Existing natural hazards training is inadequate for remote Indigenous communities. New collaborative research has worked with Indigenous communities to develop training units that support and reinforce land management capabilities across northern Australia.
The management of natural hazards in northern Australian communities – spanning across northern Queensland, Northern Territory and northern Western Australia – is distinct from management required in southern Australian communities. Nearly 360,000 people, predominantly Indigenous Australians, live in communities in northern Australia that vary in remoteness from ‘outer regional’ to ‘very remote’. Bushfire damage alone affects an average of 430,000km2 of this land each year, while floods, cyclones and storms are frequent and widespread, disrupting communities that are regularly inaccessible by road and often more than 150km from the nearest hospital.
In addition to the specific geographical context, there are social and cultural contexts to consider that may differ from those in southern or less remote communities. For example, Indigenous communities see fire management and the subsequent response from the natural environment as intertwined, spiritually and physically, where bushfire is often seen as the result of immoral fire management techniques earlier in the season. Here, tailored and culturally sensitive natural hazard management – that recognises different needs and worldviews – is crucial to keeping communities safe.
Keeping an Indigenous perspective in focus
In recent years, Indigenous land, fire and emergency managers in remote northern communities expressed concern that existing management training was inadequate and did not provide culturally appropriate strategies to keep communities safe. In particular, people involved in hazard management felt that training had not provided acceptable levels of knowledge that an individual or group could effectively use to then manage bushfire and other hazards at the landscape scale that is more often required in the north.
Through the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, this collaborative research has helped to directly address these concerns by providing practical support and reinforcement of capabilities (emerging and needed) in remote Indigenous communities across the north.
Led by Stephen Sutton at Charles Darwin University, the project prioritised the inclusion of Indigenous communities, leaders, ranger groups and researchers, as well as focusing on the social context of the delivery of disaster management services for remote communities. Importantly, this work considered how the power imbalances experienced in Indigenous communities are constraining the development of resilience and trust between agencies and community.
‘Most public servants would be familiar with a certain “Groundhog Day” feeling, when you are challenged to solve a long-standing problem within an annual budget cycle, so you can’t really ever get to the core of the problem because you’re just applying band-aids or worse, you’re getting it wrong,’ Stephen said.
‘To avoid this, with respect to training for Indigenous people, our research focused on asking them for their perspectives, their needs and, ultimately, their world view on managing fire and disasters in their communities. It cost a bit more up front, but the result is long-term sustainable change on the ground. We’ve learned a new way to collaborate and tackle problems along the way.’
Through several inclusive workshops held in the Northern Territory, including with Indigenous communities at Blyth River, Malanganark, Buluhkarduru and Ramingining, Stephen and his team developed a new programme of training units, each subject to detailed culturally appropriate evaluations, that successfully aligns with the aspirations and cultural preconceptions of many remote communities.
The research was all conducted ‘on Country’, with family, utilising traditional knowledge and acknowledging Traditional Owners’ rights and responsibilities, while ensuring a focus on Indigenous peoples’ connections to the land. The materials create a narrative of fire and emergency management in Australia that incorporates the oldest paradigm in the world – the land management skills and knowledge of Indigenous Australians.
‘That’s the real difference from any other project that I have seen,’ said one Elder in Malanganark in East Arnhem Land.
‘This one is different, we wanna start targeting each clan group, train them so they can be strong leaders for own family and clan, they can make their own emergency plan for their community.’
A collaborative natural hazard management training programme
The programme of ten training units is designed for delivery at the Vocational Education and Training (VET) Certificate II level, allowing for rapid delivery at a single field school over five to ten days.
Each of the ten units – some new, some building on existing training such as ranger programmes – interweaves a set of philosophical and practical understandings of landscape management from an Indigenous perspective. The styles are a blend of traditions, including the non-Indigenous pedagogy of VET, and the Bininj and Yolngu knowledge systems. Bininj is the local language term for Aboriginal people in western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, while Yolngu is the name of the Aboriginal people who live in north eastern Arnhem Land.
The training programme includes the following units:
1. Non-Indigenous and Indigenous bushfire and natural hazards management principles: acknowledging the unique Indigenous-led natural hazards management regime in the north, placing that system in the wider context of Australia’s and the international community’s approach.
2. Applying Indigenous fire management processes in north Australian contexts (local variant): exploring the local traditions and culture associated with land, fire and natural hazard management, which will obviously vary from place to place.
3. Community engagement and cultural protocols (local variant): connecting existing protocols for natural hazards management with traditional Indigenous cultural norms.
4. Fire management and the law: giving an overview of the nature of Australian law and its authority, and exploring the relevant and appropriate legislation that applies to the community within which the training is being delivered.
5. Digital mapping tools used in bushfire and natural hazards management: introducing spatial information technology through a series of discussions and practical exercises using current handheld devices and computing software.
6. Apply Standard Operating Procedures (SOP): a preliminary exploration of the concept of SOPs and why they exist, with links made to conceptual SOPs that exist within the local cultural setting.
7. Participate in debrief (local variant): including a session on the concept of feedback within the Australian natural hazards management system and why it is important.
8. Advanced situational awareness and dynamic risk assessment (local variant): providing practical examples of dynamic risk assessment and drawing out extant examples within the local context.
9. Remote tactical leadership: building bridges between the non-Indigenous and Indigenous leadership protocols, providing participants with trajectories for developing their own leadership styles within the contexts of their local communities and bushfire and natural hazards realities.
10. Develop operational work plans: exposing the reality of conducting a programme of natural hazard preparation and mitigation within the context of local culture, legislation and strategic planning.
The programme was rolled out and used by experienced members of each community, as well as throughout each clan to support knowledge sharing and intergenerational transfer: the essential passing on of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next. Research workshops and pilot training courses have further expanded the use of the programme, with evaluations showing an immediate impact in smaller remote communities, where locals have requested further training.
The programme has also been shared between communities in central and western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and with many other natural hazard and emergency management organisations around the country.
Ken Baulch, the Director of Policy and Planning at Bushfires NT, explains how important this project has been for the development of remote community resilience to bushfires and natural hazards.
‘By engaging directly with communities, including Traditional Owners and custodians and their extended families, this project has driven a cross-cultural understanding of effective leadership and decision-making for responding to a natural hazard,’ he said. ‘This has been done by explicitly valuing local, existing knowledge and capacity and then seeking to enable people to add new knowledge, approaches and understandings to that existing scaffold.’
There is also significant potential for this programme to have an ongoing impact beyond north Australia. This research highlighted the need to change the way fire is managed at a landscape level across the country, not just in northern Australia. These units – and the inclusive, flexible and family-based nature with which they were created – has the potential to assist in developing new understandings and capabilities in communities in fire-prone Australia more generally.
For more information, go to www.bnhcrc.com.au/research/hazardtraining