Opinion

Reflecting on ‘Indigenous Sustainability Practices and Processes’

“Sustainability practices and processes entangle culture through traditional foods. With access to country and maintenance of customary economies, there are opportunities for human flourishing, animal and plant restoration.”

'Middens of Cloudy Bay, Bruny Island: Lunch wrappers from 30,000 years ago?' By Anthony Bacon, via Flickr Commons.

Indigenous Sustainability Practices and Processes was a national reconciliation week event presented by SEI in collaboration with the Sydney Ideas and the Food Wastage Fighters Society. For more details on the event, click here.

With the 2018 theme of ‘Don’t keep history a mystery: learn, share and grow’ in mind, mid-Reconciliation Week the Great Lecture Hall filled for presentations by David King, Dr Margaret Raven, and Cressida Rigney. Each brought to life lessons the first peoples of Australia have to contribute to maintaining the sustainability of food production, animal, plant and human well-being on the continent. The thread throughout was attending to interconnections: understanding the role that land, creatures, plants and waste have in and on the system.

While sustainability seems to most importantly be about how we maintain production to support citizens, and commerce, how we deal with, imagine, and orient practices around waste play a vital role in sustainability. And was on the domain of garbage – or more precisely the repurposing of ‘leftovers’ or the ‘unwanted’ – that David King and Cressida Rigney focussed, while Margaret Raven brought attention to how imported species of plant and more particularly animals lay waste to the land.

There was no such thing as ‘bin night’ in traditional Aboriginal practices – rather, David King (Gundungurra Aboriginal elder, member of The Gully Traditional Owners and 2015 Bushcare Legend of the Year) told us, his people had practices that sustained productivity for thousands of years. And these practices include a philosophy that creates a purpose, a functioning for everything. This philosophy of sustainability was core when he and his community set about restoring The Gully environment in the Blue Mountains. They repurposed exotic plant species removed from the habitat. Willows were dried and formed into structures to protect the fragile swamp regeneration. African Lovegrass, ripped from the ground, dried and stitched into coir logs to hold the soils in place as native species regenerated.

Cressida Rigney brought our attention to the ancient middens that dot the coastlines and rivers across Australia. These are ‘garbage dumps’ of long past meals. Added to by successive harvesters of the shellfish beds and fisheries that supplied their contents, they were more than garbage. The shells maintain the soil health – calcium protects the soil from salination, the shells aerate and add volume to it. And the middens left messages to subsequent fishers signalling what species to leave, to allow the fishery to recover.  They signal practices that drove sustainable harvesting. If one species dominated the top layers of the midden, a different species would be chosen by the next gathers.

This theme of practices of protection and sustainable harvesting ran through David King’s presentation too – he was taught as a youngster that you only take when there is abundance. No abundance, you walk on past and find something else, so there will be sufficient food next year. The same with kangaroos, selective killing ensured the species thrived, and the ÔlarderÕ was full year-on-year.

Land management practices, as hinted to above with the middens, are integral to sustainability. David King indicated his people have a comprehensive understanding of the interconnectedness of land, vegetation, animal and birdlife. Damage and destruction in one part of the system consequentially disrupt others. Maintaining the integrity of the whole is vital to his sustainability practice and process. If species die out, and habitats are lost, human wellbeing is put at risk.

The integrity of that whole thought is disrupted by the exotic animals and plants that form the backbone of Australian commercial agricultural practices. The ancient soils compacted by the hooves of sheep and beef cattle, habitat loss, and soil chemistry altered by the expanse of grain farming.

Margaret Raven focused our attention on the way these introduced species underscore the endemic racism of the global food system. Indigenous food rejected by preferred ‘cosmopolitan’ foods. So while the abundance of the continent sustained well over 2000 generations of Aboriginal Peoples –  and the early European settlers when supply ships failed to arrive – these foods have been supplanted others. Why she asked, are we unable to buy native Australian vegetables, fruits, and meat in the supermarket? And with the industrialisation of food production, so we have industrialised waste management.

Waste is Margaret Raven told us, an ironic testament to our desire to forget. Instead of repurposing our waste as a means to protect country, encourage growth, signal sustainability practices, it is swept away to out-of-sight landfills. Sunk in holes, it produces leachates that seep into waterways and gases that escape into the atmosphere.

When Aboriginal people were removed from Country so too was their ability to protect and sustain the plants and animals. Sustaining the system, the complex whole that David King explained is essential for all to flourish, has been undermined. So modern agricultural practice lays waste to land, plant, animal, fowl and human.

Our return to sustainability has paths personal and large scale. On a personal level, all three presenters in entirely different ways suggest we must be present to waste. Waste signals to us what we must leave, what we have had, and where it fits within the ecosystem. Our responsibility lies in understanding its utility and in finding positive utilities.

On the larger scale, Margaret Raven suggests if she were a benevolent dictator, cattle, sheep, and wheat would be banished to restore the land, animals, plants and Aboriginal wellbeing.

Sustainability practices and processes entangle culture through traditional foods. With access to country and maintenance of customary economies, there are opportunities for human flourishing, animal and plant restoration. A market-based approach might include regionally-based access and benefits to Aboriginal people with species sharing agreements allowing harvesting of species that exist across multiple Indigenous nations, and the benefits shared.

This was a night of richly nuanced, funny and practical conversations. An ode to revisiting practices and processes that have sustained species and land for millennia. A petition to seriously engage in a clear-sighted examination of inadequate modern practice. An opportunity to keep history alive, to learn, share and grow.


Dr Christine Winter is a former SEI PhD Candidate from the Department of Government and International Relations, The University of Sydney. Christine’s PhD research critiqued claims that existing Western justice theories are universal, and sought to decolonise intergenerational environmental justice theory by examining some Aboriginal and Māori philosophies.