Coral reef science on the Great Barrier Reef only started at the beginning of the 20th century. Indigenous people have been around for an awful lot longer than scientists, and they have a much longer history and a much deeper and different understanding of how the reef works.
Traditional system has already been there. It has been proven effective. Science is a very young method, the two together are working side by side. Science does what it needs to do, and tradition does what it needs to do, but both has to be accepted by them… been accepted by communities in the region.
Indigenous insights help save coral reefs
Corinne Podger, ABC News 20 Dec 08;
ELIZABETH JACKSON: Hello, I'm Elizabeth Jackson. As part of the ABC's summer season, we now present a current affairs special.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's first official act on taking office just over a year ago, was to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change.
That was swiftly followed with an historic apology to Aborigines for past injustices.
The Australian leader's actions were warmly welcomed in Queensland where Indigenous knowledge is helping scientists at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority manage the world's biggest coral reef system.
And further afield in the Pacific, the scientific community's working more closely with Indigenous stakeholders whose input, it's now recognised, is crucial if coral reefs are to survive the expected ravages of climate change.
Radio Australia's Corinne Podger has prepared this special report.
CORINNE PODGER: Ever since Captain Cook's fellow voyager Joseph Banks introduced the west to eucalypts, acacias and the eponymous Banksia, our startling landscape and wildlife have fascinated scientists and captivated conservationists.
But two centuries of observation and data collection are a tiny fraction of the millennia Indigenous communities have spent studying this country. They've watched it long enough in fact, for its greatest reef to be built, millimetre by painstaking millimetre, into a glittering band 2600 kilometres long.
Now, Indigenous custodians are working side by side with scientists to manage this vast natural resource. David Wachenfeld heads the science, technology and information group at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority:
DAVID WACHENFELD: Obviously, the Great Barrier Reef has some of the world's greatest coral reef scientists and we have an amazing amount of scientific information about the reef and that's a really good thing.
But coral reef science on the Great Barrier Reef only started at the beginning of the 20th century and even then, it was absolutely in its infancy, it only really got going in the 1960s or possibly 1970s, so we really don't have a very long period of scientific understanding of the reef.
Indigenous people have been around for an awful lot longer than scientists, and they have a much longer history and a much deeper and different understanding of how the reef works.
CORINNE PODGER: This deeper, different understanding commands far more respect today than it did just a few decades ago. It's only 40 years since Indigenous people were given the right to vote, just over 30 since the end of the Stolen Generations.
Now there's a flurry of effort being made to repair relations and seek out the very knowledge once targeted for eradication. Today, with improved understanding and appreciation of traditional art, there's now an awareness of the intricate patterns, circles, dots and swirls many traditional artists use, and the songs and stories that accompany their work.
Like tracing paper overlaying European maps with their straight line borders and English placenames, these are more intimate maps of country, of human relationships with landscape - with its changing seasons, food and water sources, meeting places and spiritual sites.
That knowledge, wound into ancient stories and images, is now informing how the Great Barrier Reef is managed.
David Wachenfeld again.
DAVID WACHENFELD: One of the most important groups for us to work with are Indigenous people and in particular, traditional owners of the sea country of the Great Barrier Reef, so we have about 70 different traditional owner groups along the coast of the Great Barrier Reef, and those people have a spiritual and cultural association with the reef that goes back tens of thousands of years, and that's a really important point because more than 10,000 years ago, the Great Barrier Reef was actually above the water.
Sea level was about 150 metres lower than it is now, and what we currently look at as a series of coral reefs, and call it the Great Barrier Reef, was actually a series of limestone hills, with koalas, echidnas, wallabies, and Aboriginal people living in those areas, so their association with the reef goes back so far, that they certainly have associations with it as a marine environment, but even as a land environment as well.
CORINNE PODGER: This is an oral society - historically - how does information feed back to you, that's useful, scientifically, from those communities?
DAVID WACHENFELD: Well, you're absolutely right, traditional owner societies don't have written histories in Australia, they do have very strong oral traditions, and basically that means for us to partner with them, we have to talk to them, so we have a series of regional offices, from the northern end to the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, we put a lot of effort into talking with traditional owners and Indigenous people, and just very much working in partnership with them.
CORINNE PODGER: Partnerships like these, to care for coral reefs, are emerging all over the world, between government agencies and scientists, and local communities who've lived nearby for long enough to know a reef's history and have a relationship with it. And there's a growing awareness among scientists that these partnerships have to work well for everyone if they're to succeed at all.
Here in Australia, there's a powerful economic incentive to make it work; Great Barrier Reef tourism and fishing together bring more than $5-billion a year to the Australian economy. But further afield, in the Pacific and parts of Asia, coral reefs are beyond price.
More than 400-million people in our region depend on them for jobs and food and some countries, like the Maldives south of India, are coral reefs.
And reefs, of course, are alive; coral is actually a shared DIY kit-home made by tiny animals, known as polyps, and little algae plants. The reefs they build are home to thousands of fish, marine animals, and plants. These systems are highly sensitive to variations in water temperature, and to changes in levels of ocean acidity.
As sea-water warms up, it can absorb more carbon dioxide, becoming more acidic, and this can attack reef systems, leaving them bleached and crumbling. This extreme reaction has led to coral reefs being called a "canary in the mine" for climate change.
Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is the director of the Centre for Marine Studies at the University of Queensland:
OVE HOEGH-GULDBERG: The rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has two consequences for coral reefs. The first is, through its effect on the global temperature, causing essentially thermal stress, and this manifests itself as mass bleaching events.
The second problem is that CO2 going into the atmosphere also goes into the ocean in increasing amounts, and that's causing an acidification of the oceans above coral reefs, and the effect of that is that it drops the concentration of something called carbonate. Now, that happens to be the crucial molecular building block for the limestone skeletons that corals put down.
CORINNE PODGER: The past two or three decades of warm weather have devastated reefs all over the world. Earlier this year, a landmark global survey found virtually every reef on the planet was dying off - from Indonesia to Kenya, Hawaii to Australia - the victims of warmer temperatures, acidic waters, pollution, and invasive species like the crown-of-thorns starfish.
The most vulnerable reefs are in the so-called "Coral Triangle", which covers waters off Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and East Timor. Dr Greta Aeby, of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology in Honolulu, was among the study's lead authors.
GRETA AEBY: Using information about population sizes, geographic range and also the susceptibility of these different coral species to bleaching, disease, or predation by crown-of-thorns, we wanted to determine how many species were at risk of being lost, and from our study we found that approximately one third of our coral species are at risk. This makes corals the most threatened group of animals on this earth, second only to the frogs and related amphibians for risk of extinction.
CORINNE PODGER: The global survey was released at the International Coral Reef Symposium held in Florida in July. And it has profound implications for millions of people who derive their food and income from reef systems. That's made building successful partnerships between these communities and scientists, all the more important. It's more than getting locals onside with conservation initiatives. Many coral reefs cover vast stretches of ocean too big for government agencies and scientists to monitor, let alone manage.
A novel solution to that problem's been developed by the International Coral Reef Centre in Palau, which is tasked with tracking coral and fish species across Micronesia - an area spanning more than 30,000 square kilometres.
To get the job done, scientists at the centre are training NGOs, local government officials and fishing communities in Micronesia to identify species, take samples and run experiments, and to feed their data back to the global scientific community.
It's being done with help from NOAA - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States and its working so well, co-ordinator Sebastian Marino says there are plans to use the same idea elsewhere in the Pacific.
SEBASTIAN MARINO: We actually involve local communities and local organisations, who are doing community and conservation and reef management work. But local government and communities are heavily involved and they're very much participating and helpful in the whole process.
CORINNE PODGER: The other element to this work which is quite interesting is the aim of dovetailing this in with traditional management practices, to merge that with the hard science, how is that achieved?
SEBASTIAN MARINO: Traditional system has already been there. It has been proven effective. Science is a very young method, the two together are working side by side. Science does what it needs to do, and tradition does what it needs to do, but both has to be accepted by them… been accepted by communities in the region.
CORINNE PODGER: And you're looking to offer this as a model to other Pacific island states. How might it work in other parts of the Pacific, do you think?
SEBASTIAN MARINO: If you take it from the bottom up, incorporating local communities, and let them be part of the whole process, I think that's the key to the whole… and I think that will work everywhere, anywhere.
CORINNE PODGER: While local and Indigenous communities need training in the science involved, they can also struggle to have a sense of ownership over a reef management program when they partner up with conservation and government agencies.
Western-style reef management often has a balance-sheet approach, which has historically involved putting a dollar value on natural resources, and seeking to balance that against the cost of conservation. This cover-all-the-bases approach can leave people who live on or near reefs feeling excluded, unable to contribute, even though they have the most personal interest in a reef's survival, with their livelihoods and cultures at stake.
One man trying to bridge the gap is Isoa Korovulavula, from the Institute of Applied Science at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. He runs workshops in Fiji which blend conservation economics with a Fijian concept known as "vanua" - a complicated notion in which community values are intertwined with human relationships with land and sea:
ISOA KOROVULAVULA: For the, Fiji’s situation where most of the perceptions are influenced not by individuals but by communal setting but this participation in coming up with value is very important, so that not only that they see it's something foreign, but actually it's part and parcel of what they have identified as - you can put it - as a dollar value, together.
Particularly in a resource such as marine, where the ownership is not by individual, but it's by a tribe.
One of the things that the vanua system can actually add to the current method, is basically making the community see that management of their resources is not something that is just external. It's something actually is very much internal, and was part of their system.
CORINNE PODGER: The outcome of Dr Korovulavula's workshops are community action plans, in which everyone has had a say, and over which a clan or village then has a sense of ownership - but, crucially, which also includes an economic costing out - so both the communities who live and rely on a particular reef, and the agencies responsible for funding its management, know what it will cost to keep it sustainable.
Partnership ideas that work in one country can, with a little tweaking, often be applied elsewhere. In the Pacific, the Locally Managed Marine Area Network is speeding up this process, by filming successful reef management projects, and then making DVDs which can be shown in other countries with similar problems.
Toni Parras is the US-based spokeswoman for LMMA.
TONI PARRAS: We've already produced one video last year and what we did was, we interviewed community members from several different countries that work with the Network and these were community practitioners, community leaders, just to get their story, in their own voice, about the community-based work that they're doing at their marine sites.
And they tell us what lessons they've learned, what are the factors that are contributing to the success of their management - or the challenges that they're facing, because not everything is successful, obviously.
But that way they can share the lessons they've learned at their sites, and the target audience for these videos are other community practitioners who may be under similar circumstances - like, ‘well, we're just fishers, what could we possibly do to better our, you know, situation, how can we manage our marine resources’?
And then they hear these stories from other people who are just fishers, and they were able to go through a community planning process, they were able to draw up a management plan - obviously with some outside assistance - that's what the LMMA network provides is assistance and technical assistance with project planning.
But the people who are carrying it out and the input is coming from within the community, so their experience really motivates and inspires other communities in different countries altogether, saying ‘well wow, if they can do it, we can do it’.
CORINNE PODGER: As well as sharing best practice in reef management, the videos are a way of archiving traditional knowledge that's in danger of being lost. Toni Parras says the LMMA network is looking to the future - packaging up the best of the old ideas, in a series of new videos aimed at Pacific youth.
TONI PARRAS: Traditionally, there have been connections and practices with the sea, very strong connection with the sea in the Pacific and they're losing that connection.
So they said they're in need of videos or something to show these lessons learned and to show traditional practices, because - that's another thing we're gathering - we ask the community leaders about you know, the current management plans and what they're doing, but we also ask them to relate some traditional management techniques that maybe they've been reviving or maybe it's coming back into play, and maybe they're getting a cultural-traditional connection back.
I think the videos can help because they've been requested over and over and over again throughout the years, please we need videos, the youth especially are more into this technology, so if they can see videos from on the ground and showing traditional practices, maybe it will revive some of them or at least get them connected again.
CORINNE PODGER: To mark this year's International Year for Coral Reefs, the Locally Managed Marine Area Network has organised a series of community exchanges. That's enabled people from small villages in the Pacific to share both the latest scientific techniques and traditional management in a hands-on environment.
The exchanges have been organised by the Secretariat for the Pacific Region Environment Program, or SPREP, which is based in Samoa, its spokesperson is Caroline Vieux.
CAROLINE VIEUX: For example, a few months ago the tribes of New Caledonia, of the northern province, went to the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area Network, and they had a tour for like 10 days, and it's been great for them, and now they go back to New Caledonia and they're like ‘yep, you know, we know what to do and we know we can do it’.
CORINNE PODGER: Back home in Australia, one project that's got both Indigenous communities and scientists at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority excited is a joint project to track dugongs and turtles living on the reef.
Scientists have been tracking these animals for several decades now the authority's scientific spokesman David Wachenfeld says drawing on Indigenous knowledge has given scientists a much better idea of how long turtles and dugongs have lived in particular areas on the reef, and how to look after them for future generations.
That shared knowledge is now being formalised by the Marine Park Authority into a series of agreements, ensuring scientists and Indigenous communities will be equal partners in protecting the world's biggest coral reef. David Wachenfeld.
DAVID WACHENFELD: In particular, when we're talking to Indigenous people about some of their most important cultural and spiritual icons and the two that most spring to mind are dugong and turtle. They have a depth of knowledge and a history that far surpasses anything we have scientifically.
And of course, although we're interested in protecting those sorts of animals for biodiversity reasons, Indigenous people are also very interested in protecting them because of their great cultural and spiritual significance. And that's one of the reasons why we work so closely and successfully together to protect them.
And in particular at the moment, we're developing some agreements with traditional owners, and these agreements are called Traditional Use of Marine Resources agreements, and they are about government and traditional owner communities partnering together to protect these incredibly precious resources.
CORINNE PODGER: How’s that then feeding back to Indigenous communities, is there a growing awareness from working with scientists of information that is then useful to Indigenous communities and perhaps empowers them as a, as a community that is providing a resource?
DAVID WACHENFELD: I think there's very much a two-way communication between - on the one hand - the government management community and the scientific community, and the traditional owner community.
So for instance we have monitoring of dugong populations with a very scientific method that goes back to the 1980s, but when we couple that with a traditional understanding of dugong and their movement patterns; where they are, how many there were, we get a much richer picture of the history of dugong populations.
And an understanding that since European settlement of the Great Barrier Reef coast, those dugong populations have been under enormous threat, and we only have a very small fraction left of the dugong that were once there. That's an issue for us, as managers of the Marine Park, but it's very much an issue for the traditional owners, and collectively we want to do something about that.
ELIZABETH JACKSON: David Wachenfeld of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority ending that report from Radio Australia's Corinne Podger. And you've been listening to a current affairs special.