciation and awareness within the public around Aboriginal cultural heritage. Not only that, but public engagement could then be harnessed by contributions to the tool through citizen science, which would provide valuable ongoing monitoring of measures of waterway health, as approved and guided by Traditional Owner-led priorities.

“The tool builds as a database and becomes a resource for Aboriginal people to be able to consult when they're doing Aboriginal Waterways Assessments [AWAs], which is an existing waterway health methodology designed by Aboriginal people, originally led by Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations.

“In some cases, it might be beneficial for Aboriginal participants in AWAs to have access to location-based information about their surroundings, particularly if those people have been displaced from Country or have less familiarity with a particular area.

“The tool is only as valuable as the information that it holds and the principles that guide it. It’s not meant to be an extractive process; the information is intended to sit first and foremost with Traditional Owners, becoming a tool that builds in its usefulness over time through participation.”

True to principle

Beyond Recovery team member and Arup Mechanical Engineer Alex Reilly said that in order for the tool to be implemented appropriately, it’s crucial to maintain a strong focus on the principles the tool seeks to include and promote.

“At the moment, the tool is still at a conceptual level. But we’ve landed on four guiding principles to refer back to in order to ensure the implementation process stays on track. We're all about making sure it's inclusive for all Traditional Owners, no matter what stage they are at in their journey in reconnection to Country,” Reilly said.

Reilly said there is also the opportunity in future to include other land management practices, incorporating Aboriginal knowledge into those areas in order to facilitate sharing more broadly, too.

“The economic and spiritual uses of water should not be separated. And there should be a more harmonious approach to relating cultural knowledge and economic outcomes for the future of land management, which is something that we believe is really key for this,” he said.

Harrick agreed, stating that: “There’s been a will to include Traditional Owner knowledge, but the expectation has been to slot this knowledge into predominantly Western management frameworks. There really needs to be a much more holistic approach to understanding management of Country, as practised through cultural management.

“If the tool can be further developed while maintaining those really key elements, then we think it has real potential. We’ve received a lot of enthusiasm for the concept through our conversations with stakeholders, which we’re continuing beyond the hackathon.”

Other members of the Beyond Recovery team include Barwon Water’s Rachael Raby, Westernport Water’s Susan O’Sullivan, Aurecon’s Ashvittha Santhaseelan and WaterNSW ‘s Lorena Oliveira.