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Care for Country

Aboriginal people have a custodial responsibility to listen to Country, and at its heart is sustainability, writes Rob Anders

Research | Partners

When the oceans rose some 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, Palawa peoples became isolated on their own island, separated from the great northern landmass. Their ability to survive and thrive in this isolated environment speaks to their strength and resilience.

Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples adapted to the changing climatic and environmental conditions by listening carefully to Country and responding with what we would today call environmental management practices. These were ancient ways of living handed down from ancestors thousands of generations before them. I am a proud Tasmanian Aboriginal person and descendant of Mannalargenna and his daughter Woretermoteteyenne, of the Trawlwoolway people from Tebrakunna Country around Cape Portland in the state’s far northeast. Trouwunna, lutruwita, or Tasmania, is an island known by many names to many people. To me it‘s called home, but it’s a place we call Country.

I began my association with the University of Tasmania and the School of Geography, Planning and Spatial Sciences as an undergraduate student and I am now an Indigenous Fellow at the school and a doctoral student. My research is focussed on opportunities for the co-management of Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural landscapes, which resonates with my core interest in the recognition and advancement of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. At the heart of this is sustainability.

Colonisation in 1788 brought significant change and disruption to traditional ways of life with its deep and abiding connection to Country. Among numerous negative consequences are biodiversity loss, species extinction, the spread of invasive pests and animals, and accumulating toxic waste. Fuel loads have increased in peri-urban and rural areas to dangerous levels following the cessation of Aboriginal firing practices. The risk of devastating wildfires has risen - highlighted on Australia’s east coast in 2019-20. Sea temperatures in our ocean are spiking. Hidden under the ocean surface, marine biomass is reducing, and pollution levels are increasing.

We are at an important point in this continent’s deep history. Aboriginal peoples have long called to have their voices heard and rights as Indigenous peoples honoured and respected – what Australians call ‘having a fair go’.

It’s a time when concerned people are demanding a better deal for the environment and globally significant heritage sites, a deal which is no longer subservient to the economy. On 18 October 2019, the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of the University gave a formal Apology to Tasmania’s Aboriginal people for past wrongs. It was a moving event. The University became one of the first Australian tertiary institutions to formally apologise to its First Peoples. The University is currently midway through its second Strategic Plan for Aboriginal Engagement that seeks to act on this, (2021-2024).

Sustainability is part of the solution to the problem of Aboriginal disadvantage.

By achieving parity in Aboriginal student completion and staff employment within the institution, our communities can build resilience.

Our people have the sovereign right to their culture and cultural practices and, like other people, the right to adopt, use, and modify new science and technology. When it comes to sustainable living, western science and technology has much to learn from Indigenous knowledge.

Aboriginal people have custodial responsibilities to Country, both today and for future generations. At the heart of this sense of responsibility is sustainability, listening to Country and making the changes needed. My ancestors learned to live on and care for Country for thousands of generations. Country is part of them and we are part of Country. They walked over the land treading lightly, leaving only footprints. We all carry this legacy for our future generations.

Rob Anders is an Indigenous Fellow and doctoral student at the School of Geography, Planning and Spatial Sciences.

Main image: Indigenous display during Orientation Week, Hobart

This story features in the 2023 edition of It's in our nature - a collection of stories that celebrate and highlight the unique work being undertaken by our institution, and the people within it, to deliver a more fair, equitable and sustainable society.

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