In the back of the vessel the rangers are grasping metal poles to ward off crocodiles. The poles rattle loudly as we hit a submerged log. Another ranger filming a fleeing feral pig on his tablet is thrown into the air by the impact before landing back in his seat with a crash.
The Arafura Swamp Indigenous Rangers (ASRAC) are out on patrol at Mingarri; not in bark canoes – as in the famous movie Ten Canoes – but in a heavy-duty amphibious vehicle.
We're searching for Candle Bush, a declared weed, spotted from a helicopter the previous week as the rangers conducted an aerial buffalo survey. It's vital they remove the weed before it spreads. After an intensive search we can't find the Candle Bush, but the rangers document evidence of feral animals and other weeds in the area to treat after the upcoming fire season.
Back at base in the afternoon, the rangers flick through their videos and photos from the morning trip. Using tablets and smartphones, they select the best and most informative shots before stringing them together in iMovie, a freely available video-editing app, to make short video reports of their activities.
After adding descriptive subtitles, voiceovers and music, the reports are finished within an hour or two.
The ease and speed of production – and the degree of artistic control over the content – would have been impossible only a few years ago.
Indigenous rangers operate in a complex intercultural space where they're expected to report on their work to many different people. Most important are the clans and Traditional Owners (TOs) who have developed the Healthy Country Plan that guides the rangers’ work, and on whose land the rangers operate.
In the ASRAC region there are 33 clans speaking at least eight different languages, including Bi languages like Rembarrnga and Yolŋu languages such as Djinba, Djinaŋ, Ganalbiŋu, Djambarrpuyŋu, Ritharrŋu, Wagilak and Gupapuyŋu.
Then there are the funding partners, including the Australian and Northern Territory government, NGOs and businesses, who work largely in English. Not only do these audiences speak different languages, but they also demand different types of information for different purposes.
The rangers are experts at navigating the intercultural communication challenges that arise in their work. However, the organizational reporting and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems that are intended to support ranger groups often fail to make best use of Indigenous expertise and voices essential in caring for Country. As this year’s NAIDOC week made clear, expertise is inextricable from language, and both are intimately tied to Country:
“It’s that Indigenous voice that includes know-how, practices, skills and innovations – found in a wide variety of contexts, such as agricultural, scientific, technical, ecological and medicinal fields, as well as biodiversity-related knowledge. They are words connecting us to country, an understanding of country and of a people who are the oldest continuing culture on the planet.”
In the Intercultural Monitoring and Evaluation Project (IMEP) the ASRAC rangers – together with partners at Olkola Aboriginal Corporation, Bush Heritage, Charles Darwin University and the CSIRO – are working to produce an M&E system that's rooted in the intercultural nature of ranger work and is founded on rangers’ intercultural expertise.
The rangers are currently experimenting with tools that can give voice to their knowledge for people and Country – and that of clans and Traditional Owners – within the organizational structures and processes of their contemporary land management work.
One of the more promising tools so far has been the use of smart devices (tablets and smartphones) and video-editing apps such as iMovie to produce short monitoring reports. The rangers are building on technologies they already use on a daily basis to tell and share stories, to report on their activities (like the Candle Bush trip) and record the knowledge that clan members and Traditional Owners have for Country and the work that rangers should be doing.
The ease of taking images and making videos on one device supports collaborative sense-making in real time, as the rangers ‘walk and talk’ with TOs in the right language, and sit down together to build the story. Through the creative addition of voiceovers and subtitles, the video reports may contain multiple languages, many layers of meaning, and emphasize different kinds of information for different audiences.
The video format means reports are easily shared between devices and through social media and the internet. Similar approaches have been developed by other Yolŋu researchers concerned with intercultural communication, such as in the project Ŋuthanmaram djamarrkuḻiny’ märrma’kurr romgurr: Growing up children in two worlds.
Yet as the rangers are finding smart technology useful for their work, they're also developing an appropriate ethics around its use. Rangers have encountered some unease among elders about the use of tablets and phones at sacred sites, and are carefully considering to how and where these devices should be used.
Moreover, the approach produces much valuable and sensitive information – of clan-specific songlines, sites and language – that needs to be kept safe and secure, with access only for the right people.
The rangers are about to develop a database for the wealth of information they're gathering, inspired by initiatives such as Mukurtu and The Mulka Project.
And while the video format of the reports enables the rangers to quickly and easily share information, it also heightens the risk of knowledge being shared too widely and inappropriately. The rangers plan to develop processes to prevent knowledge being extracted from context and used in ways contrary to its initial purposes.
And finally, as important as it is to develop good intercultural tools rooted in Indigenous expertise and knowledge for Country, it's equally vital to build effective intercultural ways of analyzing and making sense of this information to inform and improve ASRAC’s ongoing activities. These are just some of the issues that the rangers are navigating as they continue to build their intercultural monitoring and evaluation system for healthy country.