NTMSEUNA - Meeting Aboriginal Needs

Northern Territory Marine Science End User Knowledge Needs Analysis - Meeting Aboriginal Needs

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people accept primary responsibility for the lands and seas with which they are associated. They embrace use of land, waters and resources to meet human needs while meeting long-established and fundamental obligations to care for country. 

Changes in the ways sea country is used have created new challenges that also require new knowledge. To inform caring for country and managing, conserving and utilising natural resources in the contemporary Northern Territory, there is a need for western marine science and other disciplines to work together in support of Traditional Owners and managers, especially where others seek to use their land and seas. 
Indigenous organisations have identified and documented a number of issues about which they require better information: 

Caring for country and related opportunities to deliver environmental services, including: 

  •  establishing baselines and monitoring systems; 
  • managing invasive species and improving biosecurity; 
  • marine pollution; and 
  • climate change. 

Mainstream / orthodox industries and developments, including: 

  • mining;
  • tourism  
  • port and urban development; and
  • fisheries. 

A key research interest was to understand impacts and threats to country from damaging natural and human made causes across all sectors. Research around opportunities to use natural resources in a way that can enhance the biocultural and biophysical health of lands and seas - while also providing social and economic opportunities - was a recurring theme. 
However, accessible formal statements about research needs coming from Indigenous people and their organisations were clearly biased to products built around conservation goals, because support to prepare plans for use of country has been most readily available in these areas.  To supplement these statements it is necessary to consider Indigenous submissions on policy and practice on socioeconomic matters that may not directly address marine research or knowledge needs but reveal broader aspirations, interests or concerns that may arise in regard to sea country as well as in other settings. 


Key knowledge gaps sometimes related to absence of information at appropriate scales and of direct relevance to Indigenous interests. In other cases it was difficult to know whether apparent gaps resulted from poor accessibility or if additional new research was needed. The various sectors active in the marine environment gather and deploy research information that would be of use to Traditional Owners. However, much of this information may or may not be utilised due to issues of access and communication. 


Federal and Territory law and policy in land and resource management do little directly to meet Indigenous knowledge needs. The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1998 (Clth) sets broad goals for participation of Indigenous people in land and resource management but does not translate these into meaningful actions for commercial participation. Federal and/or Territory government and NGO support for conservation planning has no parallel in development planning.  National research priorities refer to Indigenous interests only in regard to health. Innovation and Science Australia’s developing Strategic Plan focuses on “big” science.  There has been no recent statement of NT government research priorities. Clearly there is a large Indigenous gap in Australia’s and the Territory’s research and innovation framework, including marine systems and issues. 


Broader issues of communication, access, consent and intellectual property, scale and context, compensation, appropriate use of Indigenous knowledge and governance were considered in exploring what is best practise collaborative research. These issues highlighted that in the context of cross cultural research the partnerships underlying, and processes adopted in the conduct of projects are of critical importance. 


Science research does not occur in a vacuum. In the absence of statements of needs and priorities from Indigenous groups, agendas will be determined by industry or researchers themselves. Adapting projects to encourage greater participation and deliver benefits to Indigenous people can be constrained by available time and funding. And without clear consent and reporting back to communities in a timely and appropriate manner, there may be no uptake of or benefit from research to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 


The continued growth of, and need for support of Indigenous-driven research currently and into the future is discussed as ‘Next Practise’, about how science needs and application may evolve. Contributions to greater capacity from communities to design, conduct and commission research as well as foster more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and scientists could do much to accelerate improvements in understanding of the land and seas of the Territory and the place of their people in them.