As in other protected areas around Australia, staff and Traditional Owners in Kakadu National Park are committed to working together to protect the health of important values of Country. However, information has been limited on how to jointly assess the health of Country to guide effective co-management activities. To care for important areas, cross-cultural monitoring and evaluation frameworks need to be co-designed and trialled with Indigenous partners to develop appropriate measures of success, data-sharing processes and methods for identifying priority management actions.
This Indigenous-led action-research project focused on the development and trial application of Bininj and Mungguy healthy Country indicators in Kakadu National Park (Indigenous people are known as Bininj in the north of the park and Mungguy in the south; Bininj/Mungguy will be used from now on). The research project was governed by a Bininj/Mungguy steering committee made up of Traditional Owner representatives from all the clans across the park.
The steering committee chose two pilot areas where the project team worked with Bininj/Mungguy to undertake targeted field studies to identify Indigenous values and the indicators used to track the health of Country before and after agreed on-ground management activities. Under the direction of the steering committee and the Traditional Owners for Nardab and Jarrangbarnmi, five indicators were identified to assess sites and guide adaptive management of important landscapes within the jointly managed and Ramsar- and World Heritage Area-listed park.
The indicators were:
Together with Bininj/Mungguy Traditional Owners and rangers, the project team trialled an approach for monitoring and reporting on healthy Country indicators before and after agreed on-ground actions. Read on to find out how these indicators were used to monitor and evaluate weed management activities on the Nardab floodplain and landscape burning activities at Jarrangbarnmi (Koolpin Gorge).
Over 30 Bininj/Mungguy co-researchers and senior authorities were employed by or engaged with this research project. Maria Lee, former chair of the Kakadu Board of Management and a Traditional Owner for Jarrangbarnmi, said when interviewing two young family members, Jermaine Douglas and Elijah Gayoso, that being on Country with this project ‘refreshes your mind.’ Jermaine agreed, with his trips to Jarrangbarnmi to learn from senior Traditional Owners making him ‘feel welcome. It’s alright. Stress-free. Enjoy Country, eating bush tucker and stuff.’
The project team made sure that young people were encouraged and supported to participate in co-research work, including in using the technologies developed to assess and monitor these sites. As Elijah highlighted, of equal importance was the opportunity to learn about new technologies and be on Country with Traditional Owners.
I like learning about how the technology works. So, when you … come out here with the ranger and you take out all this thing and then you already know how it works because Balanda [non-Indigenous people] showed us how to work it. … It’s good to come out here, like in person, because you feel connected to the land, so you don’t want to just listen from a laptop or something. Just think ‘oh there the birds’. It’s gonna make you think ‘oh we should go back out there’ and then you’re gonna come back out here and then really see for yourself how it’s like. You’ll probably come back out here and start crying because you miss everything.
– Elijah Gayoso
Together, the project team and the Bininj/Mungguy steering committee have introduced a monitoring approach that Bininj/Mungguy can use all the time, to see the results of what they are doing together, and this provides an opportunity to learn and engage with this Indigenous-led research. The project wants to highlight their work in Kakadu to show other park managers, rangers and Traditional Owners good ways to work together (read more here).
Positive aspects of this research approach were that issues that arose during the life of the project were regularly monitored and actions were rapidly negotiated and collaboratively agreed upon. This enabled the researchers and Bininj/Mungguy to find ways to work well together and to trial innovative ways of monitoring sites in Kakadu, with our strong collaborative and innovative work recognised nationally (e.g. as a Eureka Prize finalist and alongside the Defining metrics of feral animal management success project as i-Awards merit winners).
We’ve worked hard to build this relationship and we want to keep working with you. This NESP team brings Bininj to life here, they feel good about themselves because you motivate them. You did a good job; our young people are happy, and I want to see it keep going so we can keep motivating our young people.
– Maria Lee
At Nardab, the team co-developed and trialled an Indigenous-led Healthy Country AI model to monitor Country indicators by rapidly surveying large, difficult to access areas with drones and interpreting the footage collected to show important changes to the ecosystem following on-ground management interventions. The Healthy Country AI model converts large volumes of data (thousands of high-resolution photos) into metrics – in this case, magpie goose numbers and spread of para grass – to demonstrate how Bininj-identified Country indicators are changing following agreed management interventions. The model code is freely available on GitHub and a snapshot of the trial at Nardab is outlined in the image below of the Healthy Country dashboard. The dashboard shows how technologically collected data can be presented and used alongside Bininj/Mungguy assessments of this area.
At Jarrangbarnmi (and at the Nardab site too), the researchers and Bininj/Mungguy agreed to trial motion-sensor cameras and sound recorders, for seeing and hearing Country when people were not there, and drones, for collecting aerial photos to monitor changes to Country over time. Traditional Owners at both sites raised their concerns regarding the drones, including that users might see restricted sacred sites, including gendered sites, or that sensitive information might be recorded in an open-access database, or that Traditional Owners might be removed from decision-making processes on-Country. As a Traditional Owner highlighted during the evaluation of an on-Country workshop at Jarrangbarnmi:
It’s alright that you bring that technology, but you need to make sure you bring TOs [Traditional Owners] with you when you’re setting it up so they’re still on Country, learning and listening to Country.
– Wurrkbarbar Traditional Owner
To address these concerns, the researchers, Rangers and Bininj/Mungguy Traditional Owners co-designed protocols to ensure drones and the data they collected responded to the risks identified from drone use and surveillance and the need for privacy, data ownership and protection (read more here). These protocols include the need to:
These protocols provide a way for Indigenous people to guide and authorise the introduction of new technologies that are used to produce new knowledge needed to adaptively co-manage their Country.
The results of this project have been translated into an interactive Healthy Country Bininj/Mungguy Indicator Dashboard, which was co-designed to allow Bininj/Mungguy, Kakadu rangers and staff, and research scientists to share data collected to assess sites before and after agreed activities using the five indicators outlined above. The platform shows how Bininj/Mungguy indicators have been used to assess agreed management activities on the Nardab floodplain and in the lowland woodlands near Jarrangbarnmi. The results of this work provide a practical approach and insights into how Bininj/Mungguy healthy Country indicators could be integrated into Kakadu’s monitoring and performance reporting programs. Importantly, the indicators and approach can easily be adapted for cross-cultural monitoring and performance reporting for other landscapes and threatening processes in Kakadu, as well as for other jointly managed parks across Australia.
Surveying large areas in remote parts of Australia can be challenging and there is a need to turn what can seem an intractable management problem into an achievable solution. This problem was tackled through this project through developing an approach that directly empowered local people to harness the capabilities of digital technologies, in order to respond to complex environmental management issues in a coordinated, long term and measurable way. At Nardab and at Jarrangbarnmi, the research team, Traditional Owners and rangers developed Indigenous-led and ethical ways to design and apply innovative technologies to solve some of the complex environmental management problems facing each area.
Bangalang, N.-g., Nadji, J., Nayinggul, A., Nadji, S., Nayinggul, A., Dempsey, S., Mangiru, K., Dempsey, J., McCartney, S., Mairi Macdonald, J. and Robinson, C.J. (2022), Understanding Indigenous values and priorities for wetlands to guide weed management actions: Lessons from the Nardab floodplain in northern Australia’s Kakadu National Park. Ecol Manag Restor, 23: 105-116. https://doi.org/10.1111/emr.12542
Macdonald, J.M., Robinson, C.J., Perry, J., Lee, M., Barrowei, R., Coleman, B., Markham, J., Barrowei, A., Markham, B., Ford, H., Douglas, J., Hunter, J., Gayoso, E., Ahwon, T., Cooper, D., May, K., Setterfield, S.A & Douglas., M.M. 2021. Indigenous-led responsible innovation: lessons from co-developed protocols to guide the use of drones to monitor a biocultural landscape in Kakadu National Park, Australia, Journal of Responsible Innovation, DOI: 10.1080/23299460.2021.1964321
The Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub addressed key research questions to come up with practical, on-ground solutions to some of the north’s most complex environmental challenges. A transdisciplinary research approach has been at the heart of the hub. Integrating key research users – policy-makers and land managers including Traditional Owners and ranger groups – into the co-design of research projects has led to rapid uptake of research outcomes into land management practices and decision-making. The hub has produced this wrap-up video outlining these impacts from the perspectives of research users.
Robinson, C.J., Macdonald, J.M., Douglas, M., Perry, J., Setterfield, S., Cooper, D., Lee, M., Nadji, J., Nadji, S., Nayinggul, A., Nayinggul, A., Mangiru, K., Hunter, F., Coleman, B., Barrowei, R., Markham, J. Alderson, J., Moyle, F., May, K., and Bangalang, N. 2021. Using knowledge to care for country: Indigenous-led evaluations of research to adaptively co-manage Kakadu National Park, Australia. Sustain Sci (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-021-01015-9
Indigenous people face many challenges in managing their lands, including rapidly growing threats causing species extinctions and ecosystem losses. In response, many Indigenous groups are looking for ethical ways to design and apply innovative technologies to solve complex environmental management problems—specifically, technology that can work with Indigenous people’s stewardship practices and knowledge.
NESP researchers have built on long-term collaborations with Bininj Traditional Owners to develop and apply Bininj indicators of cultural-ecosystem health for the floodplains. These indicators are being used to identify priority areas for targeted para grass control and monitor the effectiveness of treatments.
Kakadu NESP Team Eureka Prize for STEM Inclusion finalists.
NESP researchers have built on long-term collaborations with Bininj/Mungguy Traditional Owners to develop and apply Bininj/Mungguy indicators of cultural-ecosystem health for the floodplains. These indicators are being used to identify priority areas for targeted para grass control and monitor the effectiveness of treatments.
Dr Robinson was supported by researchers from The University of Western Australia, Charles Darwin University, CSIRO and by Bininj/Mungguy Traditional Owners and rangers.
Cathy Robinson, CSIRO