Weaving knowledges and methods for ecosystem science on the Tiwi Islands

LtoR: Alys Young, Colin Kerinaiua, Alana Brekelmans, Emily Nicholson, Simon Munkara

Written by Alys Young, in partnership with the Tiwi Land Council

Indigenous knowledges, values and perspectives are increasingly acknowledged as vital to understanding and managing the environment. From fire management to seasonal calendars to medicinal plants, there are many areas where collaboration and the sharing of knowledges have supported innovation and better land management. We were lucky to be involved in a project sharing perspectives on ecosystems with the goal of mapping ecosystems across the Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory.

Lying north of Darwin, the Tiwi Islands consist of two large islands, Melville and Bathurst, with smaller surrounding islands. The islands are the lands of 8 First Nations clans: Mantiyupwi, Munupi, Yimpinari, Malawu, Wulirankuwu, Wurankuwu, Marrikawuyanga and Jikalaruwu. The islands are unique and special for many reasons, including the Indigenous Tiwi people’s on-going connection to Country and culture, a host of AFL stars and near-pristine environment.

The Tiwi environment is crucial to conservation, supporting a variety of small mammals which have declined on the mainland and plants found nowhere else. The Tiwi Land Council supports a range of research on the islands and undertakes a variety of land management actions, like strategic burning to reduce large, late-season wildfires. With the Land Council, we identified the need for updated maps of the ecosystems across the islands to underpin this management.

An important aspect of the mapping outputs was ensuring Traditional Owners had the opportunity to share their perspectives and knowledge about ecosystems. Supported by grants from the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife (FNPW, https://fnpw.org.au/ ) and the Australian Research Council, we were able to start these conversations while on Country with Traditional Owners. It was an immense privilege to travel on the islands with Traditional Owners, visiting important places, hearing their stories and songs, and sharing in knowledge about Country. We were also excited to share this experience with their grandchildren who joined us on Country, acknowledging the importance of the intergeneration transfer of knowledge.

LtoR: Gemma Munkara, John-Louis Munkara, Alys Young, Kinji Munkara-Murray, Emily Nicholson.

There were similarities and differences between the ecosystems described in past reports and those from Tiwi people’s perspectives. Sand dunes are important ecosystems for Tiwi people, but were not included in previous maps. Dunes make up a large area in some clan lands, in particular Jikilaruwu Country, with dunes across the southern coast of Bathurst Islands.

The locations visited with Traditional Owners sit alongside previous mapping work and past research to indicate example places where these ecosystems are within our analysis. These example locations are used to see what colour a satellite image is at that place. Specific colours are related to each of the ecosystems through a model. The model then checks places that we have no information about on the ground (e.g. remote areas) and decides what ecosystem it belongs to, based on the colour similarities. The output of this model is a map of where the different ecosystems are.

Sharing results and new knowledge back to stakeholders is an important part of science. It is even more important when working with Traditional Owners, recognising their ties to the Country which is being studied and the value of their knowledge in such work. Sharing our project and the finding to school and young people on the Tiwi Islands emerged multiple times as an important outcome which we will work on with the Land Council.

Along with many other research projects from the past and present on the Tiwi Islands, the idea for the project was born from the Ngawurra luwajirri Ngirramini committee, meaning “sharing knowledge”. Aptly named, the committee, formed of Traditional Owners representing each clan, rangers, Land Council and organisational staff, The University of Melbourne’s Science faculty and university researchers, meets to strategically design research projects to fulfil Tiwi priorities. Such collaborative environments are essential to put Indigenous values and voice front and centre in research.

This project was an exciting part of sharing knowledge about ecosystems for management and conservation on the Tiwi Islands. The maps and ecosystems descriptions provide a starting point to continue discussions and consultations. The maps can be continually updated to reflect the knowledge the community shares, maintain their utility and relevancy. Working in the cross-cultural space has been incredibly rewarding, and we hope the outcomes will support conservation and Tiwi aspirations.

There are many people and organisations instrumental in our project that we would like to thank, including our project partners the Tiwi Land Council, as well as Tiwi Resources, the Tiwi Rangers, and Traditional Owners. This work would not have been possible without funding by the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife, or the Australian Research Council. We would also like to acknowledge the late Mr Senior Rioli who provided immense support to our project and researchers more broadly as the Senior Land Ranger.

Bernard Tipaloura, Emily Nicholson, Alana Brekelmans

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