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Life in Country:Ecological Restoration on Aboriginal Homelands

Tom Greaves (1988) contends that "global scarcities of freshwater have a particular relevance to indigenous societies, to their future and to their universal cultural rights." He sets his analysis within the context of competing social rights to water. Just as important, in many parts of the world, is the struggle to conserve freshwater ecosystems against the biological invasions that threaten to alter them forever.

Ecological Restoration

Ecological restoration is gaining urgency in a range of contexts, from reclamation of degraded or damaged lands and water systems to the decommission of dams and the restoration of formerly inundated lands. The purpose of ecological restoration is stated unambiguously in scientific terms: "The mission of every ecological restoration project is to re-establish a functional ecosystem of a designated type that contains sufficient biodiversity to continue its maturation by natural processes and to evolve over longer time spans in response to changing environmental conditions." (Clewell, Reiger & Munro, 2000) The guidelines for developing and managing ecological restoration projects identify two attributes of biodiversity that are most readily attained by restoration: species richness and community structure.

Ecological restoration is thus conceptualized as a human-managed project: "the restoration ecologist must assure adequate species composition and species abundance to allow the development of suitable community structure." In this context, community does not include human communities. Only recently has the involvement of indigenous people in ecological restoration been addressed in either practical or theoretical terms. (Anderson, 1997) Ecological restoration in its classic mode does not appear to envision people in landscapes except as managers, planners, organizers, and facilitators; it envisions human presence either in the form of scientific management or as a set of impacts to be monitored and contained. Because it excludes humans from the biotic community, ecological restoration offers no perspective on cultural diversity.

We examine here, instead, an indigenous effort to restore damaged land and water systems, namely, land and water that has been invaded by the noxious weed Mimosa pigra. The white-breasted sea eagle people of the Wagait floodplains (Rak Mak Mak) are the traditional owners of country that is rich in paperbark swamps, billabongs, and river channels. Since European colonization it has been overrun by a variety of feral animals (cattle, buffalo, and pigs, in particular) and by invasive weeds (especially salvinia and mimosa). Mimosa pigra follows the waterways, blocking them and turning rich swamps into thorny and impenetrable thickets. In what follows, Linda Ford discusses her people’s work to restore their floodplain homeland.

Dreaming Action and Places

White eagle is our clan totem. It gives us our language, our ceremonies, our culture, our song, our dance. Mak Mak means white eagle; we’re the Mak Mak mob.

I want to talk first about fire. It is a significant part of our Dreaming stories. The chickenhawk in our Dreaming stories picked up the fire stick and took it and started burning our country. Kurrindju is the name of our country, and it is on the swamplands of the lower part of the Finniss River. They’re beautiful flood plains—paradise. And today that bird still picks up fire sticks and burns our country, and that gives us our fire practice as we do it today.

The country rejuvenates very quickly, and comes back into productivity. Often what we do then is use that country for hunting. We often go back there when all the grass is about, and the shopping center comes to us, more or less. We don’t have to use up a lot of our energy to go hunting, because game comes to us.

Fire is really significant in the way that we look after our country, and as long as there’s some green there, that indicates to us that that country is still very moist underneath, so it will be a slow burn. In this way we read the country and know when we should be going to burn particular places.

The whistling kite is part of our fire ceremony, too. If we are on the ground near the fires we talk to the fire and the smoke and the wind and this bird to encourage the life of the fire to grow. We don’t actually talk; we whistle to the fire, like the whistling kite. The hotter the fire, the faster it whistles, so we whistle fast like the kite does while it is hunting. This is how we breathe life into the fire to make it rush through and burn quickly so that it doesn’t leave rubbish or debris around. It cleans it all up so we can see where we are walking--what we are doing--and it helps rejuvenate the country and bring out lots of food sources for us. We have all kinds of different fire tricks to control the fire and what it’s doing. Now I want to talk about water. We live in the floodplains, and we swim across the creeks, with the crocodiles and all. The reason that we swim across is to get to the good fishing places where the barras (barramundi) can’t escape. Then we tether the barras up and we swim back across with all the buckets and fishing lines and butcher knives and everything on top of our heads. As Mum (Nancy Daiyi) has taught us, we have the right sweat for this country, so the crocodiles won’t hurt us. We talk to the crocodiles, and Mum can make a crocodile come up. The big ones are 15 feet plus, and she talks to them and she brings them up. I’ve tried it, but I can only bring the little ones up.

Our waterways are all being blocked by Mimosa pigra, an invasive weed. The mimosa comes in and blocks our access to the water. The water is very important to us as part of our Dreaming story and our hunting. Our Rainbow Serpent was creating all of this floodplain area and all these billabongs. In the wet season it is just one big mass of water. There’s mimosa around the edges, and in the middle is memeken, which is floating grass. We walk on that floating grass to go hunting. The mimosa is blocking up the billabongs, and when the floodwaters come it’s all banked up. The mimosa has actually grown out there on the memeken, and it is threatening to take over the billabong. The floating grass has banked up because it can’t get washed out, and feral animals are using it as a pad to get across from one side to the other. The mimosa is putting down its roots and grabbing hold of the bottom of the billabong. So mimosa is causing a lot of problems for us.

When we got the land back from the government in 1995, we said "well, we’d better do something about our sites." Back in 1996, when Indonesia was on fire, so were our floodplains, and the wildfire just covered the whole of the top end with smoke. The mimosa has caused a new problem with fire management because it is very combustible, and now we have to deal with wildfires. And when the birds pick up the fire sticks, and the wind comes up in the evenings, the fire races toward us. This is not how we manage fires; these are new problems for us.

We have put in strategies to use integrated approaches to Mimosa control: we use aerial spraying with helicopters, and ground control, where we use bulldozers to knock down the dead mimosa. Then we put it into stacks and we burn it. We also have a "bio" patch as part of our research where we have insects, weevils, and moulds that "Environmental Protection" brought in.

My sister Margaret is very proud of her efforts at land management. She does a lot of the ground control. We call her The Mimosa Queen. I think we have cleaned up about 17 major Dreaming sites.

There is a waterway near here that was created as part of our Dreaming site. Before, we couldn’t even get there. But now we can go back there and teach our kids about the sites. Mum passes on a lot of that knowledge to her grandchildren. It is the Nana’s responsibility, and we all share in teaching our kids about our country. We have to be able to go there, we have to live there and take care of it.


Ecological restoration of the Wagait floodplains is accomplished through an integrated management program that uses fire, herbicides, ground control, and biological controls to eradicate the weed population. The country that is being restored is itself integrated; it is country in which humans are present in many facets of their lives. It is home to sacred sites. Some areas are subsistence sites, and a large body of knowledge exists concerning the use of fire and other interactive techniques of ecological engagement. These techniques can more elegantly be known as "life in country."

Ecological restoration on Aboriginal homelands must take indigenous concepts of country, including subsistence use and sacred sites, into plans for restoration and ongoing monitoring and management. The restoration happening in these threatened areas has the potential to offer guidelines for new forms of restoration that seek to protect the integrity of the relationships between people and place, and to protect sacred places. New and more complex systems of ecological restoration are also important outside indigenous lands, as legally defined. For Aboriginal people whose lands have been alienated, and for settlers as well, the integrity of people and the sacred needs to be protected. Here, as in many other areas, Aboriginal peoples’ holistic relationship with country overcomes Western divides between science and society, between people and place, and between the "natural" world and the sacred. V

Nancy Daiyi is the senior member of the White bellied Sea Eagle Clan. Her expertise is based on her education in the bush and on her work in both traditional land management and the pastoral and fishing industries. Linda Ford is a Ph.D. candidate at Deakin University and is active in land and resource management. Deborah Rose is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University. She has long experience working with Aboriginal people in the areas of land rights, ecological philosophy, and religion.

References & further reading

Anderson, M.K. (1997). California’s En-dangered peoples and Endangered Ecosystems. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 21:3, pp 7-31.

Clewell, A., Reiger, J. & Munro, J. (2000, June 24). Guidelines for Developing and Managing Ecological Restoration Projects. Society for Ecological Restoration.

Greaves, T. (1998). Water Rights in the Pacific Northwest. In Donohue, J. & Johnston, B., eds. Water, Culture and Power: Local Struggles in a Global Context. Washington, DC: Island Press.

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