Resilience and Returning to Country: Rainforest Aboriginal People of the Wet Tropics of Queensland, Australia

Australian humid tropical forest. Photo: Leanne Cullen-Unsworth

Background: Australian humid tropical forests have been recognised as globally significant natural landscapes through world heritage listing since 1988.  Aboriginal people have occupied these forests and shaped the biodiversity for at least 8000 years. The forests represent an integral part of Indigenous Australian cultural, social, religious and spiritual values. Aboriginal involvement in land management is essential to maintaining contemporary and traditional concepts of culture, and for improving the chances of resilient ‘country’. Kuku Nyungkal is one of eighteen traditional owner groups with land rights in the Wet Tropics region. Nyungkal people remain active users and managers of their lands and have recently been employed as environmental stewards to maintain essential ecosystem services. Our case study is a cooperative research example from the WTWHA where the impetus was knowledge evolution and creation to support cross-cultural natural resource management, governance whilst interrogating the concept of and enabling factors for resilience on Nyungkal country. Work was conducted in partnership with the Kuku Nyungkal Indigenous Ranger group. Our case study provides insight into the adaptive capacity of a rainforest Aboriginal tribe who have maintained or retraced their traditional connection to country and for whom culture, traditional and contemporary, remains strong. Some conditions that enable country resilience include: Rainforest Aboriginal peoples’ governance of country; their shaping of the heritage discourse to incorporate and manage biocultural diversity; active Aboriginal environmental stewardship on traditional lands; and returning to or reconnecting with country. Culture needs to be supported and strengthened and Aboriginal cultural heritage must be protected by the traditional stewards of the land utilising both privileged traditional and contemporary knowledge and methods. By building social capital and maintaining natural capital, the Kuku Nyungkal rangers are creating for themselves improved chances of resilience to current and future global challenges.

Leanne Cullen-Unsworth

About the author: Leanne has a B.Sc. in Marine Biology from Newcastle University, a M.Sc. in Marine Environmental Protection from Bangor University and a Ph.D. from Essex University. After completing a CSIRO postdoctoral fellowship in Australia, Leanne returned to the UK to take up a Research Fellowship within the newly formed Sustainable Places Research Institute (PLACE) at Cardiff University. Her role involves the development of a research package around mobilities, flows and migration – of people, knowledge, resources, and more –in order to understand the impacts of such flows and implications for sustainability. Leanne’s research focuses on linked social-ecological systems, recently within a terrestrial context (the Wet Tropical Rainforest of Queensland); but her background is within the marine sciences. Leanne is interested in the threats posed to livelihoods and the economy, food security and lifestyles from a changing global environment. She is also interested in mitigation, adaptation and human behavioural changes within linked physical, social and ecological systems and in the development of socio-economically appropriate conservation and sustainable use policy. She is skilled in community engagement and cooperative research and has experience in place-based research/learning approaches. Co-development of solutions to resource problems using a variety of mixed methodological approaches is also a strong interest of hers. Leanne has had extensive experience working with Indigenous peoples in remote areas of Indonesia and Australia particularly around joint management and governance of natural resources. Other research interests include: economic valuation of natural resources; resource use patterns; alternative livelihoods; sustainable development; biocultural resilience.

Further Publications:

  • LC Cullen-Unsworth, J Pretty & DJ Smith (2011). Developing Community-Derived Indicators of the Economic Impact of Conservation Management in the Coral Triangle. Ocean and Coastal Management doi: 10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2011.03.004
  • R Hill, LC Cullen-Unsworth, LD Talbot & S McIntyre (Accepted 2010). Empowering Indigenous     peoples’ biocultural diversity through world heritage cultural landscapes: A case study from the Australian tropical forests. International Journal of Heritage Studies
  • LC Cullen-Unsworth, JRA Butler, R Hill & Wallace M (2010). Cooperative Research: An Example from Far North Queensland. International Journal of Integrated Social Sciences 5 (6): 139-154.
  • RKF Unsworth, LC Cullen, JN Pretty, DJ Smith & JJ Bell (2010) Economic and subsistence values of the standing stocks of seagrass fisheries: potential benefits of no-fishing marine protected area management. Ocean and Coastal Management 53 (5-6): 218-224.
  • RKF Unsworth & LC Cullen (2010) Recognising the Necessity for Seagrass Conservation. Conservation Letters 3 (2): 63-73.
  • K Maclean & LC Cullen (2009) Research methodologies for the co-production of knowledge for environmental management in Australia. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 39 (4): 205-208.
  • LC Cullen, JRA Butler, R Hill & C Margules (2008) Framework for the identification of linked socio-cultural and biophysical indicators for the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability 4 (2): 37-46.
  • SE Pilgrim, LC Cullen, DJ Smith & J Pretty (2008) Ecological Knowledge is Lost in Wealthier Communities and Countries. Environmental Science and Technology 42 (4): 1004-1009.
  • LC Cullen, SE Pilgrim, DJ Smith & J Pretty (2007) The Loss of Local Ecological Knowledge as it relates to Changes in Economic Status: consequences for sustainable self-management of marine natural resources. International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 2 (1): 289-299.
  • SE Pilgrim, LC Cullen, DJ Smith and J Pretty (2007) Hidden Harvest or Hidden Revenue? The effect of economic development pressures on local resource use in a remote region of southeast   Sulawesi, Indonesia. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge 6 (1): 150-159.