The Importance of Community Engagement in Nature Restoration

Understanding complex relations with wild spaces

Bush food wild harvest in the Kimberly

Every place on earth has its own unique story to tell.  

Take a walk in the vast expanse of the Central deserts, step into the Daintree rainforest or gaze across the timelessness of the'll sense a power emanating from the land. It's not only the trees, plants and animals that occupy this space, but also the history - the stories that have been passed down through generations of humans and their complex relations with wild spaces.

But how do we uncover its true identity beyond its physical features? How do we restore what we do not recognize?

To do things differently we must see things differently. - John Thackara

We must dive into the 65,000-year history of human and nature co-existence; an intertwined story of the forces that have shaped the land, crafting a core identity that makes each place unlike any other on Earth. This interplay is what creates a sense of place: a harmony of human culture, geology, climate, and biodiversity that marks it apart from anywhere else in the world. What's more, each community has a unique relationship with the environment - the ways people have interacted and coexisted with land and wildlife for generations. Regional cultures carry stories of true-life self-determination and community-led change, and traditional songs are storehouses of localized ecological knowledge.

This notion of place, coupled with the issues of cultural significance to indigenous communities, are at the heart of Bush Botanics' efforts to bring together traditional knowledge and spiritual leadership to inform our nature restoration and small-scale enterprise projects. Our approach recognizes the importance of engaging directly with indigenous communities for proper representation, reconnecting humanity's shared history with nature and developing region-specific protocols rather than relying on generic “best practices”.

Painted car hood in Papulankutja, WA

Traveling to a community engagement session in Blackstone, Western Australia, July 2023

Indigenous Peoples have always been on the front line of the environmental crisis. For generations First Nations peoples have used systems of traditional knowledge to manage and safeguard diverse natural environments, including our World Heritage sites and land and ocean resources. Currently, the Indigenous Rangers Program supports more than 2,100 jobs in land and sea management through 129 First Nations ranger groups working On-Country. This work has been augmented by the Indigenous Protected Areas Program, which covers eighty-two dedicated sites across Australia and is growing.

Indigenous Peoples possess solutions not only to their own problems but also to the global challenges facing humanity. Their cultures serve as models for the future in a world searching for new value systems, and First Nations peoples are now acknowledged as essential for nature conservation. UN biodiversity scientists from the IPBES found that biodiversity declines at a slower rate on Indigenous-managed lands compared to other lands, however, many conservation efforts have neglected the rights of Indigenous peoples, preventing them from living on their own lands in the name of conservation. These same Aboriginal groups have long been custodians to some of the most complex ecosystems in the world. It is said little can tear at the heart more than being forced to abandon the place of your ancestors.

The respect that Indigenous Peoples have for the earth is a concept foreign to Western civilization.  They are the stewards of some of the world’s most biologically diverse areas, and their traditional knowledge about the biodiversity of these areas is invaluable. As the effects of climate change become evident, it is clear that Indigenous Peoples must play a central role in developing adaptation and mitigation efforts to this global challenge. —State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

If we want to build a sustainable future, it is crucial to recognize the importance of local knowledge and understanding regional custodians on their terms. There is no future without putting the perspectives and experiences of our First Nations people at the forefront of our environmental activities. Remembering our dependence on unique places and the ways they have sustained humanity for generations may be the key to unlocking the planet's potential.  By learning to appreciate this sense of place, we can nurture mutual prosperity between humans and nature for long-term good.

Community engagement must go beyond the occasional yet essential 'welcome to country' and the casual conversations that are often represented as 'partnerships'. The Australian Human Rights Act 2019 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples aim to acknowledge the ethical and practical considerations necessary for engaging with First Nations communities and their cultural and ecological materials. For true community engagement, there must be a commitment to ensure First Nations' environmental, cultural and community values are ethically and respectfully engaged. Who holds the song for the plant varieties used in restoration projects? Who is culturally authorized to consent to restoration activities? Is the long-term welfare of the local Indigenous community and their ability to remain on-country a part of the plan?

Nampin, a Traditional Custodian of indigenous Australian song lines and plant knowledge

Today, industries often use environmental and sustainability claims, as well as claims of Indigenous partnership, which can mislead consumers. The following guidelines identify areas where both businesses and consumers need more guidance. In the age of big restoration projects, it is crucial to listen to the human voices, experiences, and stories behind the numbers. These narratives can bring to life the true impacts of restoration programs, share sidelined perspectives, and foster new innovations, connections, and reconciliation.

Effective community engagement recognizes and respects the crucial place of First Nations culture and stories at the centre of Australia’s environmental heritage, and is founded on the following ten principles for respecting Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property; respect, self-determination, consent and consultation, interpretation, cultural integrity, secrecy and privacy, attribution, benefit sharing, maintaining First Nation’s culture, and recognition and protection (Janke 2021).

Community engagement on the APY Lands

If you are working in ecological restoration, consider these active points of engagement as a way to explore some of the deeper questions and values around sustainability, including the nature of evolution and the role of human beings in the natural environment;

  1. Involvement with First Nations peoples as key leaders and decision-makers in planning, policy and engagement. Organizations are required to have proper consultation, consent and permissions for working with First Nations ecological materials as part of their restoration plan. Have you checked what and whose cultural permissions must be sought prior to going forward with your project, and are you ready to accept their advice and decisions? Are you mapping the important historical human and biological systems in the region?

  2. Organizations must invest in dedicated programs and initiatives that support career development and cultural practice of First Nations workers. What percentage of your staff and on-country restoration workers are of First Nations identity?

  3. Acknowledge the ethical, intellectual and cultural heritage property rights of First Nations people in ecological resources. How are you and your organization acknowledging and celebrating First Nation cultural contributions in your projects? Are First Nations practitioners leading the planning and delivery of the restoration work? Do you have the proper and appropriate permissions to gather seeds and other ecological materials?

  4. Do you have an Indigenous Engagement Strategy? What are the mutual benefits of your restoration project? Are you sharing the learnings and financial benefits?

  5. Are there First Nations members on your board and in key leadership positions within your organization? How are you as an employer supporting the professional development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees?

These guidelines should be considered standard for the protection of the survival of First Nations as distinct peoples and are intended to address the challenges Indigenous people face around the world. Transparency and verification will be clearly expressed on the websites of those organizations that are doing it right.

The most vulnerable communities around the world are those that still hold an intricate knowledge of local cultural and biological diversity. Such forms of local knowledge (sometimes referred to as Traditional Ecological Knowledge, TEK) is vital to the survival of the planet, and disappearing fast. In a deeper sense, engaging appropriately with cultural practice and the custodians who hold it, is one of the main hallmarks of successful restoration impact.

Join us on this journey towards healing nature and restoration for people and the planet, walking together as we use our imagination and creativity to dream a more flourishing and compassionate world. Please consider joining the Biodiversity Action Network and support nature restoration projects around the world.

Bush Botanics is a founding member of the Biodiversity Action Network