Indigenous knowledge of rivers – a resource for scientists and managers

River management is often about maximizing outcomes for different interests. Irrigators want water for their crops and conservationists want to protect native species. But how do Indigenous needs and knowledge fit in?

In a fairly straightforward sense aquatic ecosystems are an important resource for Indigenous people. They provide bush foods, art and craft materials and medicines. They also have the potential to sustain future water-related businesses and employment. Related to this, and perhaps harder to quantify, rivers are also part of a socially and culturally significant freshwater landscape.

Farmers on the Daly River may want to extract water for irrigation. Photo courtesy TRaCK.

Farmers on the Daly River may want to extract water for irrigation. Photo courtesy TRaCK.

Related to these values is a body of ecological knowledge referred to as “Indigenous ecological knowledge” (IEK).  This refers to a cumulative body of knowledge and beliefs handed down through generations about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment.

Some scientists and Indigenous communities in northern Australia have started recording this knowledge in written and pictorial forms*. They have also quantified Indigenous people’s natural resource use (such as fishing).

One system of recording knowledge that has proved popular is the “seasonal calendar”. These are pictorial representations of the different seasons recognized by a community. For example the Ngan’gi Seasons calendar (found here), captures the knowledge of the Indigenous communities from Pine Creek and Naiuyu Nambiyu in the Daly River catchment (Northern Territory). It shows four to five seasons that fall within the Wet, eight to nine seasons that fall within the Dry and a couple of the seasons that fall into both the Wet and Dry categories.

The coming of the Dry season is the peak time for hunting Anganggurr (Freshwater prawn).

The coming of the Dry season is the peak time for hunting Anganggurr (Freshwater prawn).

Seasons are named in accordance with the various life stages of the dominant Wurr (Spear Grass). Each of these seasons is said to occur once the event related to the grass has been observed. There are fewer distinct seasons during the Wet as flooding limits access to hunting grounds and also observations about changes to grasses.

The seasonal calendar reveals extensive phenological knowledge (relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena). This includes the observation of life-cycle changes in plant and animal species that indicate the timing of the onset of growth stages in aquatic resource species, linguistic references to these events, concepts of time as they relate to seasonal change, and spiritual beliefs about cause and effect of season change.

For example the Dry is considered to be coming when Wurr stalks start to die and turn a reddish colour. This is the peak time for hunting Anganggurr (Freshwater Prawn) in the river and creeks. It is Ayiwisi (dragonflies) that indirectly bring the wind in the early Dry as their arrival wakes Agurri (the big Black Kangaroo) who then sings the wind, blowing it from the east. This indicates to people that it is time to fish for Atyalmerr (Barramundi) near the mouths of small creeks.

Dragonflies such as these can herald the arrival of the dry season. Photo by Bil Higham.

Dragonflies such as these can herald the arrival of the dry season. Photo by Bill Higham.

Significantly, this work also reveals that Indigenous people take their cues from some ecological observations that fall outside the realm of orthodox scientific knowledge. For example, while Ngan’gi people know that the peeling of bark from the trunk of the Ghost Gum signals that Bull Sharks are ready to be hunted, ecologists are unlikely to arrive at such relationships. Clearer understanding of these synchronous events, and their potential for ‘decoupling’ under human disturbance, can provide new insights and tools for monitoring rivers.

The development of seasonal calendars is important as it is a means of preserving ‘culture’ including language. In a broader context it also provides a new knowledge base on how ecosystems work and how Indigenous people rely on these systems. This knowledge and quantification of  resource use can help us monitor and understand rivers better and ensure that Indigenous needs to be taken into account in river management.

Different species of turtle are important bush food in the Daly. Photo courtesy of TRaCK

Different species of turtle are important bush food in the Daly. Photo courtesy of TRaCK

*The full article on which this post is based is:

Utilising Indigenous seasonal knowledge to understand aquatic resource use and inform water resource management in northern Australia. By E. Woodward, S. Jackson, M. Finn, & P.M. McTaggart, Ecological Management & Restoration 2012, 13(1), 58-64.                                              http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1442-8903.2011.00622.x/full

Also see the Ngan’gi seasons calendar: http://www.csiro.au/resources/Ngangi-Seasonal-Calendar.html

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