Building research partnerships for sustainable and innovative Indigenous communities in Australia’s Kimberley

Dr Anne Poelina Peter Cullen Fellowand Adjunct Senior Researcher and with the University of Notre Dame) worked closely with Dr Johan Nordensvard and Lindsay-Marie Armstrong from theUniversity of Southampton (United Kingdom) to facilitate a Kimberley 'Think Tank' Workshop.  Collaboration included community members from Bidan, Pandanus Park and Balginjirr riverside communities along with independent scholars and researchers associated with a range of national universities and private institutions.

Figure 1 Group photo. Photographer Cathie Martin

            The workshop members identified Climate change as one of greatest challenges facing humanity. Our reliance on fossil fuels has led us into destructive path dependency. Anthropogenic climate change is considered to be one of the greatest threats to human security. There is a direct correlation between the increase of emissions of greenhouse gasses, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2), leading to climate change and the rise of industrialisation, increasing affluence and consumption of developed countries. The need to reduce carbon emissions has dominated the global environmental policy agenda since the 1990s. The role of Indigenous peoples is under explored in terms of contributing to sustainable development and climate change mitigation pathways that are both environmentally and socially just. Indigenous people have brought forward the role of traditional ecological knowledge in identifying and adapting to climate change and have increasingly used legal forums for their cases. The workshop members identified that there is an urgency for Indigenous groups to prepare for and adapt to climate change in ways that support cultural values while also actively considering socioeconomic and political factors. This becomes even more important when proposed developments driven by large economic investment in Indigenous people’s land threatens the environment, traditional livelihoods and cultural values of communities.

Many countries are heavily reliant on extracting fossil fuels and pursuing other unsustainable mining activities, which have severe impacts on lands inhabited by indigenous people since time immemorial. It is therefore of high importance to build research and teaching partnerships for sustainable Indigenous communities to show alternative development pathways towards wellbeing and community capacity. The workshop worked on developing pathways for how to support innovation, research and teaching and to build capacity of Aboriginal people and their communities to strengthen their hybrid and new economies for sustainable life and sustainable development focused on place and methods of co-operation.  There were two outcomes that were of paramount importance:

1.         to create and support a long term initiative and physical space – a college and innovation hub - where this can take place and

2.         to develop a normative framework for how international and national co-operation can take place within an local Indigenous framework.

With combined elements of a research institute, innovation hub and secondary college, the Mardoowarra Institute and College being planned through Dr Poelina's work is visualised as a centre of excellence in sustainability and liveability for the tropics that develops and applies knowledge, promoting empowered development through integrating the arts, science culture and nature.  The Institute will test, develop and demonstrate innovations in education and training for empowered development suited to remote tropical regions. These will include human habitats and low carbon villages suited to the tropics. Through using best practice in tropical architecture and technology the college itself will be a working model of the innovative and appropriate systems it seeks to promote and extend across tropical environments in Australia and internationally. The Institute will develop, test and showcase suitable technologies and systems and build skills in using them. It is planned that a number of villages will have transformation acceleration programs where retooling and the retrofitting can be tested.

Programs of education, training, research and development will be implemented in conjunction with partners. These will range from secondary and trade training through to post graduate studies. All studies will be grounded in inter-cultural tolerance and respect. There will local skills training and enterprise development as well as opportunities for coordinating citizen science programs through to expert workshops to long-term and large-scale Research and Development (R&D) projects. The hub will act as centre for linking people across the Kimberley with people working on similar projects across the world on systems for supporting empowered cultural appropriate development. Through the R&D program it is planned to build linkages to a number of other case study sites overseas.

There was broad agreement that local research and capacity building projects would be seen as world's better practice in building a Transformational Model to shift Indigenous people from welfare to wealth creation. The Transformational Model will build the capacity and the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal/Indigenous people and their communities. We believe such a model will have international outcomes with the ability to impact on Indigenous peoples across the globe.