Past connections form conservation future in Australia

Of all the places that Fauna & Flora International (FFI) work, Australia is perhaps the most exciting from a culture and conservation perspective. This is not just because of the powerful, abiding though badly damaged connections between indigenous Australians and the land, built up over a history of association spanning 50,000 years, but also because Australian conservation is developing ways to recognise these connections and make them part of the conservation vision.

So I was pleased to be invited to visit to the Burnett Mary Region for a second time.

The Burnett Mary Region of Queensland is an area of great diversity and beauty and, like much of Australia, has great cultural significance for its Aboriginal communities. FFI has been working with the Burnett Mary Regional Group for some years to help conserve these values.

Credit: Jody Gunn/FFI

I first visited the area two years ago. I was taken to see the Bunya Mountains National Park by John Locke, a native Australian employed by the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) and learned a little about the cultural importance of the area as well as its ecological values.

The Bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii), a large conifer, fruits once every three to four years. Fruiting of the massive, knobbly, seed-bearing cones (you certainly do not want to be standing under one when it falls) signalled Aboriginal groups from throughout Queensland and as far as the Northern Territory and New South Wales to gather in the Bunya Mountains. The Bunya nuts could support many people and allow them to remain for several days to perform rituals, exchange news and execute the business of the day.

Credit: Jody Gunn/FFI

As people returned home from their gatherings, carrying nuts for the trip, seeds that dropped along the way grew, creating a spider web of Bunyas across the landscape, drawing together at the mountain meeting place. I find this image of a web of Bunyas covering the landscape a great analogy for the way histories of association and use create tangible as well as cultural connections between people and place.

Discussions are under way about organising a modern Bunya pine gathering. Park managers support the idea, recognising that these cultural connections help define the meaning of the landscape under their care. FFI is keen to help.

I was proudly shown photos of the first ‘cultural burn’ in the park, another way in which the park and the Aboriginal community is working to re-invest the area with cultural meaning. Aboriginal rangers used their cultural knowledge to burn the bush to maintain the distinctive open grasslands that exist within the park.

Uncle Vincent Law sets the first cultural burn at Wescott, Bunya Mountains:Credit: Burnett Mary Regional Group

My second visit was to Fraser Island, a World Heritage Site, just off the Queensland coast. This extraordinary sandy island supports a magnificent forest, still dominated by regal Fraser Island Satinay trees in places despite the depredations on it to provide the timber lining of the Suez Canal.

Escorted by Peter Wright, the Acting Regional Manager for the Great Sandy Region I learned about the cultural significance of the island to the Butchulla people who inhabit the island and adjacent parts of the mainland.

Though most visitors to the island are there for the sun, sand and fishing, the conservation authorities are anxious to identify the particular values of the island for the Butchulla people and integrate them into the management of the island.

The authorities are recruiting rangers from the Butchulla community and giving them especial responsibilities for cultural values, whether these are relicts, sites of particular practices, or places with important historical or spiritual associations. With the help of the Butchulla rangers, programmes to recognise these values and conserve them as key components of the park are beginning to be developed.