Indigenous Land and Food Knowledge: Where Cultures Combine, Collaborate and Create

21 February 2017

Learning about magnetic termite  mounds and Country.
Learning about magnetic termite mounds and Country.

Indigenous Land and Food Knowledge: Where Cultures Combine, Collaborate and Create

Enrolments are now open for students to participate in a thoroughly engaging, thought provoking and immersive learning experience that is the unit of study in Indigenous Land and Food Knowledge. The unit is open to senior undergraduate students in the Faculties of Science, Arts and Social Sciences, Education and Social Work, and the University of Sydney Business School, as well as postgraduate students in the Masters of Agriculture and Environment.

During the mid-year break in 2016, nine students from the University of Sydney took up an unforgettable opportunity to visit, learn from and develop relationships with Indigenous farmers, business owners and operators, academics and community members in Darwin, Katherine and Kununurra as part of this intensive unit of study. The 2016 cohort of students and staff that participated have provided some insights into their experience to encourage others to take up the challenge and get involved this year.

'This intensive unit of study is designed as a reciprocal educational experience. 2016 was the first time we offered the unit and we couldn't have hoped for a better start,' said Dr Peter Ampt, one of the key developers of the unit of study from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

The students, along with five staff members from Agriculture and Environment worked with educational partners in northern Australia to get a feel for the types of Indigenous enterprises that are operating in the area, and to understand the challenges and opportunities these businesses and communities face.

'The outcomes from the unit of study have been incredibly positive. The students and staff have benefitted immensely from learning about a diverse range of enterprises, and they have deepened their understanding and appreciation of the culture that underpins the people behind these operations. Our hosts are also receiving a range of positive outcomes in the way of fresh ideas, analyses and suggestions from our students,' said Dr Ampt.

The participating students were from a diverse range of degrees in the Faculties of Science; Arts and Social Sciences; Education and Social Work; Engineering and Information Technologies and Health Sciences. Their degrees include social work, nutrition and dietetics, science in agriculture, agricultural economics, resource economics, environmental systems and postgraduate research in environmental engineering.

'The group had an excellent mix of social, environmental, agricultural and economic viewpoints, backgrounds and experience and everyone brought something to the mix, making for a great team dynamic,' Peter said.

Students around a majestic boab  tree in Kununurra.
Students around a majestic boab tree in Kununurra.

On their first day, the students participated in cross-cultural training with Dr Payi Linda Ford, a Senior Research Fellow from Charles Darwin University.

'The students were provided with an amazing introduction to Indigenous land and food knowledge and how culture, traditions, stories and environmental science intertwine to deepen our understanding and experience of the world around us. Dr Ford, a traditional owner, took us to some of the places she grew up in and gave us some insights into the ecology of the area and how the environmental systems operate. Dr Ford also revealed to us how stories that have been told for generations tell us about management, conservation and the history of this environment,' said Dr Ampt.

'As a lecturer, I can vouch for the importance of field work in our scientific learning at university, and this experience heightened the importance of field work and being on Country to improve understanding and to put stories, teaching and knowledge in context. Thousands of years of observation, monitoring and learning comes to life in this atmospheric learning space.

This training provided students with a deeper understanding of Aboriginal culture in this region. It also helped them consider their own culture, and the cultural practices of others, and how this influences and underpins our thinking and the way we approach certain tasks,' Peter said.

A key assessment task for the intensive unit is a feasibility study. The study must be consultative and address specific needs identified by the communities involved. The students came up with a comprehensive list of 43 ideas for projects they could address but whittled this down to three exciting and valuable projects which they worked on in small teams.

One group looked at the commercialisation of Boab trees as a niche food product.

'The Boab tree is a unique part of Northern Australia which intrigues onlookers due to its distinctive shape. The large nuts of the Boab tree have been part of Indigenous peoples' diet for millennia and also turned into pieces of art once carved. These facts are somewhat known to tourists, however, little is known on the nutritional benefits that the Boab tubers and leaves offer. A Boab leaf can reach an iron content of around 26 milligrams per 100 grams. Noting that an average piece of steak contains 3 milligrams per 100 grams, the benefits speak for themselves. Once the general public is aware of the value these Boab leaves and tubers possess, the market will expand significantly, ultimately providing local communities with a sustainable means of supporting themselves and living on Country,' said group member and Science in Agriculture student, Josh Loughlin.

'There are some commercial Boab seedling farms in operation now near Kununurra. The tap roots, or tubers of the seedlings, and the leaves are amazing food products. The tubers have a similar taste and texture to water chestnuts and can be used in so many different ways to provide something new, interesting and innovative to the food industry. We want to suggest how to use and market this uniquely Australian product,' said Josh.

Students learning how to grade  tomatoes at Kalano farm, Katherine
Students learning how to grade tomatoes at Kalano farm, Katherine

'Boab trees have been used traditionally for food, water, medicine, rope, shelter and art, and they are an icon of the Kimberley region. Our group is looking at developing the traditional connections with Boab trees and coming up with a plan to commercialise this living fossil into modern food products that have an appeal in mainstream and tourist markets. We want to attend to the socioeconomic factors associated with this enterprise and consider how best to operate a business in a remote community, enabling residents to work and live on Country and support the financial sustainability of their community,' said another group member, Liberal Arts and Sciences student, Yvette Van der Have.

Another feasibility study will look into the options for value-adding to an existing fresh tomato enterprise.

'Kalano Farms is a highly successful business near Kalano, a community near Katherine, that grows tomatoes and corn. We are developing some ideas for the company centred on the use of their imperfect tomatoes that are currently wasted. Perhaps there is an opportunity for delicious tomato juice that can be marketed to tourists, or Aussie tomato paste. Our group is also making suggestions about where these products might be sold,' said Science, Nutrition and Metabolism student, Lesley Bryant.

Another project stemming from Kalano Farms is a marketing strategy to improve sales of their fresh produce, and to increase the appeal for local employment.

'All the produce from Kalano Farms goes to Woolworths in Katherine, and the Farm Manager is hoping to expand the enterprise to supply tomatoes across the Northern Territory, so here's where our university learning is going to combine with our new knowledge of the company, the area and the community culture to provide a strategic plan the company can work with to achieve their goals,' said group member and Environmental Systems student, Carna Feldtmann.

'We would also like to consider how the farm could market itself to the local community and encourage more locals to work with them. Currently, there are around 25 local people working at the farm and they work across all aspects of horticulture. Kalano Farms could definitely use more staff, so our project is considering how to market the business to potential employees, and how to market Kalano's on-the-job training programs that provide skills and know-how to locals. The company is keen to develop a work culture that gives job satisfaction and generates pride for the employees and their families, and we want to work with the company on strategies to develop the internal cohesion and pride in working there,' said Carna.

The Kalano community has identified the importance of having interesting, meaningful, technical and skilled work to encourage young people into this business or related industries, and that will also enable them to stay in the Kalano township.

The students are delivering final versions of their feasibility studies to the communities involved this year and provided a preview of this to their peers at a debrief session, which also incorporated a tour and talk about the history of the La Perouse area by Elder and Historian, Dr Peter McKenzie. The students were also required to complete a critical reflection of each day of their journey. They considered what they saw, how they reacted to what they saw, identified opportunities and challenges.

'Being surrounded by people who love what they do is inspiring, and listening to people talk about their own experiences and struggles and passions and knowledge provided me with a unique foundation for my own story. Being immersed in such a different environment really opened my eyes. I am extremely thankful for the opportunity to go out and to learn first-hand about Indigenous culture and values, and to bring that home to my own friends and family and share that information,' said Yvette Van der Have.

Josh Loughlin: 'This unit provided me with not only invaluable factual and anecdotal information for my studies, but also unforgettable personal memories formed in the rich cultural land of our Indigenous landowners. As David Newry (Molly Springs traditional owner) so poignantly pointed out,'we live in the same place, we should respect each other'.

Students explained the impact this unit of study had had on their world views, their understanding of Indigenous Australia, and their future studies and professions.

'This experience was most certainly life-changing and, after returning from the trip, I can see how it will impact my current university studies and my future social work practice. It was really great to have the opportunity to actually impact the lives of the people that we met and I am excited to hear what happens next,' said Social Work student, Sophie Lenton.

'I have felt my worldview shifting slowly. Indigenous Land and Food Knowledge has taught me that there is no'right way' to develop communities and build upon life - but the best way is to collaborate with as much of humanity as possible,' said Resource Economics student, Justin Pepito.

'The knowledge and experiences gained from Indigenous Land and Food Knowledge have channelled my interest towards a future career working with Indigenous communities to improve health outcomes through nutrition and diet. This is not what I expected I would do as I embarked on my Nutrition ad Metabolism studies and I am excited to take this direction,' said Lesley Bryant.

The feedback from students speaks to the success of this unit's debut and will be utilised to improve the experience for this year's cohort.

'For many of the students, this trip was a new experience and was the first time they had visited a remote community. Perhaps this experience will get our students thinking about working with remote communities, or sharing these positive experiences with their friends, family and university peers. We are looking forward to relaying the well-considered assessment pieces of the students, their findings and suggestions to our community contacts. The students' critical reflections will also help us build upon and improve the unit of study to enable another group of students to have this incredibly valuable experience,' said unit developer, Dr Peter Ampt.

'The University of Sydney could play a pivotal role in creating meaningful, long term projects that operate in the spirit of consultation and seeking better outcomes for all involved. We want to work on true knowledge exchange. There is so much we have learnt from the communities up north, and we hope that we can also share our knowledge, thoughts and experience in a way that is useful for and usable by the communities. Far too often there is a'fly in, fly out' feel to visiting communities and we don't want to take knowledge without giving some of our knowledge back, and we also want to ensure the relationships we have established are continued and developed,' Peter said.

Enrolments are currently open for 2017 and last year's students have a message for those considering this unit as part of their degree.

"This unit of study offers a fantastic opportunity to engage with a range of Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals and entities to discuss the challenges and opportunities for social and economic development in Northern Australia. You get to be creative and work with other students to explore new ways to support communities. Oh, and it's great fun too!' said Lesley Bryant.

"Indigenous Land and Food Knowledge offered me life experiences that money cannot buy. The trip is designed to provide students with a chance to understand how things work in the top end, with a focus on Indigenous peoples and the various ways these traditional landowners manage and support Country. It is an opportunity that should not be missed and I encourage anyone that is half keen to bite the bullet to step out of their comfort zone!' exclaimed Josh Loughlin.

To enrol in this unit of study, please contact Dr Peter Ampt ( or Associate Professor Tina Bell ( to determine your eligibility and click here for more information on the enrolment process.