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Listening to Indigenous knowledge

It’s a deeply traditional idea that has somehow become revolutionary: humans should live within the bounds of their ecosystems. Kerry Arabena is working to revitalise the concept, which has a 60,000-year history in Australia. And she has one particular reason for optimism.

Arabena is Chair for Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne. She’s started a research program around Ecohealth – elevating Indigenous knowledge on the environment and on country, for the good of people and of the land.

 “We’ve had 60,000 years or so of being able to live within the confines of an ecosystem, and people’s entire lives were framed by that … now it’s a deeply challenging mind-shift,” says Arabena, a descendant of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait.

Far from exploiting country, water and the atmosphere for profit in a market economy, Arabena would like to see Indigenous ideas of stewardship revived.

“We know we have had custodial responsibilities to care for country, in doing that then it cares for us,”- says Arabena.

Moving away from the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and away from technological “progress” is incredibly difficult, she says. But it’s needed.

“It’s like a jarring of people to call them back to their real authentic self. I don’t know if our real authentic self means sitting in front of a computer for 16 hours a day, walking across roads looking at our mobile phones.”

Arabena displays a qualified optimism about changing Australians’ relationship with country. Based in the University’s Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, she’s quick to point out that there is now the largest number of adolescents alive on the planet than ever before.

“Young people who are highly globalised, they know that they want to take care of and manage land. They’re doing incredible things,” she says. “I think with that kind of population we can really change the world.”

Arabena’s research work includes investigating the health and wellbeing impacts of Indigenous people getting out onto country.

“The vision is to take [Indigenous] people back out to country and improve their health and wellbeing by engaging in custodial responsibilities and cultural custom,” says Arabena, a former social worker who did a PhD in human ecology.

She cites research that found taking Aboriginal people with chronic illnesses out to traditional lands had profound health benefits. She’d like to research this – the cultural determinants of health – further. Tied to that is the environmental impact of integrating Indigenous knowledge, for example on burning-off, diversification of grasslands, and soil regeneration.

Arabena is also working on climate change, writing a book chapter for 2015 on how to manage the impacts of climate change on Aboriginal people. “People who live in rural and remote-area communities are going to feel the full impacts of climate change before we get to feel them in the cities,” she says.

Then there’s the 2016 Onehealth Ecohealth conference, which will look at what it means to live within an ecosystem. The Melbourne conference will host about 2000 people. Arabena is on the board and chairs the program committee.

Arabena’s research agenda is ambitious and her record shows she’s prepared to challenge established norms and institutions, on issues including Indigenous reconciliation and constitutional recognition (she was founding co-chair of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples). She has described herself as a provocateur.

“I would hope that what I do is give people a different perspective,” Arabena says. “I want to stretch the limits of people’s thinking.”


Photo courtesy of Peter Casamento


Chair for Indigenous Health