Biosecurity: a First Nations perspective
Updated: May 11
Australia has lost over 20 of its marsupials to feral cats and foxes. Each one has a Dreaming story attached it to. Dozens more Australian mammals are at risk from continued predation by invasive predators. And hundreds more from other invasive species. When we lose our native species to extinction, we lose more than just our natural heritage. We lose significant parts of the ancient - and still living - cultural heritage. We lose things that belong to this continent. That's why biosecurity is important from a First Nations perspective.
Formally, biosecurity refers to measures taken to protect plants, animals, and people from harmful organisms and diseases. But from First Nations perspectives, biosecurity is much deeper. Of course, it is an important aspect of modern agriculture, food safety, and public health. But as First Nations people, we see it as critical in protecting country and the Dreamings that are part of it. We are custodians of an ancient continent that drifted up from Gondwanaland isolated from the rest of the world over millions of years. As a result of that, Australia is home to an incredibly diverse range of plant and animal species. Many are endemic and found nowhere else in the world. All are connected to the Dreaming. They are cultural as well as natural heritage.
For First Australians, biosecurity is about caring-for-country holistically by maintaining the overall health and wellbeing of the land, its ecosystems, and the people who depend on it. These traditional biosecurity practices involve a deep and holistic approach to land management. They include intuitive and active monitoring and management of ecosystems, as well as the animals and plants that inhabit them. They involve deep understandings of the particular ecologies of local areas, including the behaviours of native animals, the cycles of plant growth and reproduction, and interactions between different species. As First Australians, we use our knowledge to manage the land in a sustainable way. We see ourselves as part of the environment and working with it rather than against it.
An important aspect of Indigenous biosecurity is the use of traditional ecological knowledge. This is complex and sophisticated knowledge handed down over generations. It is based on direct and deep observation and understanding of the natural world. But also active participation in it. Traditional ecological knowledge includes detailed understanding of local flora and fauna, as well as the ecological relationships between them. It is used to manage country in a sustainable way that does not deplete it. We have used traditional knowledge to care for country for tens of thousands of years. And of course we still use it today as a key tool in land management. Every D'harawal Dreaming story my family has shared with me has multiple meanings about how as humans we should behave, care for and be part of the ecology.
A key element of traditional knowledge on biosecurity is the use of fire. We have used fire as a tool for land management since the Dreaming. For at least 60,000 years! By cool-burning small patchworks of land at strategic times of the year, we promote growth of new vegetation, reduce fuel loads, and create firebreaks that protect against large wildfires. Importantly, this cultural burning also maintains biodiversity and the capacity of country to resist invasive species and their impacts. Science from the work of the Kiwirrkurra Rangers in the Gibson Desert, for example, shows that their cultural burning reduces the predator efficiency of feral cats and supports bilby populations. And at Wombat Ridge Nature Reserve, where I'm responsible for caring-for-country, one of a number of outcomes we achieve through cultural burning is control of invasive species. Cultural burning is also used to attract animals to certain areas and encourage growth of traditional foods and medicines. We sometimes call this fire-stick farming. By carefully controlling the use of fire, we can maintain the health of the land and its ecosystems and carefully manage and adjust it to grow and protect food and medicine sources. This is also biosecurity.
So these are just some reasons why, for First Nations, biosecurity is more than a narrow field focused on management of invasive species and diseases. Biosecurity encompasses a wide range of issues that affect the health and wellbeing of ecosystems, and the culture, identity, and health of peoples and their economies. As a former diplomat and Ambassador for Australia, one way I conceptualise this broader concept of biosecurity is through the lens of 'national security', which is recognised as more than just border protection and defence. Among other things, Australia's national security is about our food security, social cohesion, climate change impacts and adaptation, and our critical infrastructure.
A First Nations concept of biosecurity incentivises a focus on prevention rather than treatment and management interventions. Conventional biosecurity often involves reactive measures such as quarantine and eradication. But a First Nations approach involves proactive measures such as active and intuitive monitoring, early detection, prevention and interactive management. Focusing on prevention is a way of caring-for-country and protecting our Dreamings. It allows us to reduce the cultural, social, spiritual, economic, and environmental costs of biosecurity threats.
Despite the many benefits of Indigenous biosecurity practices, they are often overlooked by government policies and programs, and the scientific community. This is partly due to a lack of understanding of the complex knowledge systems and practices of First Nations in caring-for-counrty. But it is also due structural issues that limit inclusion and recognition of Indigenous Australians in biodiversity conservation and biosecurity. The Voice will help address this by bringing First Nations ideas and knowledge to the fore.
On 15 and 18 May, I will deliver a lecture and tutorial to students at the Australian National University's Research School of Biology. I wrote this article as background for them. It is important to note that First Nations cultures and ideas are diverse and these are my views only. Other Aboriginal Australians will have different perspectives.
Wallaby Dreaming, Gregory Andrews.