By Amy McQuire, March 13, 2013, Tracker Magazine.
NEW SOUTH WALES: The Gumma Indigenous Protected Area is a jewel in Nambucca Heads’ beautiful coastal landscape, writes Amy McQuire.
For Gumbaynggirr woman Chels Marshall, caring for country is a responsibility to be taken seriously.
“Any ranger working in the environment will tell you. You don’t switch off, because it’s part of our culture,” Ms Marshall tells Tracker from Nambucca Heads on the NSW mid north coast.
“It’s your inheritance. You’re managing your inheritance and a lot of people don’t see it but there is an inherited responsibility to look after country.”
Ms Marshall is the manager of the Gumma Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) which was declared in late 2011 over 111 hectares of land on a pristine peninsula that stares across the Nambucca River at the quaint tourist town.
The IPA is run out of the Nambucca Heads Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC) office and managed by the LALC on behalf of local traditional owners.
Described as an “idyllic coastal haven”, Gumma is beautiful country, built on saltmarshes and mangroves abutting old growth eucalypt blackbutt forest in the centre of Gumma and the sandflats.
Ms Marshall is the descendent of a people who have managed this country for thousands of years.
Today, she is passionate about not only preserving it for her own descendants, but the rest of Australia.
“It’s about looking after country so that all Australians can enjoy it and appreciate it,” Ms Marshall says.
“The ocean is our totem and we need to look after it.”
The first Indigenous Protected Area was declared in 1998, and now there are currently 51 covering about 36 million hectares of land across Australia. Eight of them are in New South Wales, with some of these being managed by LALCs.
The IPAs give Indigenous landowners support to protect and conserve precious ecosystems in line with international guidelines.
It’s a part of the National Reserve System, which is focused on “conserving examples of our natural landscapes and native plants and animals for future generations”.
Since the establishment of IPAs, traditional landowners have contributed two thirds of all new additions to the reserve system.
According to Ms Marshall, Aboriginal people can care for their country just as well, even better, than government agencies.
And you only have to look at the range of partnerships and programs run under the IPA as evidence.
This sea country IPA is very much focused on protecting the Ocean totem for the future.
That’s reflected in their campaign against the marine debris – or rubbish – which infects the local waterways.
Every year, Ms Marshall and her workers organise an underwater clean up day, where community members – black and white – snorkel and scuba dive to clean up the ocean floor.
They are supported by the Nambucca Shire Council, the Solitary Islands Underwater Regional Group (SOURGE), and its Port Macquarie equivalent – PURGE.
Last year, they collected 1.2 tonnes of rubbish out of the waterways of the Gumma IPA.
They are launching a national Indigenous marine debris network and a campaign later in the year – No Trash – that aims to spread the message of clean waterways for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians across the country.
The Gumma IPA also run a reef inventory, where, in conjunction with a number of partners, they monitor the species on near shore reefs.
“That is contributing to the bigger picture of climate change and the warming of the oceans,” Ms Marshall says.
“We’re basically looking at species moving in and moving out.”
They are involved in dolphin research in conjunction with Dolphin Research Australia.
“Dolphins are predators so they are good environmental health indicators being at the top of the food chain,” Ms Marshall says.
“In monitoring dolphins we get a bigger picture about what is under them, what is operating and working so we are adding to Australia’s knowledge of near shore dolphins.”
They also host an annual community day to welcome the humpback whales to the Gumbaynggirr lands and “celebrate the magnificent creatures moving through our coastline,” Ms Marshall says.
It’s a day where white and black come together to whale watch and celebrate Aboriginal culture.
The IPA also surveys endangered birds within the area with Birdlife Australia, conducting migratory and residential bird surveys.
“We look at endangered species. There is the beachstone curlew which are critically endangered. There are only 13 breeding pairs of these in NSW so there’s a lot of responsibility there,” Ms Marshall says.
The series of partnerships are not only confined to Australia’s borders.
The IPA has also forged links to share knowledge with Native American groups in the United States, in Equador, and also Bega Surf in Japan, which is also involved in cleaning up the oceans.
But the IPA is not just focused on the environment. There are also opportunities for local mob – whether it is in employment, or revitalizing and strengthening culture.
Jermaine Edwards, 25, is one of six young Aboriginal rangers who completed a traineeship through the IPA recently.
He told Tracker he was attracted to the role because it involved “looking after my culture and environment”.
“It’s important to ensure no one is damaging the environment,” Mr Edwards said.
He wants to stay in an environment role and hopefully go to university to study.
Ms Marshall says there is also a key link to language and culture.
“It’s an opportunity to continue and sustain our traditional practice.
“So it’s about getting young kids involved and keeping that teaching going, keeping them tuned to environment and to nature.”
“… one of the things with the reef inventory is that a lot of species move in and these species don’t have Gumbaynggirr names.
“So we are going through and naming new species, which is awesome. It’s about continuing language and adapting it.
“Language is not stagnant. It is alive.”
The precious opportunity in the IPA is about the ability to use Indigenous knowledge to compliment western knowledge.
Having Aboriginal people at the heart and soul of the process ensures this land will be managed properly.
“There are two sciences,” Ms Marshall says.
“There’s an Indigenous science and a Western science and in merging those you need to find that middle ground that will complement each other, and it can be done…
“I think we’ve been successful because we have had scientists and researchers on board who can get their heads around that.”