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Law for Country: the Structure of Warlpiri Ecological Knowledge and Its Application to Natural Resource Management and Ecosystem Stewardship

Miles C. C. Holmes, Principal Consultant Beit Holmes and Associates; University of Queensland
Wanta (Stephen Patrick) Jampijinpa, Australian National University


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Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) is deeply encoded in social processes. Our research shows that from an Indigenous perspective, IEK is a way of living whose core aim is to sustain the healthy functioning of people and country through relationships of reciprocity. However, IEK is often portrayed more prosaically as a body of knowledge about the environment. We introduce a framework, called ngurra-kurlu, that enables appreciation of indigenous perspectives on IEK. The framework was identified from the collaborative work of the authors with Warlpiri aboriginal elders in the Tanami Desert region of central Australia. Ngurra-kurlu facilitates cross-cultural understanding by distilling, from a complex cultural system, the five distinct conceptual categories that comprise IEK: law, skin, ceremony, language, and country. The framework enables engagement with nuanced environmental knowledge because it synthesizes, for cross-cultural audiences, all the key areas of knowledge and practice in which IEK is located. In particular, the framework highlights how social systems mediate the transmission, deployment, and regulation of environmental knowledge in on-ground situations, including collaborative natural resource management. Although the framework was generated in relation to one indigenous group, the epistemological structure of Warlpiri IEK is relevant throughout Australia, and the framework can be applied internationally to the emerging interest in fostering ecosystem stewardship in which the cultural connections between people and place are an integral part of ecosystems management.

Key words

Aboriginal Australians; anthropology; central Australia; cultural natural resource management; ecosystem stewardship; indigenous ecological knowledge; indigenous knowledge; indigenous land management; Northern Territory, Australia; social-ecological systems; Warlpiri

Copyright © 2013 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087