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Opinion And World View: The Making Of The Australian Continent

"The Australian Aborigines had a material and spiritual life of abundance. This was not mere chance—they made their lives through providential management of country and they aligned their lives in balance between a spiritual orientation to the land and a low-impact hunting and gathering economy,'' declares Paul W Newbury.

Today, I write about a book that in 2011, I added to my list of valuable resources regarding Indigenous issues - The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia. Author, Bill Gammage is historian and adjunct professor in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra. The book was published by Allen & Unwin in 2011.

Gammage advances a proposition that the Australian continent has changed since 1788. He argues that Aboriginal people created the continent of Australia through precise firing of the landscape. Their practices showed long-term planning and traditional burning produced a mosaic of patches of country at various stages of recovery that greatly improved prospects for hunting. Gammage asserts that this is possession in its most fundamental sense.

Much has changed since the 1788 invasion – topsoil has blown away; salt has risen to the surface because of the removal of trees in riverine areas like the Murray-Darling Basin; and soil has compacted through the introduction of cloven-footed animals. In 1788, Australia had much more grass, much less undergrowth and fewer trees in open areas.

The cessation of burning and animals imported by the British have caused once soaking rains to run off compacted soil, scouring gullies and causing erosion. After dispossession, the Aboriginal mark on the continent diminished markedly. Constitutional recognition of the prior possession of Indigenous peoples and their prime place in our society, belated though it might be, should be a source of pride in belonging to a progressive nation.

Most of Australia was burnt every one to five years depending on local conditions and most fires were lit in summer. Gammage’s thesis is that cessation of burning by Aboriginal land managers after the invasion led to a discernible increase in tree cover over large parts of Australia.

The Dreaming is a comprehensive view of the world and songlines were the basis of land distribution among the people. Songlines are stories that follow the path along which a creator ancestor moved to bring country into being and they crisscross Australia linking people separated by thousands of kilometres. Songlines are a map, a compass and a calendar for food gathering.

Before 1788, the people had ample spare time and much of that was spent nourishing the mind and soul in totemic practices, ceremony and ritual. After the invasion, the people tried to continue their spiritual and ecological life but loss of access to their sacred places caused them considerable loss of wellbeing.

The Australian Aborigines had a material and spiritual life of abundance. This was not mere chance—they made their lives through providential management of country and they aligned their lives in balance between a spiritual orientation to the land and a low-impact hunting and gathering economy.

One of the attractions of this book is that the author provides 60 plates of art of places that were painted soon after European settlers arrived and he contrasts these with recent photographs. These comparative studies show much increased numbers of trees and extent of undergrowth since the invasion.

Gammage concludes his massive work, ‘We have a continent to learn. If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become as Australian as the Aboriginal people of 1788 and beyond were’.

The Australian Government’s Indigenous Protected Program (IPA) and the Working on Country program recognise that Indigenous Australians have managed their country for tens of thousands of years. An IPA is an area of Indigenous-owned land or waters where traditional owners have entered into an agreement with the Australian Government to promote biodiversity and natural resource conservation while enhancing Indigenous cultural practices and the passing on of knowledge to coming generations.

Since the 1990s, twenty-five IPAs have been declared throughout Australia covering more than 20 million hectares. They help to rejuvenate country, protect Indigenous culture and foster strong Indigenous communities. Federal funding under the IPA program supports land management, revegetation, and weed, feral animal and wildfire control.

The Working on Country program employs Aboriginal people to work as rangers on their land. Indigenous caring for country programs are a reciprocal relationship between people and country that accords with the saying used by Indigenous peoples, “If you look after country, country will look after you”.

Caring for Country programs have broad outcomes: they support Indigenous people to live on country; they help keep culture strong; they provide economic opportunity; they contribute to health and education; and they encourage social cohesion.

I believe non-Indigenous Australians can find identity and a sense of belonging to this land based on the ecological underpinnings of Indigenous cultures. We too can become nurturers of the earth.

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