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Monitoring in the Arafura Swamp

Imagine a room of 20 people, speaking many different languages, talking about Country.

There's laughter and movement. Stories are told and connections made. Key ideas are written on sticky notes and arranged on floors and walls. New, collective stories emerge.

These were some of the sights and sounds as the Arafura Swamp Rangers recently gathered at their Ramingining, Arnhem Land headquarters to continue to develop their monitoring and evaluation system for Healthy Country.

Back in 2017, 33 clans of the Arafura Swamp region, from at least eight Yolngu and Rembarrnga (Bi) language groups, worked together with ASRAC (the Arafura Swamp Rangers Aboriginal Corporation) and partners at Bush Heritage, the Northern Land Council and Charles Darwin University, to develop a collective vision for Country:

“Healthy Country, healthy tucker,
healthy families, living on our homelands.
The right people are speaking for country,
Passing knowledge from the old to the young,
We have strong ceremony, family and language for Country.”

The vision provides the foundation of the Arafura Swamp Rangers’ Healthy Country Plan, which is rooted in local cosmologies, values and practices while also inviting potential partners who share the vision to work with ASRAC to build skills, jobs and businesses on Country.

For the past two years, the rangers have been working with the clans to carry out the 19 interlinked strategies in the Plan.

They've already achieved a great deal. Recent successes include a dedicated women ranger group and building, a Yolngu seasonal bush tucker calendar, a Learning on Country program with the Ramingining School, and impressive work around fire, ferals and weeds across their 1.2 million hectare management area.

Now the rangers are developing a means to continually track and reflect on their progress, with the aim of learning and further improving their work.

Yolngu and Bi have long engaged in their own processes of ongoing observation, learning and refinement. In Western science, land management and policy, similar processes are referred to as monitoring and evaluation. In the intercultural context of Indigenous ranger work, the Arafura Swamp Rangers wish to draw on both sets of resources in developing a ‘two-way’ monitoring system.

An Indigenous-led, Country-based monitoring and evaluation system will provide ASRAC with useful information to refine its work, while developing stronger ‘internal’ connections between rangers, clans and Traditional Owners, and productive ‘external’ relationships with partners and funders. As senior ranger Otto Campion explains:

“When you dig for yam you can’t leave part of it in the ground, you’ve got to get the whole thing. You take the yam home, cook it up, and then give the different portions to the right people in your family. Monitoring and evaluation is like that too. We go out and dig up the full story, and then bring it back and cook it up in monitoring reports for different audiences – there’s a plate for elders’ mob, a plate for money mob, a plate for government mob…”

To this end, ASRAC have partnered again with Bush Heritage and Charles Darwin University (CDU), as well as Olkola Aboriginal Corporation in Cape York and the CSIRO, to create the Intercultural Monitoring and Evaluation Project (IMEP).

In two recent week-long workshops at ASRAC headquarters, the rangers, together with staff from Bush Heritage and CDU, collaboratively developed ‘road-maps’ for the strategies in the Healthy Country Plan. Road-maps, also known as ‘results chains,’ involve stepping out what needs to happen to carry out the strategies and achieve desired results. Building the road-maps enabled the group to look back at progress so far, while also looking forwards to plan activities for the future.

The rangers also began to identify signs (‘indicators’) that they can use to check (‘monitor’) that they're on the right track, and reflect on (‘evaluate’) how the work is going.

For example, the amount of sugarbag (native bees) in the woodlands helps the rangers to see if right-way burning is happening, while the colour of the stingray’s mouth and of the amount of fat on its liver helps rangers assess the health of sea Country.

Demonstrating the holistic nature of ASRAC’s work, the strategies addressed in the most recent workshop ranged from raising community awareness of the threats to Country, to building a strong women’s ranger program, to expanding a fire program that will ensure positive outcomes for culture, biodiversity and climate.

To the uninitiated, developing a monitoring and evaluation system may seem like a rather dry, technical task. However, the technical aspects are only one part of the broader challenge. Developing useful and appropriate ways of ongoing “looking and learning” to care for Country – that can speak to multiple audiences – requires sense-making across languages, worldviews and interests.

Doing this well requires time to talk or ‘yarn,’ building relationships and trust among all parties. It also requires sensitive ‘harvesting’ of the discussions and experiences to develop good two-ways stories. This is incredibly enriching, yet hard work. As Campion notes, “workshops are all about throwing ideas about and telling stories. By the end of the day you’ll be happy; happy but with a headache!”

The next steps will be to get out of the office and back out on Country, to identify important signs of Healthy Country and appropriate and useful ways of checking them. While true intercultural monitoring and evaluation around the world is still a work in progress, Yolngu and Bi are showing the way in the Arafura Swamp.

Workshop in Ramingining to develop ‘road-maps’ for the strategies in the Healthy Country Plan. Workshop in Ramingining to develop ‘road-maps’ for the strategies in the Healthy Country Plan.
Stories were told and connections made. Stories were told and connections made.
Organising ideas on post-it notes. Organising ideas on post-it notes.
Arafura Swamp Rangers. Arafura Swamp Rangers.
Using iPads to record knowledge about the health of Country. Using iPads to record knowledge about the health of Country.
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