“All about healthy country”: Aboriginal perspectives of weed management in the Kimberley, Western Australia

2017-03-01T23:55:00Z (GMT) by Bach, Thomas Michael Malcolm
Aboriginal Australians are being employed through federally funded programs to undertake natural and cultural management (NCRM) of their ancestral country. These Aboriginal Ranger programs aim to provide economic and cultural opportunities for Indigenous communities to achieve positive environmental and conservation outcomes by drawing on Aboriginal knowledge and cultural connections to country. A major component of Ranger work is the eradication of plants categorised as environmental weeds by land managers of various government and non-government agencies. Despite Aboriginal Ranger programs intending to foreground local Aboriginal perspectives to direct their work, Rangers predominantly manage environmental weeds according to the mainstream ecological paradigm. This thesis argues that the wholesale imposition of mainstream environmental weed discourse on Aboriginal NCRM programs disables Aboriginal Rangers from basing their weed management on culturally-embedded perspectives. Based on my field research in the western and central Kimberley region of Western Australia, I show that Rangers and elders belonging to Bardi-Jawi, Bunuba, Ngurrara, Nyikina Mangala, Nyulnyul and Wilinggin country have nuanced, yet clear, understandings of ‘healthy country’ and the landscape change caused by plants. Through participant observation and field interviews, Rangers and elders from these groups challenged the current species-based approaches to weed classification and control and demonstrated that their views on weeds do not align with dominant environmental weed discourse and management. Instead, they highlighted the contextual and relational nature of weeds by linking them and their effects to the Aboriginal concept of ‘healthy country’. Significantly, these views are similar to the arguments made by ecologists and social scientists that are critical of mainstream invasion ecology and management of environmental weeds. Common to both groups are that weed problems are culturally and contextually specific and that weed management needs to maintain cultural and environmental values within changing landscapes by working alongside these changes, rather than constantly working against them. These points of overlap provide vindication for Aboriginal Rangers to control weeds through a greater emphasis on site-based, rather than species-based management. Site-based management allows Rangers to connect their weed work to local and culturally specific visions for healthy country; integrate weed management into other aspects of Ranger work and in doing so frame weed management as promoting healthy country rather than destroying plants; and meet the practical constraints of Ranger work by focusing on a manageable scale.