: People on Country: Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures

People on Country: Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures

Katie O'Bryan

Jon Altman and Sean Kerins, People on CountryJon Altman and Sean Kerins (eds);
Federation Press, 2012; $39.95 (paperback)

Indigenous Australians have been managing country for many thousands of years, yet the wider Australian community has only just begun to understand the important role that Indigenous knowledge can play in land management.

People on Country: Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures seeks to further this understanding by looking at natural resource management by Indigenous peoples on land which they own and manage, known generally as the Caring for Country movement. In order to do so, it documents outcomes of a project which took place between 2007 and 2010 in the Northern Territory called ‘People on Country, Healthy Landscapes and Indigenous Economic Futures’ as well as a complementary NSW project.

The book is divided into two parts, the first containing chapters written from the perspectives of researchers based at the Australian National University, each with a particular disciplinary focus. The second part contains chapters written from the perspectives of a number of Indigenous land management organisations which took part in the two projects.

The book aims to highlight the significant contribution that Indigenous people make to the management of Australia’s natural resources and landscapes, a contribution it says has been too often ignored by mainstream Australia’s policy and political decision-makers. It also documents the significant cultural, social and environmental benefits that can be achieved when Indigenous people are actively involved in managing their country. The book, however, doesn’t seek to discredit a Western scientific approach to land management, but rather, argues that there are benefits to the whole community of combining Indigenous ecological knowledge with Western science.

What is particularly notable about this book is the voice it gives to Indigenous people. It is therefore not a typical academic publication, perhaps reflective of the nature of the projects it seeks to document.

The chapters, and particularly those from the Indigenous contributors, provide valuable insights into what works and where the difficulties lie. In that sense it does not present a utopian view, but rather, a realistic look at the future of land management and the potential for positive outcomes when land management by Indigenous people is not only encouraged, but appropriately supported as well.

The first part of the book is likely to be of interest to researchers and policy makers in Indigenous affairs. The Indigenous case studies in the second part will be of particular interest to Indigenous groups who are or would like to be working on country and want to hear from other Indigenous groups about their experiences. It should also be essential reading for anyone involved in natural resource management. The book is more practical than theoretical in its approach with most chapters written in a relatively accessible style.

Given the differences between northern and southern Australia in relation to (among other things) Indigenous experiences, land ownership patterns and environmental landscapes, Indigenous groups and natural resource managers in southern Australia will no doubt be particularly interested in the chapters relating to NSW, as the issues presented are more likely to be of relevance.

It would therefore be of much value to see a follow up project and associated publication extending to Indigenous peoples further south. Despite the significant loss of both access to and ownership of land by Indigenous people, there are some Indigenous land management initiatives currently in place that are worthy of consideration, such as the Lake Condah Sustainable Development Project in Gunditjmara country, south west Victoria.

People on Country is a welcome addition to the limited but growing body of literature documenting the benefits of Indigenous Australians owning and managing country, benefits that accrue not just to Indigenous people, but to all Australians.

KATIE O’BRYAN is a former native title lawyer, and now PhD candidate at Monash University, her research focusing on Indigenous water rights.

(2012) 37(4) AltLJ 294
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