Australasian Plant Conservation
Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 19(4) March - May 2011, p 3-5
Victor Garlngarr and Barbara Gurwalwal: Caring for Country in the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area, Arnhem Land
Victor Garlngarr1, Barbara Gurwalwal1, Sam Bentley-Toon2, Emilie Ens2 and Gill Towler3
1Warddeken Land Management Limited, Nightcliff, NT.
2People on Country Project, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, Canberra. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
3National Herbarium of New South Wales, Sydney, temporarily at the Australian National Herbarium, Canberra.
Victor Balang Garlngarr and Barbara Wamudjan Gurwalwal were born in western Arnhem Land and have lived there for most of their lives. They grew up predominantly in outstations around the Aboriginal towns of Kunbarllanjnja (Oenpelli) and Maningrida. In 2002 Victor and others were invited by the late Wamud Namok AO to help establish the Manwurrk Rangers and Warddeken Land Management Limited, based at Kabulwarnamyo outstation on the Arnhem Plateau. Victor has worked for Warddeken since then and has been a key player in the development and implementation of the Western Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project (Russell-Smith et al. 2009) which makes up a large part of Warddeken’s land management activities. He has worked extensively, alongside linguists, as a translator and interpreter helping to forge successful communication between balanda (non-Aboriginal people) and bininj (Aboriginal people from western Arnhem Land). In addition to these roles, Victor is an important cultural leader and ‘ceremony man’ in the region.
Barbara, Victor’s wife, was officially employed as a Manwurrk Ranger in 2009, the same year as the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) was declared and added to the National Reserve System. Barbara is also heavily involved in ceremonies and is a skilled fibre artist. The couple have recently moved to an outstation called Kumarrirnbang in the north of the Warddeken IPA.
Emilie Ens has worked with Victor and Barbara at Kabulwarnamyo since 2008, carrying out participatory ecological research projects and developing land management approaches that draw on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems. Gill Towler joined the project in 2009 and Sam Bentley-Toon became a research assistant in 2010.
Talking about plant conservation
In January 2011 Victor and Barbara made a trip to Canberra, where Emilie, Gill and Sam held discussions with them about their country and its management. The discussions were held in English, however Victor and Barbara conferred frequently in Kunwinjku, their first language, and Victor would often speak for them both.
Victor and Barbara have strong cultural and familial connections to their land and consider it important to live on country (as opposed to in a town). Victor spoke of the relationship between the land, the people and the ancestor spirits that still inhabit it: “... when we go back to our country we feel really happy, like that country happy, all the old people [ancestors and elders] are happy.” Victor described the spiritual world of Dreamings, ancestors and ‘the law’ as constant and immutable while the physical landscape, plants and animals are subject to change and can be destroyed. When talking about bush tucker plant harvesting, Victor said that people rarely take too much; they aim to leave some for next season.
Dreamings are an important part of Aboriginal belief systems and play a crucial role in a person’s interaction with the natural environment. Victor and Barbara explained that Dreamings (or Djang) are in part creation beliefs about plants, animals, landscape features and natural phenomena, such as lightning, that are often linked to particular places. Bininj have many Dreamings which are connected to one’s maternal and paternal lineages. Children become Traditional Owners of their father’s country and djungayi (akin to the Western role of manager) of their mother’s country. Bininj may also feel responsibility for their grandparents’ country or country they’ve been adopted into through connections other than family.
Customarily, bininj have regulated relationships with their Dreaming animals or plants and people are responsible for ‘looking after’ their Dreaming places and the ancestors that inhabit them. Victor highlights that much of the motivation for his ranger work comes from his sense of obligation to the Dreamings on his country. He has plans to start up a satellite ranger station in Kumarrirnbang in order to expand Warddeken’s land management effort into where he has matrilateral obligations and responsibilities.
Fire management is of utmost importance to Victor, primarily as a function of cultural tradition and natural resource use with inherent motivation for conservation, protection and sustainability of these traditions and resources. He spoke of cultural obligation to maintain the customary fire management practice of early dry season burning: “fire is very important in cultural way. It’s been around a long time”. Aboriginal people customarily used (and sometimes still do use) fire to hunt—directly to kill animals or to drive them to a particular area, and indirectly to promote green pick and create a low understory to facilitate detection and pursuit of animals (Altman 2009). Additionally, fire was kept out of rainforest and wetland areas to protect the many useful plants that grow in these highly biodiverse ‘supermarkets’, such as the yams mankindjek (Dioscorea bulbifera) and kayawal (D. transvera) and the fern manbulkung (Blechnum indicum), that are not well adapted to frequent fire. Victor said “[rainforest has] been there from Dreamtime. You’re not allowed to go there and make fire. Just leave it like that. Unless we get permission from land owners.”
Research led by Jeremy Russell-Smith since the 1980s has shown significant decline in gondwanan species manbinnik (Allosyncarpia ternata) and manlarrh (Callitris intratropica), owing to destructive late dry season fires which have occurred as a result of the historical near abandonment of customary fire management activity on the Arnhem Plateau (Yibarbuk et al. 2001; Russell-Smith et al. 2009). Victor said that in the past people burnt country for kangaroo during appropriate seasons. These are the seasonal activities that Warddeken are using in their contemporary fire management activity to promote both the ecological and cultural integrity of the region.
Bininj ‘caring for country’
From our discussions it became clear that for Victor and Barbara the conservation and maintenance of plants (like animals and country in general) is built into and therefore indistinguishable from the holistic bininj ‘caring for country’ philosophy which Victor might call ‘the law’. This philosophy consists of a complex set of beliefs, rules and practices which relate to every aspect of life. It has existed for millennia and is still strong and alive in the minds and hearts of bininj today. This philosophy has in many cases now been adapted to deal with new threats to country and deploy new technologies. It is these combinations of bininj and balanda motivations, aims, knowledge and expertise that have driven the success of Warddeken Land Management Limited as a leader in two-way management of Aboriginal land.
Altman, J.C. (2009). Manwurrk (fire drive) at Namilewohwo: a land-management, hunting and ceremonial event in western Arnhem Land. Culture, ecology and economy of fire management in north Australian savannas: rekindling the Wurrk tradition. In: J. Russell-Smith, P. Whitehead and P. Cooke (eds), CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.
Russell-Smith, J., Whitehead, P.J. and Cooke, P. (2009). Culture, ecology and economy of fire management in northern Australian savannas: Rekindling the Wurrk tradition. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.
Yibarbuk, D., Whitehead, P.J., Russell-Smith, J., Jackson, D., Godjuwa, C., Fisher, A., Cooke, P., Choquenot, D. and Bowman, D.M.J.S. (2001). Fire ecology and Aboriginal land management in central Arnhem Land, northern Australia: a tradition of ecosystem management. Journal of Biogeography 28: 325–43.
More information about the ANU People on Country project can be found at <http://caepr.anu.edu.au/poc>.
Victor Garlngarr and Barbara Gurwalwal near a buffalo damaged area at Kabulwarnamyo, Arnhem Land.
Photo: Emilie Ens.
Fire on the Arnhem Plateau. Photo: Warddeken Land Management Limited.