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Karajarri Country, Western Australia. By Benjamin Broadwith
Karajarri Country, Western Australia. By Benjamin Broadwith

Doing things the right-way

Bush Heritage works in partnership with Traditional Custodians to protect and heal Country, led by their deep-held knowledge of the natural ecology, sophisticated land management practices and culture.

Published 25 Aug 2023

Listening and learning

In December 2021, as part of our 2030 Strategy, Bush Heritage committed to deepening our Aboriginal Partnerships program to better support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with whom we work. But to improve our external relationships, we first needed to look inwards.

Over the past 12 months, Bush Heritage’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce, leadership structure and cultural competency have transformed. The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff employed has grown from 7% to 10% – coming close to our longer-term goal of 12%. This increase is partly due to the creation of Aboriginal-identified positions and traineeships through our ‘Seeding the Future’ program, which provides training and support for early-career conservationists.

Leanne Liddle (former Board member for Bush Heritage), Bruce Hammond Aboriginal Partnerships Manager SA, Chontarle Belottie Aboriginal Partnerships Manager WA, and Vikki Parsley Aboriginal Partnerships Manager NSW at Garma. By Bruce Hammond

We also created several Aboriginal Partnerships Manager positions to be based in each of the regions where we operate. Aboriginal Cultural Coordinator Steph Salee works with two of these managers, Bruce Hammond and Vikki Parsley, as active members of our Senior Leadership Team. They represent the viewpoints of their regional communities and Bush Heritage's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce, and report these perspectives to the the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), and the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Engagement Committee.

This new leadership model ensures that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices are central in the decision-making processes relating to all areas of Bush Heritage’s work. It also acknowledges the nuanced cultural obligations and priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. The geographically disparate team with lived connections to different regions, will help grow a deep and functional knowledge of this incredible diversity.

The increased representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our workforce, and the change in leadership structure, will improve our capacity to understand and support partners' needs. 

But partnership work involves the entire organisation. So, in late 2022, Bush Heritage started delivering a refreshed cultural competency training through a series of three workshops. Since the workshops began, the cultural capability of Bush Heritage staff has increased from 76% to 85%, based on participation numbers and surveys.  While these numbers are useful for tracking and reporting progress, Bush Heritage Aboriginal Cultural Coordinator Steph Salee, is quick to point out that cultural competency is a lifelong learning journey.

“Cultural awareness is the opportunity to build an understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, community and culture. Understanding is a step towards competency, but competency is a lifelong journey, it requires constant awareness as culture changes and evolves with each generation," says Steph.

The first of many flames

In 2021, Wiradjuri Elder Uncle James Ingram and a number of Bush Heritage team members walked across the rolling hills and woodlands of Tarcutta Hills Reserve, Wiradjuri Country, southern New South Wales, for a cultural heritage survey. Uncle James identified the remnants of a rich ancestral history – several modified or ‘scarred’ trees, artifacts, and culturally significant meeting places.

Wiradjuri Elder Uncle James Ingram looks forward to returning more cultural burns to his ancestral lands. By Bee Stephens

To help protect these cultural values Uncle James called for a cultural burn.

In 2022, a plan materialised and the burn took place. It marked the first cultural burn on a Bush Heritage reserve in New South Wales. Vikki Parsley, Bush Heritage’s Aboriginal Partnerships Manager NSW, and Yuin Wiradjuri woman, was instrumental in organising the burn and recognised its deep significance.

“There’d been a gap of at least 180 years since a cultural burn had taken place at Tarcutta. It was great to see the community turn up and get fire on the ground.”
Vikki Parsley, Bush Heritage Aboriginal Partnerships Manager NSW.

For Vikki and the team, cultural burns facilitate opportunities for people to connect with their Country and be involved in the solutions to largescale ecological issues. Fire is an important and familiar land management tool for this continent. The burn represented the beginning of a long-term restoration plan that will work alongside Traditional Custodians to restore appropriate fire regimes to Tarcutta Hills Reserve.

Sunset at the Waanyi Garawa Biodiversity and Culture Camp. By Will Sacre

Learning Garawa

In August 2022, Bush Heritage supported the annual Waanyi Garawa Biodiversity and Culture Camp. These camps bring people together to pass on culture, look after Country, and importantly, learn language. Like many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, for the Waanyi Garawa community, language is central to ecology, spirituality, and place. 

Kids and Elders gathered on Rhumbarriya clan Country near Robinson River. Their days were spent setting up remote sensor cameras to monitor local wildlife and passing on traditional ways of caring for land. They also created a seasonal calendar to document Waanyi Garawa people’s expert knowledge of the ecological shifts and patterns that are brought about by changes in weather and climate.

“To read and write in Garawa out in the bush is everything,” says Nancy McDinny, Elder, linguist, educator and artist who was at the camp. “You’re on the land to learn about your culture. We don’t want our language, our culture, to get lost.”

We thank and acknowledge the Rhumbarriya Traditional Custodians who welcomed us to their Country and shared this special time with us.

Listen to the Big Sky Country podcast episode ‘Learning Garawa’ to learn more about the importance of keeping language alive.

Returning to Country

Badimia peoples’ deep connection to Barna (Country) and Bimarra (water spirit) remains resilient. And now, after the establishment of the Badimia Bandi Barna Aboriginal Corporation (BBBAC) in 2018 and the formation of strong partnerships, sacred sites and the opportunity to look after Country are being returned to the hands and hearts of Traditional Custodians.

One of these partnerships is with Bush Heritage. For over 10 years, we have worked alongside the BBBAC to care for Country on Charles Darwin Reserve. The 68,600-hectare reserve falls within Western Australia’s Southwest Botanical Province and is home to more than 230 animal species and 680 plant species.

In 2022, our partnership deepened. Bush Heritage and the BBBAC signed a Memorandum of Understanding and a formal Partnership Agreement. Together, we are restoring biodiversity and supporting Badimia people with their vision to look after Country for future generations and be recognised as Traditional Custodians.

“Badimia people are starting to feel their spirits awakening. It’s like Country is opening up to say ‘thank you’,” reflects Badimia woman and BBBAC Secretary, Bev Slater.

Bush Heritage will continue to support the delivery of BBBAC’s Healthy Country Plan, and the recruitment of a Healthy Country Coordinator to help deliver the plan. This is a call for celebration for both Bush Heritage and BBBAC as we work together to continue valuing and practicing traditional ways of caring for Country.

A Gimlet Gum stands tall on Badimia Country, Charles Darwin Reserve, WA. By Peter Taylor

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