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Published: 2 July 2012

The deeper riches of river country

Asa Wahlquist

At Nauiyu Nambiyu on the Northern Territory’s Daly River, Ngan’gi-speaking people observe the signs of Wirirr marrgu, or 'burn grass season'. Elder, Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart, says when the wet season ends, people go out harvesting fish, pig-nosed turtle, long-necked turtle, snapping turtle, echidna, rock python and water lilies. It is, she says, a season of plenty.

Turtle hunting at a Daly River billabong in the Northern Territory
Turtle hunting at a Daly River billabong in the Northern Territory
Credit: CSIRO

Patricia McTaggart is one of many Aboriginal people sharing their knowledge of country with a CSIRO research team – supported by the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK) research hub – documenting the value of healthy river systems to local communities.1

The team, led by Dr Sue Jackson, has just completed a three-year study into the socio-economic and cultural values that Indigenous people from the Daly River, Northern Territory, and the Fitzroy River, Western Australia, hold about water.

Team members visited households in the Daly and Fitzroy River areas 16 times over a two-year period to ask how often family members went fishing and hunting, who participated, the location, the total harvest, how much the household consumed and how much it shared.

This detailed information enabled the researchers to calculate the economic value of healthy rivers to surrounding communities.

They found that the aquatic wild food most commonly caught and harvested by the Daly River community included long-necked turtle, lotus lily, black bream, magpie goose, short-necked turtle, along with barramundi, spangled perch, water lily, water chestnut, mullet and catfish. The resources consumed by each household surveyed were estimated to be worth $69.17 (per fortnight), or 5.1 per cent of the median household income in the Daly River region.

Lotus lily seed pods are eaten by the residents of Nauiyu Nambiyu community, Daly River, Northern Territory.
Lotus lily seed pods are eaten by the residents of Nauiyu Nambiyu community, Daly River, Northern Territory.
Credit: CSIRO

But the economic worth of healthy rivers like the Daly to Indigenous communities would be even higher if the social and cultural significance of harvesting wild food were able to be included in the valuation, say the researchers. They also point out that many indigenous households have very low incomes, making bush tucker a vital part of family nutrition.

A key finding of the study is that resource use along the Daly varies markedly with the seasons. During the Wet (November to April), 44 per cent of the food gathered by the Daly River community came from fishing in the river, and only 1 per cent came from the billabong. The remainder came from fishing in the creeks and hunting.

With the advent of the Dry, there is less fishing in the river, and more in the billabongs. By the late dry season, 69 per cent of food gathering occurs in the billabongs, which rely on annual floodwaters to replenish them.

Such information is critical, say the researchers, because development – for example, the construction of dams for crop irrigation – can seriously disrupt seasonal flows, as can drawing groundwater from an aquifer in the dry season. The Daly River’s permanent flow is sustained through the long dry season by groundwater discharge.

‘Our TRaCK colleagues found that if farmers were to draw too much water during the dry season, this could put at risk key fish species such as black bream and barramundi,’ Dr Jackson says.

‘And we now know from our research how important these two fish species are to Aboriginal people. Close to a thousand black bream and barramundi were caught during the survey period by the households we interviewed.’

CSIRO’s Emma Woodward (bottom left) talking through the <a href="" target="_blank">MalakMalak &amp; Matngala Seasonal calendar</a> with Rita Pirak (left) and Biddy Lindsay.
CSIRO’s Emma Woodward (bottom left) talking through the MalakMalak & Matngala Seasonal calendar with Rita Pirak (left) and Biddy Lindsay.
Credit: CSIRO

The CSIRO work is part of a broader research program that is vital to sustainable water planning as pressure grows to develop the country’s northern water resources.

Dr Jackson says her team’s research was motivated by the under-valuation of Indigenous subsistence resource use and knowledge. She points out that although the National Water Commission has identified Indigenous rights, values and interests relating to water as a national priority, Indigenous ‘water uses’ are rarely explicitly addressed in water plans.

One of her team's aims was to identify Indigenous interests that related to the research. For example, when Ms McTaggart suggested drawing up a seasonal calendar, CSIRO researcher Emma Woodward grabbed the opportunity.

‘We gathered the information over the next 10 months or so, to make sure we were collecting the information within the seasons and as it was happening,’ explains Ms Woodward.

Ms McTaggart had been worried the local children were losing their language and felt it was ‘really vital that we have something written down on paper and the kids can see it and try and say the words and understand the background of the word’.

The information gathering process involved extensive consultation, according to Ms Woodward. ‘It was a very detailed and iterative process of going back and forth to the community, making decisions about what photos to have, the exact text what it should say, did I have the meanings right.

Nauiyu community leader, Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart, CSIRO’s Emma Woodward and Molly Yawulminy with the <a href="" target="_blank">Ngan’gi Seasonal calendar</a> developed by the Nauiyu community. The calendar was actually Ms TcTaggart’s idea, taken up by a team from CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences who had been studying Indigenous water values.
Nauiyu community leader, Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart, CSIRO’s Emma Woodward and Molly Yawulminy with the Ngan’gi Seasonal calendar developed by the Nauiyu community. The calendar was actually Ms TcTaggart’s idea, taken up by a team from CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences who had been studying Indigenous water values.
Credit: CSIRO

‘We have had requests from schools right across northern Australia who have seen the calendar on our website and requested either class sets or copies they could incorporate into the curriculum.

‘That has stimulated further calendars with other Indigenous groups. We are now working with the sixth language group, the Gulumoerrgin from Darwin, on a seasonal calendar of their ecological knowledge.’

Ms Woodward adds that when people from the Daly community were given cameras and asked to take photos of important family and community activities, 95 per cent of the photos taken ‘related to aquatic places, whether it was hunting in family groups, visiting country, preparing food that had been caught from rivers and billabongs and turtles and fish and sharks, or older women demonstrating how food was to be prepared to younger children.’

Dr Jackson says her team’s work proves that researchers can gain significant benefits from working with Indigenous people.

‘They have a long-standing and deep connection to the landscape that we are interested in,’ she says.

‘Indigenous groups are committed to managing their country in the future, and so have a strong interest in exchanging knowledge, learning about science and learning about contemporary management approaches as well as teaching others about their methods and insights.’

Ms McTaggart, who has co-authored a scientific paper with the researchers, with another in the pipeline, declares the experience for her has been ‘100 per cent positive’.

‘I was really happy because the researchers that came spent a lot of time. It was an opportunity for me to try and work in with them.’

She said her community was very excited about the calendar, ‘with the younger ones, and people my age too, in their 40s or 50s, seeing how following the life cycle of the different animals that people are going to collect and plants that we want to go and look for, for bush tucker. People felt really excited and really happy that something was being done.’

Daly River, Northern Territory
Daly River, Northern Territory
Credit: CSIRO

Strategic Indigenous reserves

While Indigenous people own nearly 20 per cent of Australia, they own less than 0.01 per cent of the water allocations. Yet water is vital to Indigenous social, cultural and the domestic economic activity – ensuring legal access to water means communities could create water-related businesses and employment in the future. But few legal mechanisms exist to allow that.

The CSIRO team has been working with the Daly and Fitzroy River communities ‘to document their knowledge and to account for their pattern of resource use, and to value that,’ says Dr Jackson.

Similar studies are under way in the Katherine and Roper Rivers of the Northern Territory, the Murray-Darling Basin, and in northern Queensland’s Mitchell River. The information will provide decision-makers with an additional set of issues to consider in the planning and development of water resources.

Aware that Indigenous people were left out of the Murray Darling Basin’s water planning process, planners in northern Australia, along with Indigenous organisations like the Northern Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) are experimenting with a new policy instrument, the strategic Indigenous reserve.

Seasons in the Daly

The Ngan’gi Seasons Calendar
Credit: CSIRO

The CSIRO has compiled seasonal calendars with six different Indigenous language groups. In the Ngan'gi Seasons Calendar, there are 13 seasons, some as brief as two weeks.

The calendar largely revolves around the life cycle of the dominant local spear grass, known as wurr (Sarga spp.).

For example, when wurr stalks start to die and turn reddish, it is a sign that the Dry is approaching. The next season begins after the wurr seeds turn brown and start to fall. The following season occurs when all the seeds have fallen and big storms knock over the grass. The drying of the speargrass, now ready to burn, heralds a new season, while the next is prompted by the actual burning of the grass.

Because each season occurs after a particular change in the vegetation, it is not possible to link them tightly to European seasons. And some indicators – like the peeling bark of the ghost gum telling you that the bull sharks are fat or the flowering of the red kapok indicating that freshwater crocodiles have laid their eggs – do not follow orthodox science.

More information

Indigenous socio-economic values and river flows: report summary.

1 The research was carried out under the auspices of the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK) Research Hub with funding from the National Water Commission and the Federal Department of Environment, Water, Sustainability, Population and Communities.

Published: 4 July 2011

Assured sustainability reporting – navigating obligations

Nick Fleming

As the way in which organisations address environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues comes under increasing scrutiny, sustainability reporting is gathering importance and momentum. Yet reporting must be seen as a product of sustainable business practices, not the focus of it.

Emphasis on more robust sustainability reporting is helping to drive the wider assessment and reform of companies’ associated supply chains and logistics infrastructure.
Emphasis on more robust sustainability reporting is helping to drive the wider assessment and reform of companies’ associated supply chains and logistics infrastructure.
Credit: iStockphoto

While sustainability reporting is new territory for some organisations, many leading businesses have been engaged in reporting for over a decade. Indeed, sustainability reporting is typically one of the first vehicles for engagement with the topic and issues of sustainability, often at the encouragement of a few passionate staff.

However, the call for greater organisational accountability and transparency is growing. An increasing number of shareholder resolutions are placing pressure on company boards to ensure they are effectively identifying, disclosing and addressing ESG risks. Institutional investors are already using ESG data to differentiate firms and guide investment decisions.1

Powerful customers are also forcing their suppliers to become more transparent. The classic example is Walmart, which launched a supplier sustainability initiative in July 2009. Locally, Woolworths recently announced its own Sustainable Fish Sourcing Strategy.2

There is also an expectation for assurance. This reflects a stakeholder desire for reports to be relevant, reliable and free from bias, while the reporting organisation wishes to build a case for lower costs for finance and insurance. This all takes time and money; reporting can be a costly exercise and carries risks.

The banking sector provides an insight to the challenges posed by sustainability reporting. In Australia, banks have typically lead sustainability reporting and have performed well against international benchmarks such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. Yet this year, the big four banks have been publically criticised over their involvement with coal-fired power stations.3 People ask how an organisation that receives sustainability accolades can also finance environmental pollution. This questions the connectivity between sustainability reporting and governance.

Scrutiny is also being applied by the regulators. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has prosecuted cases against companies such as GM Holden and Prime Carbon for overstating their ‘green’ credentials. It’s clear that inaccurate communication on ESG matters presents serious risks to an organisation’s reputation – and that of the rating or assurance agency.

These issues have been behind recent reviews of reporting guidelines and benchmarking methods.4,5 The reviews found that ratings and reporting tend to be backward-looking measures of compliance with ‘good practice’, failing to enable a meaningful assessment of an organisation’s ability to create and sustain value, in the short and longer term.

What’s lacking is adequate interrogation and reporting of the strategic capabilities and the core competencies required to underpin business continuity and delivery of sustainable outcomes; that is, a truly sustainable enterprise.

However, the push for integrated financial and non-financial (sustainability) reporting may offer a silver lining – the trigger to focus conversations among executives and boards about the things that will drive genuine business continuity, profitability and sustainability. Without these conversations, there will neither be the understanding, focus nor commitment to cultivate truly sustainable enterprises.

The adage ‘What gets measured gets managed’ remains true; as does ‘It’s what you do, not what you say, that counts’. Reporting without subsequent actions to manage risks and create value is meaningless, and arguably harmful.

While there are growing market and stakeholder pressures for integrated reporting of financial and ESG matters, reporting should only be entered into with an eye on:

  1. material business risks

  2. core competencies for organisational continuity

  3. a core set of meaningful performance measures that offer real insight

  4. integrating reporting into governance

  5. commitment to real action in response to identified risks and opportunities.

Organisations that assume this approach take sustainability reporting beyond a ‘nice?to?have’ PR exercise to a ‘must?have’ business improvement tool. It’s a factor in the superior financial performance demonstrated by ethical and sustainable organisations. Getting it right is good for business – and good for communities.

Dr Nick Fleming is Chief Sustainability Officer Sinclair Knight Merz, leading the application of sustainability thinking in business operations and client services. Through his Sustainable Enterprise column, Nick provides insight to how businesses and organisations are effectively putting sustainability theory into practice.

1 Ernst & Young (2011). Shareholders press boards on social and environmental risks.
3 Greenpeace (2011). Pillars of pollution.
4 Eccles RG, Cheng B, Saltzman D (Eds) (2010). The landscape of integrated reporting: reflections and next steps. Harvard Business School.
5 SustainAbility (2011). Rate the raters: uncovering best practices.

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