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Gavin Singleton
Dawul Wuru Great Barrier Reef Rangers

42 min 1 sec

Yirrganydji man Gavin Singleton is a traditional owner from Queensland’s Cairns-Port Douglas coastal region who is a passionate cultural, environmental and community development practitioner. Singleton is a project manager at the Dawul Wuru Aboriginal Corporation and coordinates the Yirrganydji Land and Sea Ranger Program and Yirrganydji Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreement. The many forums and advisory committees he has contributed to include the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Indigenous Reef Advisory Committee, Reef 2050 Indigenous Heritage Expert Group, and Cairns Regional Council’s First Peoples Advisory Committee.

Rachael Hocking is a Warlpiri woman from the Northern Territory. She is a journalist, curator and presenter who is passionate about sharing First Nations stories. She currently co-manages IndigenousX’s Our Truth, Our Way internship for aspiring journalists and storytellers. Rachael’s work can be found across Black media, from the national Indigenous newspaper Koori Mail to NITV. She is a director on the board of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma in the Asia Pacific, and Common Ground. 

The sea country of the Great Barrier Reef is facing significant stress due to climate change – warming oceans, ocean acidification and plagues of crown of thorns starfish are some of the biggest threats. The Dawul Wuru Reef Rangers apply traditional knowledge to monitor and care for this most precious ecosystem and all of its inhabitants.

Instead of going into a reef site and trying to fix it, let’s better understand that reef system. Let’s look at everything that’s happening on there, but also let’s bring in that Indigenous perspective of that reef as well.

– Gavin Singleton

If you see that environment sick or unhealthy, it reflects back on us and we reflect back on the country as well because Country and ourselves, we’re interconnected, there’s a deep relationship there, so they are an inseparable connection…Country is our reflection.

– Gavin Singleton

There’s so much diversity across that landscape, it is a cultural seascape, we have about 70 Traditional Owner groups up and down the Great Barrier Reef coast. So, that’s quite complex.

– Gavin Singleton

About 2015/16, we started to develop or run a Junior Ranger program … it allowed that community cohesion to sort of happen, but then also to educate our young people about their identity, where they’re from but then also help them in their aspirations…

– Gavin Singleton

What [the TUMRA] does, it gives Traditional Owners a seat at the table to be involved in management of their cultural activities but from a sustainable approach. So sustainability, conservation is like the big core part of it … it allows Traditional Owners to activate or exercise their law.

– Gavin Singleton

We all have a responsibility and an obligation … part of that shared responsibility is that respect for one another, respecting each other, but also, you know, working together and that partnership, which is really, really crucial.

– Gavin Singleton

Instead of going into a reef site and trying to fix it, let’s better understand that reef system. Let’s look at everything that’s happening on there, but also let’s bring in that Indigenous perspective of that reef as well.

– Gavin Singleton

Rachael Hocking

Welcome everyone to 100 Climate Conversations and thank you for joining us. Today is number 20 of 100 conversations happening every Friday. The series presents visionary Australians that are taking positive action to respond to the most critical issue of our time, which as we know, is the climate crisis. As always, I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the ancestral homelands upon which the Powerhouse museums are all situated across this Country. We respect their Elders, ancestors and recognise their sovereignty was never ceded. To the Gadigal people whose land this talk is being recorded on, I acknowledge that the colonisation of this continent started here. I acknowledge your resistance and resilience and that despite violent attempts, your cultures land and people are still here. My name is Rachel Hocking, and I’m from the Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory. I’m a Warlpiri woman. It’s a long way from home, long way from here, just like this fella. I was raised across many lands, including my own ancestral Warlpiri Country. But I’ve lived and worked on Gadigal for most of the past eight years. As a visitor, I’m grateful to the Traditional Owners and take great responsibility in listening to and respecting this place. I’ve been a journalist for around ten years, working primarily in Indigenous media across NITV and Koori Mail newspaper and most recently with IndigenousX. However, I prefer to identify as a storyteller. This more accurately describes the responsibility that I feel as a Warlpiri woman to share our people’s truths. You’ll be invited to hear some of that truth-telling in this conversation with a respected Yirrganydji man, sitting next to me, Gavin Singleton, who is a Traditional Owner of Queensland’s Cairns-Port Douglas coastal region. Gavin is a passionate cultural, environmental and community development practitioner. Singleton leads the Dawul Wuru Aboriginal Corporation. He coordinates the Yirrganydji Land and Sea Ranger Program and Yirrganydji traditional use of marine resources agreement. We’re privileged to have him join us today. Please put your hands together. Welcome, Gavin. Gavin, I’ve heard you describe Country before and you say that to many of us as blackfellas, it’s like a mirror. What do you see reflected back at you when you look at your Country?

Gavin Singleton

Yeah. Firstly, I’d like to say [greeting in Language, transcript not currently available] in my language, welcome, hello. [Brief introduction in Language, transcript not currently available.] Yeah, I’m in good spirits being here and I want to acknowledge the Traditional Owners and the families of this beautiful area where we are sitting and acknowledging all the families that have got connections to this place around this lovely river and their forefathers in this Country. Just going on your question about Country being a mirror, Traditional Owners all across Australia and even across the world, with other First Nations people across the world, talk about the environment being part of my identity, our heritage. So, when you look at the land or the environment, it’s a reflection of you, especially the place where you’re from. And so, if you see that environment sick or unhealthy, it reflects back on us and we reflect back on the Country as well because Country and ourselves, we’re interconnected, there’s a deep relationship there, so they are an inseparable connection. So, mirror, Country is our reflection and vice versa.

RH

Last time you were looking at your Country, what were you feeling? What did you see?

GS

You know sometimes, you’re working on Country every day or every week and that feels good, it feels good. But sometimes when you travel away and you come back, you get that sense of inspiration again, you go, ‘Wow. This is my belonging, where I’m from.’ And the responsibility and the duty that comes with looking after it or this obligation to look after it. And so, it does give that, I guess, sense of healing, sense of improving your self-esteem as well so that well-being that’s really a core part of it.

RH

I wonder how many of those lessons were instilled in you by your father because he was an Indigenous ranger in Country?

If you see that environment sick or unhealthy, it reflects back on us and we reflect back on the country as well because Country and ourselves, we’re interconnected, there’s a deep relationship there, so they are an inseparable connection…Country is our reflection.

– Gavin Singleton

GS

Yeah. When I was young, I’ve got memories of my dad being a ranger and in the fire brigade. I don’t remember too much because at the time, I wasn’t really interested, being young and obviously, every person will have their own interests and aspirations that they want to do when they’re young. At the time, I think, I was interested in other things, I guess, one part I was interested in doing engineering. Then I was interested in astronomy, with stars and space and then somehow full circle doing what my dad was doing. I think it surprised a few of my family because they’d be thinking, no, he wasn’t interested in that but now he is. And now I guess I could say I’m taking that vision forward, that was there. I think that dream that was there about looking at the Country, back in the 90s, we did have a ranger program but with funding at the time, there wasn’t much funding opportunities and that program didn’t continue. So, I guess, I had the aspiration to revive that dream. And I guess we’re going from strength to strength now.

RH

We’ll dig deep into what the program’s looking like in a moment. But I’m curious about you’re saying that when you were growing up, you didn’t have that interest right away to go into ranger programs, caring for Country. Do you remember if there was a particular moment when you started to realise that? How you referred to your obligation to Country? And especially in light of what was happening as we grow up with the climate crisis accelerating.

GS

I guess it kind of started in my youth. After high school, I moved away from Cairns and I started to grow a bit of an interest and passion in my culture. I started to want to learn about, ‘Hey, there’s a traditional name for this river or this place.’ And then I started to think, ‘Hey, hey, wait a minute.’ And it started from there. I guess my interest was just to connect back to my culture, my Country. And so, then I went back to, back home again. I started learning my culture and then I started growing a bit of interest in the environment, in place. And I think my focus was just on looking after country and then slowly, slowly begin to get interested in having a voice in the decisions and the politics, I guess, side of things. But then at the end of the day, I think that’s when we start getting involved in the decisions and politics, we know there’s a lot of disputes and confrontation that happens at that kind of level. But I always wanted to just come back to looking after Country because now while we, people could sit around a table, talk and debate about issues, they’re forgetting about Country, that’s still moving, Country’s not waiting for us. So, all these impacts and stuff are still happening. I guess my thing was about what action is being done, let’s go and just do something instead of, yeah, we can talk about issues and that’s important to make really strong decisions, but action needs to be done as well. And we can’t forget about that. So, we’ve got to do something now.

RH

Let’s talk about some of that action then. So, along with some of the Yirrganydji Traditional Owners, you were actually instrumental in creating the first traditional use of marine resources agreement. Call it TUMRA, hey?

GS

I guess. Yeah, TUMRA, we weren’t one of the first but.

RH

For your, up in Far North Queensland area?

GS

Yeah, you could say around our region. We started developing our TUMRA in about 2012 and we started to get interested in the discussions around marine turtle and dugong within the Great Barrier Reef. So being young at the time, there was a group of us who were really, just really interested to get out and help with looking after these animals and Sea Country. We got out and about getting involved in the workshops and discussions happening with amongst a lot of the Traditional Owners across the Great Barrier Reef and talking with our Elders and focusing on marine turtle and dugong but then when we start to unpack the issues and the management of these two animals, we start to dive down the rabbit hole and the big web that that connects to these two animals. We’ve got the ecosystem and habitat they live in, so the seagrass, the mangroves and then the beaches where the turtles’ nest and then the water quality issues as well and then, all these different impacts on those animals and their habitat. And so, you slowly, slowly, it’s not about turtle and dugong anymore, it’s about a big picture, a holistic perspective of Sea Country. And then you start to unpack, well, you can’t separate the animals on their own, isolate and manage those, you got to manage the environment. And it’s not just the sea, even though they’re sea animals, there’s that connection back to the land with the rivers, the mounts and the bays that create all that nutrient for seagrass and mangroves. So, you start to start to look at the runoff and the rubbish that’s coming down. So you go, ‘Wow, it’s not just turtle and dugong, it’s Sea Country.’

RH

And so, when we’re talking about this agreement and getting it in place, what, what is it? What could it do to protect Country and what was it protecting?

GS

I think in our acknowledgments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and those back in the time who were instrumental on getting this agreement alive, and there’s a few Traditional Owner groups who piloted the TUMRA, the first TUMRA, and they, I guess, are the innovators in that space. And really what it is, it’s like an interface between the Traditional Owners working in partnership with the Australian government, Queensland government to help manage traditional use activities on the Great Barrier Reef. What this does, it gives Traditional Owners a seat at the table to be involved in management of their cultural activities but from a sustainable approach. So, sustainability, conservation is like the big core part of it and what it does as well, it allows Traditional Owners to activate or exercise their law, their custom and have it recognised in L.A.W. Law. So that’s working together hand in hand, the two different knowledge systems working together. And what better to manage a marine park when you have the landholders all working together, the Traditional Owners with the State Marine Park and the Commonwealth Marine Park at the ground level.

RH

Why is it so important that these agreements, because like you said, so many other groups have these agreements on their own terms for their Country. Why is it important that they are localised and that they are based on Traditional Owners from areas, not just First Nations people across this country?

There’s so much diversity across that landscape, it is a cultural seascape, we have about 70 Traditional Owner groups up and down the Great Barrier Reef coast. So, that’s quite complex.

– Gavin Singleton

GS

Yes, a place-based management is really important because when people look at the Great Barrier Reef, it’s so vast, stretching across most of the Queensland eastern coastline from the Torres Strait all the way down to Bundaberg, South East Queensland. That’s a large stretch of country and we can’t paint the whole Great Barrier Reef with one brush but say how we manage the Great Barrier Reef down in Bundaberg, we’re going to manage the exact same way up in Cape York, you can’t do that. There’s so much diversity across that landscape, it is a cultural seascape, we have about 70 Traditional Owner groups up and down the Great Barrier Reef coast. So, that’s quite complex and differing languages, you could probably say, compare it to Europe, we have so many different language nations, it is exactly the same thing, First Nations all along that coastline. So, different family groups, different way of governance, so each Traditional Owner group will have their own capacity, governance capability, some have ranger programs, some don’t. Also access to Sea Country, some find it really hard to access their own Sea Country but some are fortunate to have access.

RH

So what happens to parts of Country where TUMRAs aren’t in place? How does that impact Traditional Owners ability to live on their own land?

GS

I guess some groups probably don’t have the opportunity as much as others, but the opportunity is still there. But in terms of action and getting people on the ground or out on the water to do, to help contribute to the management. So again, it comes to the different levels of capacity and governance of groups. But the opportunity is there because the TUMRA is just a voluntary agreement, so groups, Traditional Owner groups can decide whether they feel the TUMRA is right for their group. Some don’t think the TUMRA’s appropriate and that’s just based on their own values and laws and principles and that’s okay. Some who believe in the TUMRA, who understand what it does, it could be used, it’s a good tool. It’s just one of the tools out there to help look after Country, Sea Country on the Great Barrier Reef and we’re lucky that we were able to go down that pathway and use it, use the tool to some extent, to help further our aspirations for the environment.

RH

Now you’re also a manager at the Dawul Wuru Aboriginal Corporation and you coordinate the Yirrganydji Land and Sea Ranger Program. Can you give us a little bit of background on your organisation’s mission and how you first got involved with Dawul Wuru?

GS

We set up our corporation back in 2010. So, I guess, you could say we’re still quite new. Time flies, it doesn’t feel like long that we’ve set up and our ranger program has only been around since 2015. We started off with only two rangers and seed funding, but we’re actually thankful to have something rather than nothing and our aim was just to get out and do some action with what we’ve got. So, we just said, ‘Look, we’ll be resilient. Well, we’ll just try and make with what we got.’ Try and get out, prove ourselves and get some good activities, good projects up and running and slowly, slowly, we started to grab bit of interest from our community who, they want to be a part of the journey as well, which is great. We were able to create training and employment opportunities for other people within our community. It’s been great.

RH

Are you seeing a lot of young ones come through looking like this might be a career option for them, working on land?

GS

So about 2015,16, we started to develop or run a Junior Ranger program. So, we’ve had a few young people really interested in the work that we’re doing. But I think the main sort of key was them coming together to learn about their family because a lot of them didn’t know who they were related to, so they were like, ‘Oh, wow, we didn’t know that there were so many of our people or different family groups.’ So, it allowed that community cohesion to sort of happen, but then also to educate our young people about their identity, where they’re from but then also help them in their aspirations, where they want to go and try and nurture some of the talents that they have and whatever direction or career pathway they want to go in, we want to help support them. So even though it was a Junior Ranger program, we don’t expect everyone to be a ranger because we know everyone has their own calling or their own expertise or talents that they’ll pursue. And yeah, we want to help guide that.

RH

And I’m sure those core values will be important no matter where they go, learning how to respect Country. You work with the rangers and you’ve led the creation of Kul-Bul project, a pilot reef restoration project. What does Kul-Bul mean in your language?

GS

In our language Kul-Bul means Sea Country. Well, the spirit of the sea and through this project, we collaborate or co-leaders with Experience Co, one of the big tourism operators up in Cairns. So, one of their operators is the GBR Biology, who we partner with really closely and also Reef Restoration Foundation in this pilot project. So, we received a pilot project funding through the Reef Trust to look at a few different reef sites off Cairns and the aim was to bring together the traditional knowledge with Western science, but also best practice, I guess, industry practice. So, bringing in the tourism, science and Traditional Owners to help solve, I guess, or try to better understand the reef systems and with the new craze of intervention or restoration on the Great Barrier Reef is an emerging space, we know across the world, reef restoration has been happening overseas. But again, there’s questions about whether we should intervene because the Great Barrier Reef is its natural system. It could recover itself, it does it all by itself, so why would we need to intervene? And if we do intervene, would we actually cause more harm than good? So, through that sort of thinking, we said, ‘Look, instead of going into a reef site and trying to fix it, let’s better understand that reef system. Let’s look at everything that’s happening on there, but also let’s bring in that Indigenous perspective of that reef as well.’ And so, once you bring in these different puzzle pieces and link them all together, we’ll see a bigger picture, I guess, of what’s happening on the reef. And then also search and explore what tools are out there, so what survey monitoring methods are there? What restoration methods are there? And then start to plan out what’s suitable for that reef site. And then Traditional Owners will also play a part, to have an opinion on which tool would be appropriate as well and so once you start to bring in that all together as a partnership, we hope we’ll get some good results.

RH

I think it’s such an important point though as a mob, we, we’re very aware that the land can look after itself and that we know that fire is important, that our land actually needs to burn in order to heal and go through its cycle. Has there been resistance to that when you do talk to Western scientists or non-Indigenous people working in this space?

About 2015/16, we started to develop or run a Junior Ranger program … it allowed that community cohesion to sort of happen, but then also to educate our young people about their identity, where they’re from but then also help them in their aspirations…

– Gavin Singleton

GS

Yeah. Well, of course, I think because it’s a different perspective and obviously when we have different perspectives coming together and clashing, some clash but then some intersect, it really comes down to the people and the personalities and who’s willing to work together. It has really tested a lot of people out about just collaborating because there’s a lot of people who don’t like to collaborate, there’s people who want to be solo which is fine and go out there and try and save these issues. But when you’re facing a thing like climate change, why not work together? We’re all trying to solve a problem and if we bring together resources, bring together expertise, there’s so much value that comes out of it rather than being on your own. And I think that’s been one of the key sort of outcomes here, is just partnership and collaboration. When you’re on a tourism boat on the Great Barrier Reef and you have a tourist from overseas on that boat and looking, going, ‘Wow, what’s happening on this boat? You’ve got rangers, you have marine biologists, the guides and all working together.’ And it just shows this message firsthand that there is some positive action, the Great Barrier Reef is still alive, still here.

RH

How do you hope pilot programs like this are going to start to impact and change tourism practices?

GS

There is some great awareness and education about sustainability. And I do hear that a lot of operators are being more sustainable in their practices and trying to strive for best practice. That’s good to hear. And it’s also good to hear that there is some growing interest or recognition in Traditional Owner engagement or involvement in the tourism space. Also sharing our knowledge or wisdom, philosophy about the Great Barrier Reef, why it’s important from our perspective and I think it’s also valuable for schools, for students, teachers, because if our teachers in our schools are teaching the Great Barrier Reef or the environment, we have to get our teachers out onto Country to learn for themselves. Sometimes it’s hard to teach someone, you have to let the Country teach them, let the Great Barrier Reef speak to people in their own way. So that connection to Country is important there.

RH

And some of that work that you do on Country when, I don’t know if you take some of the junior rangers out, but that surveying and preservation and restoration of blue carbon sites. Can you describe for us what a blue carbon ecosystem looks like on your Country and exactly why their existence is so vital?

GS

Blue carbon ecosystems are obviously your mangroves, seagrass, saltmarsh or plants or forests associated with water, in the ocean, in this instance and blue carbon habitats being, in terms of carbon, they’ll absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than any other forest, which is quite important, than land forests, significantly absorb more carbon and releasing more oxygen. And as people, as animals, releasing that carbon dioxide, you get that circle happening which is really important. Within these ecosystems, they not only provide like really important filters for water quality, so they are absorbing all those pollutants from the water, from the land, they are that interface between land and sea, that connection between land and sea. So, trying to protect those habitats is really important but they’re providing a nursery, shelter for a lot of different wildlife. And then we as people, First Nations people or just people who love their seafood, will get their food from these ecosystems, which is really important. But also, amongst these ecosystems, there’s a lot of cultural heritage in these areas as well that’s all interconnected, so that’s why it’s really important.

RH

Like the bush medicine.

GS

Medicine, food, craft, crafting for tools, everything.

RH

So the preservation of these blue carbon ecosystems is actually allowing us as blackfellas to continue practicing culture.

What [the TUMRA] does, it gives Traditional Owners a seat at the table to be involved in management of their cultural activities but from a sustainable approach. So sustainability, conservation is like the big core part of it … it allows Traditional Owners to activate or exercise their law.

– Gavin Singleton

GS

Yep. Especially for Sea Country people. I think that’s really, really important because it’s again part of our identity and walking through some of these mangroves, especially our really old mangrove forests, you got trees standing as high as the ceiling, quite old, to manage these mangrove ecosystems is really important. I assume, the more older the mangroves, the more they’re going to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere and the mangrove forests right close to urban areas, so they are sucking a lot of pollutants from there. So, the carbon is stored inside the ground, I guess, and now once we start losing these ecosystems the carbon will come back out of the ground again. It’s important that we try and keep them stored there for the long term.

RH

So how are the threats to blue carbon ecosystems being managed right now?

GS

We’re losing a few areas just due to development or whether it’s through natural causes as well, so dieback but that’s due to changes in the water quality. I’ve seen firsthand where a creek has been cut off and then all downstream of that creek all the mangroves are slowly dying just by simply cutting their water regime. We hear a lot of positive decisions or policies being made but I guess, we would like to see more action whether we try and restore or protect those areas for the long term.

RH

And you’re looking at one of those projects for the new financial year, hey, with the seagrass. I wanted to know if you could break down what has happened, to your knowledge, with seagrass in your area in the last few decades and what that has meant for turtle nesting in the area?

GS

Look, I know that there’s a lot of positive work happening around Australia in seagrass work and it is definitely inspiring to see a few different First Nations people and ranger groups restoring and growing seagrass, even though, some of the science has told them it’s impossible to restore or grow seagrass but I see some of them succeeding and proving some of the scientists wrong. So, I think, in our area, we’ve seen seagrass come and go but due to natural causes or whether it’s through storms or cyclonic events, we see seagrass sort of bounce back again. We’ve seen reports where a lot of seagrass is being grazed and eaten up by a lot of turtles and dugongs and that leads us to think, is there something happening? Are these animals starving? For them to eat that much or not, maybe that’s natural, but we’d like to get more involved in the seagrass monitoring and restoration work. We’ve seen some fabulous work done with the cages to grow the seagrass in those cages and I think that that sounds like a really important project because you’d think that the mature seagrass would seed more and then you’ll get more seagrass rather than the smaller seagrass. And it’s kind of the same with mangroves or trees, you want to keep the really old mature trees because they they’re going to fruit more, they’re going to provide more food, spread more seeds but also, they’re old, they’re there for a reason, they’re resilient. So, you’ve got to protect those remnant trees, same as the seagrass because if they’re for a reason. They’ve stood many cyclones, storms, disasters, so for them standing there is a good sign. And so, we’ve got to learned from that and that can be applied to anywhere. And it’s just like the turtles, the older female turtles will nest more eggs than the younger females. So, let’s try and protect those bigger females, those older ones, because they’re the ones that’s going to keep the system. But you definitely need the male and female, you need that balance.

RH

So, if you are going to be looking at seagrass research in the new financial year, do you know where you’re going to start focusing your main area of interest? Is it more surveying?

GS

Our project is probably more localised within our area, in Cairns to Port Douglas region and over the last few years we’ve noticed one of our beaches becoming a bit of a hotspot for turtle nesting. We’ve had some increasing numbers of turtles coming back to nest, which is a really good sign. And we hope to take a look at that a bit more closely and how our rangers could help assist with preserving those nesting beaches. And then right adjacent to those nesting beaches is your seagrass habitat as well, so we’ve got to go and try and manage them as one, not separate them. So, this will be an interesting project, working with the local community up there as well, in the council, and also working with other experts as well around best practice on trying to protect these sites.

RH

So, at the moment, if you could sit down with the big funding bodies and tell them where they need to be listening to local mob, what would you tell them to be investing more in?

GS

I’d like to believe that trying to create more opportunity and investment within Traditional Owner capacity. I think there needs to be more effort around supporting governance and capacity building to try and get more of our people out on Country. Up and down the Great Barrier Reef coast there are a lot of Traditional Owner groups who we haven’t had an opportunity to get out there, just based on their own governance. So, if we’re able to help support those groups, to fill those gaps, because there’s a lot of positive work that’s been happening by different organisations up and down the Great Barrier Reef. So, it’s just about filling those gaps, creating more equity across the Great Barrier Reef and sharing out that benefit, making sure that no one’s left behind because I think that’s how some people feel that they’re being left behind. They’re seeing other groups doing a lot of these amazing things and they really want to get out there. We’ve got a lot of young people who want to work in the environment, want to give back or help care for Country and so it’s helping those people.

RH

Do you think in your conversations with the funding bodies, with the government, with the Western scientists and the tourism companies, have you seen a growing, not just appreciation, but I guess a growing respect for First Nations knowledges in this space?

We all have a responsibility and an obligation … part of that shared responsibility is that respect for one another, respecting each other, but also, you know, working together and that partnership, which is really, really crucial.

– Gavin Singleton

GS

Yeah, I believe so. There are a lot of good people out there who do value and recognise and respect the Traditional Owner knowledge, but also in our management practices or custodianship, stewardship, whatever you want to call it. There’s a lot of good work happening there. There’s even ranger groups, you could say on the cutting edge of things, we’ve got ranger groups who’ve got underwater drones, they’ve got all these resources, boats. So, why not invest in Traditional Owner management and capacity to get out there, there are good programs out there that go unnoticed. Generally, you would hear all the negative stories come through and the positive ones are not even given any recognition, but there are a lot of positive work happening, groundbreaking I think, world leading you could say.

RH

Part of that world leading, I mean, you don’t just do Sea Country, you do Land Country too and part of that is the burning that you do on Country. I definitely noticed this working as a black journalist in the news, but after the devastating bushfires a couple of years ago, it felt like the first time I could remember our ways of looking after fire and using fire to heal the land, had entered the mainstream in a way that hadn’t been part of my upbringing. Did you find that conversation affected the way you were able to carry out management up on your Country?

GS

We were kind of new in the space of fire. We see a lot of groups doing fire and only in the last couple of years, we got more interested in fire but there’s a lot of obstacles. In order for Traditional Owners to be involved in fire management, you got to have level one fire to just to even be on the fire ground and even to participate in decisions around fire. So, in some sense a lot of Traditional Owners are locked out of discussion on fire. But we put that aside, I think through our, one of our projects we’ve done, was trying to revitalise cultural burning practices or principles around fire on our particular landscape. It was great to work with a couple of different fire practitioners, cultural fire practitioners. And some of these leaders who have really, who’ve been in this space of fire for a long time and there are a lot of groups out there doing really positive fire burning and for us to learn and to revitalise some of that practice was quite amazing because you learn that there’s only right fire and wrong fire. We can come up with all these terms about mitigation or reduction burns or asset, protect your asset but there’s only one, the right fire or wrong fire. So, when you apply fire in the right way as a tool, how it should be applied, at the right season at the right time of the year, your fires would be really effective. Because our people, when you go back, we didn’t have all the PPE, WHS, risk management, so burning Country had to be done at the right time because safety is really important. We don’t want to apply a fire and it impacts or threatens our people and our village or our camps, our sites, our cultural sites that are there. And then applying fire the wrong way can be so much, there’s so much consequences from that and, as living on Country with Country burning wrong, you will just annihilate the landscape and you’ll have no food, you’ll scare away all the animals.

RH

It’s almost like when it’s done right, it’s actually contributing to the ecosystem.

GS

Yeah, there’s a lot of benefits and the Country also needs it because there’s certain plants and forests that rely on fire but there’s also ecosystems that don’t want fire. So, once you understand, there’s these different ecosystems that want fire, that don’t want fire, and when you apply the fire at the right time, what actually happens is the fire doesn’t even burn the ecosystems that shouldn’t be burnt. It’s amazing how the land will guide that fire and it’s like water going through, the fire is exactly the same way and if it’s applied the right way, it’ll be such a nice burn. It won’t burn, you won’t get the higher flames, it will burn just at the nice level, the right height and flow across the land, really smoothly, calmly and that’s what you want and then it’ll bring back the grass and it’ll burn away all the fuel.

RH

That’s beautiful. I think you’ve touched on something that leads right into what I wanted to close on and that’s that right way and wrong way. That’s something you spoke about at the beginning, your obligation as a blackfella, you know that, you were born with that. What about non-Indigenous people understanding right way and wrong way on the land? What obligations to Country do non-Indigenous people have and should know in this country?

GS

For me, I like to be inclusive and I would say it’s a shared responsibility, it’s shared obligation now. Especially up where I’m from, we have two World Heritage areas. We have the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage side-by-side with the Wet Tropics Rainforest World Heritage. So, being World Heritage it’s important to everyone in Queensland, Australia, the world, we all we all have a responsibility and an obligation. Part of that shared responsibility is that respect for one another, respecting each other, but also working together and that partnership, which is really, really crucial. With Traditional Owners as well that we do have really important places on Country, we have really, really important, culturally significant plants, animals that are really important to different families. I encourage society, community to understand our values, what’s important to us, our law and custom. We’ve got protocols to abide by so people can engage in that and learn that there is a protocol, there is a system there and everyone needs to follow that protocol, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. If you come on to a Country like I’m here on this Country, I have to follow the law of protocol here and if I go to somewhere else, Darwin or Western Australia, Perth, I’ve got to follow their custom, it’s the same thing.

RH

So, if Country is that mirror for you when you go back home, what do you hope is reflected back to you in ten years’ time?

GS

There is a lot of hope and potential that’s happening, we are seeing a lot of young people coming through now, a lot more people being educated about who we are, where we are from, what’s important to us, also recognising the work that we are doing. Hopefully we can get more support behind what we’re doing but also our neighbours because we’ve got neighbouring Indigenous ranger programs and programs happening as well, so more support behind us. We’re only small but more support, more hands, I think we can make greater impact together.

RH

Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us today, Gavin. Can we please give him a round of applause? To follow the program online, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and visit the 100 Climate Conversations exhibition or to join us for a live recording go to 100climateconversations.com.

This is a significant new project for the museum and the records of these conversations will form a new climate change archive preserved for future generations in the Powerhouse collection of over 500,000 objects that tell the stories of our time. It is particularly important to First Nations peoples to preserve conversations like this, building on the oral histories and traditions of passing down our knowledges, sciences and innovations which we know allowed our Countries to thrive for tens of thousands of years.

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