Giving back to the
The Canberra Times
Saturday, 30 September
a little time talking with Wreck Bay community elder
Darren Brown, and it's immediately clear he has a deeply
knowledgable connection to the land.
"When we were kids we learned about the bush from the
old people," he says. "They told us how you have to
treat the land with respect and always give something
back, not just take from the land all the time.
"You'd go out in the bush around here with the old
people and they'd tell you which plants were bush tucker
and which were medicine.
"So you grew up learning which plants which take the
sting away if you were bitten by bull ants, and which to
chew if you had a toothache. You learn culture by living
it, and that was how it was for us as kids around here
in the community."
Walk with ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer
through the banksia heathlands that are part of the
traditional lands of the Wreck Bay Aboriginal community
in Booderee National Park, and he's adamant that gifted
indigenous people such as Brown must be given a leading
role in Australian conservation.
"People like Darren are the future. The environment
is their passion and if they get the right
opportunities, conservation in this country will really
take off in some exciting new directions," he says.
Lindenmayer, based at the Australian National
University's Centre for Resource and Environmental
Studies, runs one of Australia's biggest fire ecology
research programs in Booderee National Park at Jervis
Bay on the NSW South Coast.
Brown, a 34-year-old elder with the Wandandian
people, is employed as a trainee fire ecologist with the
program, and is "doing brilliantly", radio-tracking
bandicoots and diamond pythons to help researchers
establish home range and habitat use. He's a valued and
popular team member, and when Lindenmayer and his
research team publish several academic papers later this
year on the Jervis Bay program, Brown will be among the
co-authors. Lindenmayer says, "He's done the research,
he's made the observations and he'll get the credit for
The Jervis Bay Fire Response Study is a pioneering
research project funded by the Australian Research
Council. Covering 110 sites throughout the park, it's
the first program to track the impact of bushfire on
birds, mammals and reptiles.
"Darren was working as a parks ranger and applied for
a traineeship with the fire program," Lindenmayer says.
"He was an absolute standout because of his skills, his
knowledge and his passion for the environment. Passion
is everything. That's why Steve Irwin made such an
impression on people."
Like thousands of Aboriginal children, Brown says he
experienced a bewildering and "shaming" conflict between
the state education system and the daily life and
cultural values of his people.
"It was learning on the run, with an education system
that set Aboriginal kids up to fail.
"So much of what the teachers talked about in the
classroom had no connection with our lives - it was like
learning about another planet. A lot of it was about
colonisation - the history of people like Captain Cook
was told to the class as if the Aboriginal people didn't
exist. That's confusing for a little kid.
"You imagine being an Aboriginal kid in that class,
and you're thinking, 'What about my people? Don't we
matter? Are we nothing? Why doesn't the teacher mention
"We couldn't make any connection to what we were
being told to learn. It was so remote from who we were
and how we lived, so the message you take away from that
as a little kid is that you don't fit in and maybe
you'll never fit in.
"The other day, one of my little stepdaughters
brought home a school assignment on bush rats, and I
thought, 'This is great. Why didn't I get school
assignments like this?"'
Earlier this year, Lindenmayer made a moral decision
- and a bold political statement - about the scarcity of
funds for indigenous environmental training programs. At
a black-tie dinner in Melbourne, he was announced as the
winner of the inaugural DaimlerChrysler Australian
Environmental Research Award - set up to honour
leadership in environmental research - for a 10-year
research project at Buccleuch State Forest near Tumut.
It looked at the impact of land clearing on native
wildlife and led to a revision of the codes of practice
for establishing pine plantations in NSW.
Annoyed by bureaucratic delays in processing a
funding application, Lindenmayer decided to use the
$30,000 prize to pay for Brown to continue his training
as a fire ecologist. He'd been "unable to budge" the
federal Department of Transport and Regional Services -
responsible for administering Jervis Bay as an
Australian territory - to provide funding for Brown's
"They were stuffing us around and I was planning to
use book royalties to keep Darren's position going," he
Brown says he was " really, really humbled" when he
heard the news.
"Yeah, it meant a lot that David had faith in me and
he could understand some of the pressures Aboriginal
people deal with in continuing their education."
Brown talks candidly about early difficulties in his
life - family poverty, getting into trouble at school as
a teenager, a youthful slide into the underworld of
alcohol and drug addiction, teenage fatherhood and a
recent battle with depression.
He says, "If you're an Aboriginal kid trying to learn
things in school that have no connection to your life,
you get bored - just like any kid. Then you're a
troublemaker, and your friends are troublemakers. It
goes on from there. I talk about these things openly
because I want young Aboriginal people to know I haven't
got to where I am now by always behaving like a saint.
"There are a lot of young people who are scarred by
what they've gone through and I want to say to them,
'Hey bro, my life was no different to yours. I can do
it, you can do it.' You can deal with the bad stuff and
put it behind you."
Brown left school to work as a trainee
horticulturalist at the botanical gardens in Booderee
National Park, and later moved across to work as a parks
"I started in the gardens, working with my uncles and
learning about the local plants. I knew the cultural
names, but I had to learn the botanical names. I always
wanted to work in the park. It didn't make sense to look
for work outside because my community was here and the
work was here."
Professor Arthur Georges, head of the University of
Canberra's faculty of applied ecology, has worked on
conservation projects with indigenous people in northern
Australian for almost three decades. "We need to involve
more Aboriginal people in conservation, but government
frameworks must be more flexible if we're going to give
communities better access to meaningful education," he
says. "That's the key - meaningful education. If we can
open up more conservation opportunities for Aboriginal
people, it'll pave the way for some incredible changes.
They'll be bringing in fresh perspectives from a richer
connection with the land."
Georges says he believes many of the social problems
affecting Aboriginal communities in northern Australia
are caused by disempowerment and despair. "It's a
terrible struggle for many people, particularly young
people who can't see a future. Is it any wonder they tip
over the edge into despair? You've got to be really
strong to get through some of the problems they
encounter. The ones that do make it through are pretty
According to a national report by the Australian
Legal Information Institute, there are few opportunities
for continuing employment of Aboriginal people in
It emphasises the importance of distance learning to
allow trainees to spend time in home communities and
advocates competence-based assessment " rather than
The report warns that future employment "is somewhat
doubtful", as funding is uncertain. Many Aboriginal
ranger-training programs don't "provide much scope for
full-time employment, except at unemployment benefit
The report concludes, "It would be a great pity if
some arrangement could not be made to facilitate the
continued employment of these people [Aboriginal
community rangers], in recognition of the important
environmental protection work they are doing, not only
for their own communities but for the benefit of the
Both Georges and Lindenmayer say the situation
doesn't make sense given that Aboriginal communities own
about one-fifth of Australia.
"Given their experience, their cultural heritage and
the amount of land they control, Aboriginal people have
a big role to play in conservation throughout this
country," Georges says.
"I think what David has done by donating his award to
furthering indigenous education is really important. It
acknowledges that there are many dimensions to
Lindenmayer says working with Brown "cuts two ways as
a learning process".
"It's an eye-opener for me. We're just not doing
enough to connect with the incredible knowledge
Aboriginal people have about the environment. They are
fantastically skilled, but we don't acknowledge it, and
we lack the educational opportunities that will further
develop and use these skills.
"We've got to have educational opportunities that
will recognise and honour cultural differences. With the
kind of social and emotional pressures most Aboriginal
communities are facing, you can't have the kind of
inflexible tertiary courses that insist on people
turning up to class every day or getting assignments in
"If someone dies in an Aboriginal community, the
community withdraws and everyone goes though a ritual of
grief. You can't have an educational system that won't
take those moral and cultural obligations into account."
Brown says working with Lindenmayer has enriched his
cultural perspectives by "bringing in the science to
broaden out the picture".
He's helping an Albury-based researcher with the
Jervis Bay project gather data on diamond pythons for a
master's thesis, and has enrolled in a
distance-education diploma in conservation management.
When that's completed, he wouldn't mind having a shot at
doing a master's degree based around some of the work
he's been doing in Booderee National Park.
"I think David can see the merit in supporting
indigenous people in environmental issues and education
- that's important, and I really thank him for that. The
work I'm doing now is really interesting and I've got a
change to give knowledge back to the community. My kids
are really proud of what I'm doing, and want to be part
of it and hear stories about what I'm doing.
"The elders here always told us that we don't own the
land, it owns us. Learning about mammal trapping,
learning all the different bird calls and frog calls,
the botanical names of the flowers brings in another
dimension to the cultural connection to the land.
"It's like there's so much to lean that you could
keep on learning forever. I don't want to become a
walking dictionary on the different plants and animals,
but it's fascinating to learn the science of how
everything is interconnected in the different
"I love it and I want the learning to go on forever".