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.

Healthy Societies built from Healthy Ecosystems: How Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand are Working at the Intersection of Human Health and Ecological Restoration for a Healthier World

Adam Cross (Curtin University), Kiri Wallace (University of Waikato), and James Aronson (Missouri Botanical Garden) discuss the newly formed Four Islands EcoHealth Network, a regional coalition allied with the global action initiative EcoHealth Network, which aims to increase the amount and effectiveness of ecological restoration throughout the world. The new papers they discuss are published in the journals EcoHealth and Restoration Ecology.

We live in an age of environmental challenges and crises that require societies to sit up and pay more attention to how they function. From heatwaves and water shortages to megafires and sudden floods (sometimes one after the other), new virulent viruses and infectious diseases, salinization where it doesn’t ‘belong’, plastic pollution in our oceans (where it really doesn’t belong), climate change and compromised food and job security for hundreds of millions of people, the combined impact of these challenges on human life are significant, to say the least.

While low-intensity seasonal or episodic fires are a natural part of the ecology in many regions of Australia such as the Kimberley (top left, photo A. Cross), intense, aseasonal or too-frequent fires can be devastating to ecosystems such as kwongan heathland (top right, photo A. Keesing) or seasonal peat wetlands (bottom; photo D. Edmonds).

The ecological and economic impacts of the environmental disaster known as climate change have resulted in thousands of jurisdictions in dozens of countries declaring a climate emergency, including many in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. Both countries are predicted to experience a hotter, drier climate in the coming years, a trend already showing itself through ominous impacts on forests and other ecosystems on land and at sea, including the oceans on Australia’s eastern coasts, where coral reefs and kelp forests are showing clear early signs of collapse. In both Australia and New Zealand, aseasonal or large-scale fires appear to be pushing some endangered species towards extinction and vital habitats and ecosystems to the brink. During the Australian summer of 2019-2020, unusually intense wildfires burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres) across Australia and left ecosystems and communities reeling: the fires killed 34 and destroyed approximately 3,000 homes, and are estimated to have killed over a billion native animals.

Australia’s exceptional biodiversity includes many unique species, such as the Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus; Left), Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae, Center), and Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus; Right). All photos Sophie Cross.

These fires and their aftermath have created a flashpoint where conflicting responses to climate change and its effects are emerging in sharp relief. Strong social divisions have long existed over expanding gas, oil, and coal mining projects in mainland Australia and Tasmania, all of which of course contribute massively to anthropogenic climate change. Debate and conflict over logging in the remaining natural forests has also intensified. The degradation of ecosystems can also cause significant public health impacts. Studies have linked high rates of depression and even suicides in farming communities to the stresses of drought and fire. The fragmentation and clearing of forests for timber and unsustainable agricultural practices has isolated and displaced Indigenous Peoples and communities, leading to conflict, loss of cultural identity, and damage to livelihoods, and has contributed to a rise in zoonotic (animal-transmitted) diseases such as the catastrophic and ongoing effects of Covid-19. Smoke from the recent Australian bushfires reduced air quality to dangerous levels in cities around Australia, potentially killing 12-times more people than the flames did, and the smoke plume travelled over 11,000 km across the Pacific Ocean to South America.

Time for Deep Change

In support of the upcoming UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (to run from 2021–2030, concurrently with a Decade on Ocean Science for Sustainable Development), two recent articles by Breed et al. and Aronson et al. bring new weight to the argument that ecological restoration is one of the most promising strategies we have to stop and reverse our current trajectory of environmental chaos. Indeed, Breed and colleagues suggest that the human health benefits of undertaking and engaging in ecological restoration might be so significant that restoration could be considered an economically and politically effective large-scale public health intervention. These benefits might be at the scale of the individual, resulting from direct participation in restoration activities (e.g., the act of working together on restoring an area can reduce anxiety and depression-related diseases). Or, they might be at the population and community levels, resulting from the indirect outcomes of ecological restoration (e.g., restored ecosystems and reintegrated landscapes provide cleaner water, and more health-promoting microbiomes, reducing a number of disease risks).

Restoration projects, such as the Arbor Day planting events of People, Cities & Nature, at Waiwhakareke Natural Heritage Park in Hamilton, New Zealand, can bring community together and may have significant public health benefits for participants. All photos C. Kirby.

Breed and colleagues proposed five key strategies to help us better understand the potential of ecological restoration as a public health initiative:

  1. Collaborations and conversations. Promoting greater collaboration among scientists of various disciplines, health professionals, restoration practitioners, and policymakers to better understand the links between ecological restoration and human health and wellbeing (including jobs and livelihoods).  
  2. Education and learning. Restorationists need to learn about human health, and health professionals must in turn learn about the real potential of ecological restoration as a public health intervention.
  3. Defining the causal links. Research is needed to determine the causal links between ecosystem restoration and health outcomes, to provide the empirical evidence required to understand and advise communities and decision makers.
  4. Monitoring restoration and health outcomes. We need better and standardized methodologies for the effective, cost-efficient monitoring and evaluation of the public health benefits from ecosystem restoration.
  5. Community ownership and stewardship. A global movement toward a restorative culture needs community involvement and engagement, and embracing of the importance of traditional ecological knowledge.

Putting these strategies into action at a scale required to meet the aspirations of the coming UN Decade means we must collaborate across continents and disciplines to identify and build links between ecological restoration and human health.

One such initiative is the Ecohealth Network (EHN), established in 2017 to bring together pioneering sites, hubs, and regional networks to work cohesively towards rapidly increasing the amount and effectiveness of ecological restoration throughout the world, and to accelerate understanding and awareness of its feasibility and benefits, especially for public health.

The first EHN regional network emerged from a workshop held in February 2020. The group calls itself the Four Islands EcoHealth Network, in reference to North Island and South Island, the two largest islands of Aotearoa New Zealand, plus Tasmania, and mainland Australia. It aims to explore how different sites and hubs with various climatic and cultural contexts can come together to share insights and pursue research into the physiological, psychological, and societal health benefits of ecological restoration. It also aims to advance the ecological and microbiological knowledge needed to achieve effective, durable restoration. The aspirations, aims and issues to be considered by the group were laid out in the Hobart Declaration, a charter document stemming from the workshop. Keith Bradby, the founder and CEO of Gondwana Link, agreed to be the first coordinator of the regional network.

The Four Islands EcoHealth Network also embodies a shared desire to foster support for long-overdue efforts in both countries that work in close collaboration with Indigenous Peoples and local communities to make radical changes in cultural, educational, and land care practices. A recent popular science article by Dr. Kiri Joy Wallace highlighted the significance of these aspirations to the public health sector, native ecosystems, and people of Aotearoa New Zealand. There are also many Australian contexts bringing insight and direction to the initiative. For example, Gondwana Link is working to restore ecological resilience to thousands of hectares of marginal farmland following long colonial histories of Neo-European style agricultural use and severe salinization in southwestern Australia; Gondwana Link is exemplary in its huge regional scope and sustained work for greater interaction and cooperation not only with local conservation groups, but also with Noongar and Ngadju Traditional Owners. This effort, based on a vision shared by all members of the EHN, is part of the essential process of “decolonizing” both conservation and ecological restoration.

Other members of the Four Islands EcoHealth Network tackle the restoration and assisted recovery of wilderness areas in north-eastern Tasmania following industrial tree cropping with Monterrey pine (Pinus radiata), undertaken with great success by the North East Bioregional Network; vast regional, multi-state initiatives such as the Great Eastern Ranges work to conserve and reconnect habitat at large scales; and science-led and community-focussed programs such as the UN-endorsed Healthy Urban Microbiome Initiative, which explores the human health benefits of biodiverse green space in urban areas via the microbiome and smaller local studies examining the mental health benefits of urban schoolchildren participating in restorative activities.

These experiences in the Four Islands context, and the insights and expertise of its founding members, are helping to anchor and inform efforts by the wider EcoHealth Network to link similarly ambitious initiatives in other regions and build a broad global network stretching across the globe.

Restoration can and must underpin every aspect of human society, as our health and welfare, and those of future generations, are dependent on the ecosystems of which we are part. If we are to achieve the aspirations of the coming UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, we need to work towards a culture of healing and renewal to replace the damaging models of colonialism, systemic injustice, unrestrained resource extraction, and ecological destruction. The accelerating climate catastrophe and the Covid-19 pandemic have profoundly impacted people’s lives in every nation, increasing awareness about the direct link between human health and the environment. We need to ensure this catalyzes a shift to a restorative culture globally, toward what we can only hope will one day be a world of truly united nations.

To learn more about the Ecohealth Network or the work of the members of the Four Islands Ecohealth Network, visit our website or read our recent papers in EcoHealth and Restoration Ecology.