Capturing Indigenous Knowledge in Water Management Processes – Wudjuli Lagoon Case Study, Ngukurr NT

Capturing Indigenous Knowledge in Water Management Processes – Wudjuli Lagoon Case Study, Ngukurr NT Report

NAILSMA Knowledge Series

  • Author(s): L. Watts, NAILSMA
  • Published: 2012
  • Publisher: North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance Ltd. (NAILSMA)

Abstract: Water is central to the laws, culture and religion of the people of the Ngukurr region. For tens of thousands of years people lived a hunter-gatherer existence in which they conceptualised and developed a sustainable system of land and water management. The arrival of Europeans to the Australian continent brought a European rationalisation of the environment, including science and technology, the expansion of a capitalist economy, the emergence of formal hierarchal organisation and the elaboration of the legal systems (Adams 2003). These four dimensions guided the way Europeans understood the landscape and sought to master it. In the 21st century, this worldview has emerged as the dominant narrative in contemporary natural resource management models. In the dramatic transition of land and water management regimes over a very short time frame Indigenous knowledge has received little recognition, and Indigenous histories and biogeography are rarely valued as significant data to the sustainable contemporary management of water resources. This study attempts to reverse this phenomenon by bringing attention to the narratives of the landowners of Wudjuli Lagoon, entitling the interests, knowledge, practices and values passed down through generations. Foremost, the research conducted in this study draws on traditional governance structures since these remain largely intact and continues to govern water management processes in an Indigenous context. Landowners are constantly drafting conservation plans in their minds, and this study captures an Indigenous perspective on the environmental problems, goals and locally-generated solutions that are part of this process and which display the inherent responsibility of landowners to ensure that Wudjuli Lagoon sustains future generations as it has served previous. Informing this case study are a series of research consultations that provided an opportunity for landowners to define their relation to Wudjuli Lagoon, confirm governance structures, identify traditional uses, articulate issues of concern and express their aspirations for its future use. An important component of capturing Indigenous knowledge is to record the environmental change as observed by participants. Participants involved in this case study have experienced first-hand a profound change to their physical and social landscapes, observing environmental changes for well over 50 years of living on country by the values that underpin Indigenous management and policy. Participants shared their knowledge to define the value of Wudjuli Lagoon to the local people, including explaining traditional codes of access, food production and sustenance, and of recreational and social pursuits and the provision of medicines, all of which relate to cultural uses of water. Local knowledge is acquired both by observation and through traditional teachings over long time frames where knowledge is passed down through generations (White 2010). Participants in this case study acquired their knowledge primarily aurally, recalling the information passed down to them by their forebears. Transmission of knowledge over these time frames serves to explain the seeming futility and ineffectiveness of short-term NRM projects or programs by contrast. However, the successful granting of the Lower Roper River Land Trust in 2003, under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, makes it foreseeable for landowners to continue to uphold their traditional practices and to determine suitable management processes in regard to Aboriginal tradition. Research consultations conducted as part of this study involved field trips and semi-structured interviews in which participants used their observational powers and shared experiences to construct narratives, creating a picture of the lagoon’s past and its current biogeography and the changes to it over recent time. Having grown up at Ngukurr, landowners have spatiotemporal experience and a plethora of reflections to draw from. These observations and experiences were recorded on camera, transcribed and presented on the premise that landowners were best placed to speak on Indigenous livelihoods and to determine their future. Landowners also contributed knowledge simulated by cultural mapping and Indigenous groundwater modelling exercises, capturing a depth of knowledge that made the key values of country easily understood and which enabled revelations that informed the western understanding. For instance, Indigenous knowledge of groundwater modelling can play a critical role in monitoring water allocation, ensuring that high rates of water extraction do not threaten poorly known or possibly endangered wetlands (Watts 2008). Field trips, locality maps and digital images of the site in question served as communication tools to predict the effects of hydrological changes and to assess the potential of small-scale commercial development projects proposed to utilise the water resource. The experience of being on country and the use of appropriate communication tools enabled landowners to describe and analyse environmental changes in a way that inspired further investigation. The methodology of the case study embraced the challenge of capturing Indigenous knowledge and presenting it to a range of scientific experts including hydrologists, hydrogeologists, horticulturalists and resource managers. At Ngukurr, landowners granted permission to present their perspective on the management of Wudjuli Lagoon to government and other agencies involved in resource management and development. Parallels between the two knowledge systems were drawn with respect to rainfall discharge, groundwater modelling, future uses, governance and water management processes, and the convergence of knowledge and transparent process indicated strong potential to integrate both western and Indigenous understandings within resource development. However, to improve integration for the better management of the Northern Territory’s resources, this case study also identified barriers to the use of traditional knowledge alongside western science.

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Suggested Citation
L. Watts, NAILSMA, 2012, Capturing Indigenous Knowledge in Water Management Processes – Wudjuli Lagoon Case Study, Ngukurr NT, Report, viewed 19 August 2022,

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