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A healthy desert is crucial for my culture’s survival

Avelina Tarrago
Published 26 Mar 2021 
about  Pilungah Reserve Ethabuka Reserve  

Georgina gidgee woodlands on Wangkamadla country. Photo by Wayne Lawler<br/> Georgina gidgee woodlands on Wangkamadla country. Photo by Wayne Lawler
Avelina out on country<br/> Avelina out on country

A new report published last week highlights 19 ecosystems on land and sea country that are unravelling due to pressures from climate change and human impacts. The Georgina Gidgee woodlands of central Australia is one of them.

As a Wangkamadla person, I have a deep connection to those woodlands, and the 65,000 years of culture that is as embedded in the soil as the roots of the trees. My fear is that if the ecosystem collapses as predicted, it could take my culture with it. Wangkamadla country is desert country on the Queensland-Northern Territory border, home to large tracts of slow-growing, hard-timbered Georgina Gidgee trees.

My old people traversed that country, using the gidgee wood to make shelter and for ceremony – proud cultural practises which we continue today.

The woodlands are home to at least 81 bird species, which use it to nest or travel through the landscape. A diverse range of mammals and reptile rely on it for refugia after fire or drought.

The recent report was a stark warning from some of Australia’s most eminent scientists and one that cuts me to my core as I think about my deep connection to my country.

If the health of this ecologically and culturally significant ecosystem continues to degrade, researchers believe it will succumb to desertification, becoming unsustainable for human life. Desertification is a process sped up by climate change, with the permanent decline of soil, vegetation, water and wildlife from an area.

It’s a situation akin to rising sea levels forcing people of the Torres Strait off their ancestral lands and would see Wangkamadla people facing a future without being on country. Traditional practices could disappear forever, and that would have devastating consequences for generations of Aboriginal people whose connection to country could be lost.

The report puts forward a new ‘3As’ framework to guide decision making to reverse this ecological collapse. This include raising awareness of the importance of the ecosystem and the need for its protection.

Much is known about more glamorous Australian ecosystems – simply say the words Daintree or Ningaloo and people are automatically presented with an image of place. Many would know too of issues facing these natural wonders – such as the Great Barrier Reef’s coral bleaching.

This same care and understanding needs to be fostered for lesser-known wild places like the Georgina Gidgee woodlands. Although many of the subtleties of this arid landscape can be lost to an outsider, it is no less beautiful or important.

I see a finely balanced system that responds to the smallest environmental changes. Desert flowers bloom right after the wet season. Native grasses sprout following fire. Frogs emerge from deep within sand dunes when big rains fall. The place is humming with life.

The report also calls for action on reducing the pressures to avoid or lessen their impacts on the 19 ecosystems.

Detailed criteria about key outcomes for ecosystems like the Georgina Gidgee woodlands needs to be developed so more resources can be allocated to their ongoing protection.

For example, much work is being done on Wangkamadla country to protect and restore natural springs. This is important work, funded by public money, but it is only addressing one threat, in one place. What about the many other threats – feral predators, heatwaves, flooding?  Without funding, we cannot act effectively.

Notably, the report outlines that protected areas are not immune to impending damage, with ten of the ecosystems under international or national management such as the Murray Darling Basin, and seven belonging to World Heritage Areas like the Great Barrier Reef.

Consider supporting private organisations working in this space. National conservation not-for-profit Bush Heritage Australia for example owns two nature reserves on the edge of the Simpson Desert – Ethabuka and Cravens Peak – protecting almost 500,000 hectares of country and substantial areas of Georgina Gidgee woodlands.

They, and scores of others, are doing their bit with private donations to turn the tide against ecological collapse.

It’s much purported that healthy country means healthy people. When the land is sick, so are we.

We need to protect all ecosystems around Australia so our country, and people, can be strong.

Avelina Tarrago is a Wangkamadla woman, a lawyer and a Bush Heritage board member.

Avelina out on country<br/> Avelina out on country