Teaching young urban Aboriginal people the value of their landscape reaps valuable reward

Monday, 6 June, 2016

Aboriginal art with Aunty Glenda

Since July 2014 the Aboriginal Riverkeeper Team project has been operating within the Georges River catchment in South West Sydney undertaking bush regeneration and strengthening the cultural knowledge and pride of its young Aboriginal trainees. ELA employ and manage the team who work fulltime on 15 different work sites which cover freshwater, brackish and saltwater sections of the 960km2 river catchment. The client, the Georges River Combined Councils Committee (GRCCC) encapsulates 8 member councils and the project is federally funded. The Aboriginal Riverkeeper Team currently includes: Lex Gerasimou (team leader), and the second intake of Aboriginal trainees: Beau Johnson, Jack Bugden, and Harry Cotterall. Project manager Vanessa Cavanagh ensures that the team have interaction with Aboriginal Elders and knowledge holders as well as the four Local Aboriginal Land Councils (Metropolitan LALC, La Perouse LALC, Gandangara LALC, and Tharawal LALC), as the team’s worksites fall within these LALC boundaries.

The project is currently half way through its life-span and the Riverkeepers have already achieved a wide range of positive outcomes. Trainees are learning about the ecology of the 41 ecological communities within the catchment (of which 29 are endangered ecological communities). They have also restored approximately 30 hectares of bushland; increasing habitat, protecting flora and fauna diversity, controlling invasive weeds and planting over 39,000 plants. Social outcomes include increased networking with and between the trainees, the four partner Local Aboriginal Lands Councils and the 8 LGAs within the GRCCC.

Not only are the trainees gaining diverse and valuable practical skills, they are also gaining formal qualifications through the Northern Sydney Institute (TAFE NSW). Recently, Stacey Gilbert (a member of the 2015 Riverkeepers) completed her Cert III in Indigenous Land Management and Cert II in Conservation Land Management, and has graduated to take on a full time position with ELA’s Bush Regeneration team. In May 2016, Larissa Cooper, an original member of the Riverkeepers, won a TAFE NSW Gili Award which celebrates and recognises the achievements of Aboriginal students that have positively contributed to Aboriginal communities. The four graduated trainees, Larissa, Stacey, Shannon Beale-Bogg and Nick Arends also won The Northern Sydney Institute Sustainability Students of the Year Award.

Most importantly, by engaging young Aboriginal people whom come from highly urban suburbs with their Aboriginal heritage, the project is delivering personal cultural outcomes for the team. Many of the work sites contain Aboriginal heritage values. By working in partnership with the Local Aboriginal Land Councils Elders and knowledge holders, the trainees are learning the right way to undertake bush regeneration that maintains the Aboriginal heritage that is present. They have been shown Aboriginal sites like: shelters with art, axe grinding grooves, middens and scar trees. In a way that respects Aboriginal cultural protocols, they have been told the stories associated with these places by Aboriginal Elders and knowledge holders. For the trainees this is often the first time that they have been taught about Aboriginal heritage values in the landscape and it is a very powerful lesson. These quotes from the trainees exemplify the ways that the project has empowered them by preserving and celebrating culture, and developing leadership skills:

“Before I started the Aboriginal Riverkeeper traineeship I didn’t really know much about Aboriginal culture and I wasn’t that comfortable talking about Aboriginal heritage.”

“As I did Aboriginal Studies I knew things about our culture, but this job has given me a better connection to it through meeting face to face with Elders and learning things that are not written in books or found anywhere else.”

“Great opportunity to gain qualifications but also reconnecting with culture & land.”

“I already had a little bit of knowledge but throughout this Riverkeeper traineeship I have connected a lot more through my culture and to the land. Very comfortable about speaking about knowledge of culture.”

“I feel very confident and very connected to my culture due to this Riverkeeper traineeship and not only [that, I’m] creating a cultural career path for myself.”

“I am very lucky to learn what I have, and given that I am still young, I want to learn more so that we can keep our cultural knowledge which is very important to me.”

Check out this video to see the Riverkeepers in action educating the community at the Eel Festival in Parramatta here.