Healing communities by healing country: First Nations peoples are increasingly leading ecological restoration programs for Australia’s threatened and degraded landscapes

Adam Cross, Keith Bradby, and James Aronson describe and discuss some of the 120+ Indigenous Peoples-led programs in Australia that are setting a benchmark for the sustainable and ecologically-responsible management of the nation’s unique natural landscapes.

In the 233 years since 1788, when European colonisation of Australia began, catastrophic environmental and social cost has been endured by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. During the same period, the ancient continent’s megadiverse native ecosystems have been transformed or replaced at almost incomprehensible scale and speed. Much of the natural landscape has been dramatically and tragically altered by activities such as the agricultural and livestock husbandry practices imported by the new settlers, rampant deforestation, mining, and urban development, as well as poor fire management coupled with weed, animal and disease invasion. For example, in Western Australia, agricultural expansion by Europeans led to 97% of native vegetation to date being cleared from much of the 155,000 km2 (60,000 mi2) Wheatbelt area surrounding Perth—a short-sighted endeavour that has altered regional climate and left vast areas desertified, unproductive, and acutely affected by dryland salinity. What’s more, this industrial-scale exploitation, transformation, and degradation of natural ecosystems has not only caused great loss of biodiversity and ecological functioning, but also damage to human health and well-being—with the costs being borne disproportionately by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Yet, tragically, it is these First Nations peoples of Australia who are the custodians of an ancient multi-millennial cultural understanding that people are a part of nature and that the health of Country (vernacular in Australia for the natural or native landscapes) and its people are intrinsically intertwined.

Ecologist Jim Underwood and Nowanup Noongar Ranger Nigel Eades establishing camera traps to monitor wildlife movements on a property owned by Bush Heritage Australia. Photo: Nic Duncan.

In light of worldwide ecosystem degradation and decline, as well as increasing concern both in Australia and globally around the growing public costs of addressing mental and physical ill-health, there is growing awareness of the value and urgent need to link applied ecology and public health in recognition of the importance of healthy, biodiverse ecosystems to human society. 

In the terminology adopted by the EcoHealth Network, ecohealth is a concept that combines ecosystem health and public health as intertwined objectives with an emphasis on ecological restoration and allied activities (e.g., agroforestry, permaculture, regenerative urban planning and design, etc.). The science, practice, and policy of ecological restoration, when undertaken within an ecohealth approach, considers its implications for human health in a holistic way. Likewise, public health interventions imbued with an ecohealth perspective take into account the role of ecosystem health in impacting human health and reducing the risk of public health disasters. This framework differs from planetary health and One Health in that it is grounded in place-based ecological restoration of degraded ecosystems and the improvement of the human culture-nature connection. Thus, it addresses causes of ecosystem degradation and fragmentation, not just human and animal health-related symptoms and crises. The ‘ecohealth hypothesis’ posits that the restoration and rehabilitation of a degraded ecosystem will have significant health benefits for people who interact with that ecosystem, in present and future generations. However, there is nothing new in this concept for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They have known of the value of more-than-human nature and its benefits for human health for tens of thousands of years. In fact, it is this deep cultural understanding that underpins the strong imperative for ecological stewardship, vis à vis their “country”, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. This foundational, and all-too-often forgotten, network of linkages between ecological and human health is captured, for example, by the cultural mindset of the Noongar and Ngadju Peoples of Western Australia, one of the oldest living cultures on Earth: “We are a people who look after country and the country looks after us” (Ngadju Elder Les Schultz).

Planting activities at the first Indigenous owned and managed native seed farm, in the Mid West region of Western Australia, aiming to generate native seeds to meet the demands of ecological restoration activities on mined lands throughout the region. Photo: Kingsley Dixon.

Healthy Country is a crucial determinant of physical, social, cultural, and spiritual well-being. There is a need to return to this and related ancestral Indigenous paradigms as we strive to live more sustainably towards a vision of a prosperous, healthier future (Bradby et al. 2021). Moreover, in practical terms, we need to find ways to create synergies between so-called Western, inductive science and ancestral Indigenous paradigms, ecological knowledge, and ways of knowing.

Nowanup Noongar rangers establishing wildlife camera traps with Bush Heritage Australia. Photo: Nic Duncan.

The quality and integrity of the ecosystems within which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live, and of which they see themselves as an inseparable component, is central to lore and culture. “Healthy Country gives off a greater vibration, and it speaks louder. Country that isn’t healthy also speaks and sings us there, and demands that we take action to heal it, its spirit and our spirit.” (Yamatji Noongar woman Heidi Mippy). Studies show that stronger relationships with Country and greater involvement in cultural practices enhance the well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and that individuals from more remote regions with daily access to and contact with their Country have higher levels of well-being than individuals that have been removed or relocated from traditional lands (Schultz et al 2018).

Indigenous seed collector assessing fruit maturity on Crotalaria cunninghamii, an important nitrogen-fixing pioneer shrub in post-mining ecological restoration in the northeast Kimberley region of Western Australia. Photo: Adam Guest.

Ecological degradation not only erodes biodiversity, compromises livelihoods, reduces ecosystem services, and impacts food security and cultural resilience, but also drives numerous environmental determinants of disease including allergies, anxiety disorders, immune dysfunction, infectious and zoonotic diseases, and mental health illnesses (Romanelli et al. 2015; Bhatnagar 2017; Burbank et al. 2017). European colonization has left a legacy of depression and cultural disconnection in farming communities throughout the above-mentioned Wheatbelt, which in turn has led to higher rates of suicide and chronic disease risk (Speldewinde et al. 2015).

The Nowanup Noongar Rangers often work on major restoration projects. Here they are planting a 300 metre totem animal, the Karda (Goanna), on land near Koi Kyeunu-ruff (the Stirling Ranges). Photo: Amanda Keesing.

These public health impacts of ecological degradation are straining health care systems and causing rising public health costs in Australia, and many places around the world. This in turn highlights the urgent need for a transition to a restorative culture (Cross et al. 2019; Blignaut & Aronson 2020), and recognition that ecological restoration, i.e., the repair of ecosystems that have been damaged, degraded or destroyed (Gann et al. 2019), should be recognized as an effective and cost-efficient public health intervention (Breed et al. 2020). Ecological restoration may be the best single strategy and toolbox for addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, and the poverty and misery related to ecological degradation and desertification. Ecological restoration and related activities, if undertaken in a participatory fashion, and through the pathways by which human well-being can be benefited by nature, may be effective in advancing health equity and addressing health disparities (Jelks et al 2021).

Ecological restoration is the only way by which landscapes degraded through activities such as mining (left) can be restored towards the biodiverse, ecologically functional ecosystems that were present prior to European colonisation (right), concurrently improving the physical, psychological, and cultural well-being of communities reliant upon these ecosystems.

Many of the nature exposure benefit pathways now suggested by “Western” science align well with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lore and culture regarding ethnobotany, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), and how ecological and human health intersect. For example, potential pathways identified include exposure to environmental microbiota and plant-derived volatile organic compounds, the sight and sound-scape of nature, exposure to sunlight, and increased physical activity and social interaction (Marselle et al. 2021). For example, Noongar newborns were rubbed with plant-based oils to ensure strong and healthy development, aromatic leaves were crushed and inhaled or used to make infusions or ointments, the vapours of leaves and twigs of certain plants heated over coals were inhaled, and certain soils and animal fats were used both medicinally and in maintaining good health (Hansen and Horsfall 2018). Noongar People commonly use the environment around them to enhance physical, spiritual, social and emotional well-being, even recognising that different species play different roles in this relationship: “There are certain trees that we sit under when our spirit is down, we have to sit under that tree. We don’t cut that tree down, we don’t even take a branch off it. And they say when the needles fall on us from this tree… we’re told that’s the tears of our old people healing us. And when you hear the breeze whisper through that, that’s the old people singing to us, to heal us.” (Balladong Wadjuk Yorga/woman Vivienne Hansen).

Curtin University students being formally welcomed to a Nowanup camp by Noongar Elder Eugene Eades and the then Curtin Elder in Residence Professor Simon Forrest. Photo: Belinda Gibson.

Recent years have seen increasing incidence in landcare and ecological restoration activities led and undertaken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations. Over 120 Indigenous Ranger Programs now operate Australia, drawing from deep cultural knowledge and connection to country to protect and manage terrestrial and also near-coastal and marine ecosystems. Ranger programs, and many other Indigenous-led and managed initiatives, are now involved in environmental management ranging from feral animal and weed control to fire management, and from native seed collection to landscape-scale ecological restoration activities. In many regions these programs, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals who represent them, now lead the way and set the benchmark for sustainable and ecologically-responsible environmental management.

The re-introduction of more traditional management practices has happened rapidly in some areas. Across the ambitious Gondwana Link program in south-western Australia there are over a dozen First Nations ranger and land management teams, all of which have been established in the past fifteen years. One of these, the Ngadju Conservation Aboriginal Corporation, covers a massive 4.4 million hectares. Ngadju Conservation operate from a headquarters in the central town of Norseman, and undertake a wide range of cultural and ecological management efforts. Through agreement between the Traditional Owners of the land and the Commonwealth Government 78 dedicated Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA), covering over 74 million hectares, have been established since 1997. In these the national government provides funding to assist with land management, as set out in an agreed plan. The Ngadju IPA was formally designated in March 2021.

In Gondwana Link’s central zone, where marginal farmland is being purchased and restored ecologically, Noongar people have been welcomed back to the properties. On one of these, called Nowanup, the Noongar and settler community work together to maintain ecologically important habitats and replanted areas, as well as undertaking an ongoing series of cultural courses and camps. Since 2006 some 17,000 people have been through these camps, ranging from Noongar men at risk through to member of local community groups, school students from near and far and, more recently, groups of University students.

In recognition of the growing and leading role played by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the restoration of Australia’s degraded landscapes, major national initiatives have been proposed seeking to support Indigenous-led environmental management. One such initiative is a newly-funded research centre to be established at Western Australia’s Curtin University, which will fuse Indigenous knowledge and traditional approaches with western science to rehabilitate and restore Country. This centre, the Australian Research Council Training Centre for Healing Country, aims to develop an economy centred around Indigenous-led ecological restoration activities; an economy built from a foundation of healthy Country intended to deliver both environmental outcomes and economic opportunity by developing Indigenous land management and restoration businesses into major regional employers.

The ARC Training Centre for Healing Country aims to establish strong, complementary and intersectional research pathways in ecological restoration (practices to repair degraded landscapes), ecohealth (understanding the intersection between ecological restoration and human health), and socioeconomics (examining how ecological restoration benefits livelihoods and social-cultural resilience). The aim is to bring Indigenous knowledge and traditional approaches together with western science and create better and more diverse pathways for the training of Indigenous peoples in environmental management and ecological restoration activities. In addition, Indigenous enterprises can be strengthened, grown, and empowered, and a diversified and Indigenous-led restoration economy can be a pathway along which we all work together towards a future of healthy Country and healthier multi-cultural society in Australia.

References cited

Bhatnagar, A. 2017. Environmental determinants of cardiovascular disease. Circulation Research 121: 162-180.

Blignaut, J.N., J. Aronson 2020. Developing a restoration narrative: A pathway towards system-wide healing and a restorative culture. Ecological Economics 168: 106483.

Bradby, K., K.J. Wallace, A.T. Cross E. Flies, C. Witehira, A. Keesing, T. Dudley, M.F. Breed, G. Howling, P. Weinstein & J. Aronson 2021. The Four Islands EcoHealth Program: An Australasian regional initiative for synergistic restoration of ecosystem and human health. Restoration Ecology 29, e13382.

Breed, M.F., A.T. Cross, K. Wallace, K., Bradby, E. Flies, N. Goodwin, M. Jones, L. Orlando, C. Skelly, P. Weinstein & J. Aronson 2020. Ecosystem restoration – a public health intervention. EcoHealth. https://doi.10.1007/s10393-020-01480-1

Burbank, A.J., Sood, A.K., Kesic, M.J., Peden, D.B., Hernandez, M.L. 2017. Environmental determinants of allergy and asthma in early life. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 140, 1-12.

Cross, A.T., Neville, P.G., Dixon, K.W., Aronson, J. 2019. Time for a paradigm shift towards a restorative culture. Restoration Ecology 27: 924-928.

Gann, G.D., McDonald, T., Walder, B., Aronson, J., Nelson, C.R., Jonson, J., Hallett, J.G., Eisenberg, C., Guariguata, M.R., Liu, J., Hua, F. 2019. International principles and standards for the practice of ecological restoration. Restoration Ecology 27: S1-S46.

Jelks, N.T.O., Jennings, V. and Rigolon, A. 2021. Green gentrification and health: A scoping review. International journal of environmental research and public health 18: 907.

Marselle, M.R., Hartig, T., Cox, D.T., de Bell, S., Knapp, S., Lindley, S., Triguero-Mas, M., Böhning-Gaese, K., Braubach, M., Cook, P.A., de Vries, S. 2021. Pathways linking biodiversity to human health: A conceptual framework. Environment International 150: 106420.

Romanelli, C., Cooper, D., Campbell-Lendrum, D., Maiero, M., Karesh, W.B., Hunter, D. and Golden, C.D., 2015. Connecting global priorities: biodiversity and human health: a state of knowledge review. World Health Organistion/Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Speldewinde, P.C., Slaney, D., Weinstein, P. 2015. Is restoring an ecosystem good for your health?. Science of the Total Environment 502: 276-279.

Schultz, R., Abbott, T., Yamaguchi, J., Cairney, S. 2019. Australian Indigenous Land Management, Ecological Knowledge and Languages for Conservation. EcoHealth 16: 171-176.

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