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The persistence of subsistence: qualitative social-ecological modeling of indigenous aquatic hunting and gathering in tropical Australia

Marcus Barber, Land and Water Flagship, CSIRO
Sue Jackson, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University
Jeffrey Dambacher, Digital Productivity Flagship, CSIRO
Marcus Finn, Australian Fisheries Management Authority


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Subsistence remains critical to indigenous people in settler-colonial states such as Australia, providing key foundations for indigenous identities and for wider state recognition. However, the drivers of contemporary subsistence are rarely fully articulated and analyzed in terms of likely changing conditions. Our interdisciplinary team combined past research experience gained from multiple sites with published literature to create two generalized qualitative models of the socio-cultural and environmental influences on indigenous aquatic subsistence in northern Australia. One model focused on the longer term (inter-year to generational) persistence of subsistence at the community scale, the other model on shorter term (day to season) drivers of effort by active individuals. The specification of driver definitions and relationships demonstrates the complexities of even generalized and materialist models of contemporary subsistence practices. The qualitative models were analyzed for emergent properties and for responses to plausible changes in key variables: access, habitat degradation, social security availability, and community dysfunction. Positive human community condition is shown to be critical to the long-term persistence of subsistence, but complex interactions of negative and positive drivers shape subsistence effort expended at the individual scale and within shorter time frames. Such models enable motivations, complexities, and the potential management and policy levers of significance to be identified, defined, causally related, and debated. The models can be used to augment future models of human-natural systems, be tested against case-specific field conditions and/or indigenous perspectives, and aid preliminary assessments of the effects on subsistence of changes in social and environmental conditions, including policy settings.

Key words

Aboriginal people; future scenarios; natural resource management; qualitative modelling; subsistence fishing

Copyright © 2015 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