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Reporting on the 8th Biennial K’gari (Fraser Island) Conference

The 8th Biennial K’gari (Fraser Island) Conference was going to be a challenge for many.  Without ‘Fearless Leader,’ John Sinclair AO, at the helm, there were some massive boots to fill.  John would have been very proud, because the team behind the conference including FIDO’s Maria Miller, the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation’s Mellissa Foley and Jade Gould and the University’s of the Sunshine Coast’s Kim Walker, ably supported by John’s son, Keith Sinclair and a wonderful team of FIDO supporters, convened an excellent conference that inspired, educated and enabled some great conversations about K’gari.

Veronica Bird chaired the opening session on ‘Community’, introducing Aunty Joyce Bonner to welcome delegates to Country before a video message from the Queensland Minister for the Environment, Leeanne Enoch.

Steve Biddulph encouraged delegates to set out into the wilderness

Leading social psychologist and advocate for wilderness experiences, Steve Biddulph, then provided the opening presentation for the day, talking about human development and its four storeys – body, emotions, intellect and spirit.  Steve explained that the ‘spirit’ is our connection to the outside or ‘the wild’ and is the way we are supposed to live; connected to nature, its cycles and the wisdom of our extended families through parents, uncles and aunties and ancestors.  Sadly, modern society often disconnects us from the wild and the nurture of an extended family, which is leaving many young people in trouble.  Statistically, boys are three times more likely to develop a drug or alcohol problem or have an early death and nineteen times more likely to end up in prison.  Young women (<15 years) now have a 1:5 chance of developing an eating disorder, 1:5 will have had one or more sexual partners and 1:5 take anti-anxiety medication.  Steve stressed the importance of families taking time with their young people to relax and experience the wild together. 

Dr Fiona Foley followed with a thought-provoking presentation providing a Butchulla interpretation of first contact in her talk and short film; All roads lead to Takky Wooroo.  “The ship rose out of the sea like cloud and kept close to the land for three to four days.  Who are these strangers, and where were they going?”  Fiona referred to British arrogance, scientific racism, historical amnesia and the annihilation of culture in the 1850s referring to the use of opium, the Susan River and K’gari massacres.  Dr Foley proposed that it was time to move forward and mark the massacre sites with a memorial and for the development of a Badtjala Research Centre. 

Opening session two, on ‘Culture,’ Jade Gould introduced Christine Royan who provided a history of the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation and the long fight for K’gari and Butchulla Country resulting in the Native Title determination for K’gari on 24 October 2014 and the Land and Sea Claim #2 over the Great Sandy Strait and the mainland which is pending a decision later this year.  Christine talked about the humble beginnings of the group which started with a bank balance of $80 and initially operated out of Kyleigh Currie’s house.  Christine spoke about the importance of partnerships and collaboration and reflected on some of the BAC’s key achievements:

  • Celebrating 25 years of World Heritage
  • The K’gari Dreaming documentary with Channel Ten
  • The Queensland Government-funded Butchulla Land and Sea Rangers
  • Junior Ranger pilot program within schools
  • Mentoring for Butchulla Community Rangers
  • Fee-for-service work with QPWS
  • Butchulla temporary positions with QPWS on K’gari
  • Cultural mapping and recording
  • Cultural awareness programs
  • The appointment of the Education and Communications and BAC Project Officers

Rose Barrowcliffe talked about her research, reading ‘between the lines’ as she uncovered the Butchulla history contained in the K’gari Research Archive.  Rose revealed that within the collection’s 1605 reference materials, a search of the term Butchulla had revealed only nineteen references or 1.4% of the collection, suggesting that this was an ontological crisis for her research with the Butchulla “almost nowhere to be seen.”  Widening her research to include the terms ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’ had resulted in 168 references (4.2%).  Rose compared the challenge to that of “women and people of colour” that had resulted in the New York Times series “Overlooked No More” with a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The New York Times.  Rose commented that some problems related to archivist knowledge, for example with some metadata incorrectly referenced as Gubbi Gubbi instead of Butchulla.  But for Rose, it was like putting together the clues of people, place and time to give the who, where and what of Butchulla history contained within the collection.  Rose stated the urgency of recording this story with the loss of knowledge holders.  She closed with a comparison to artist Titus Kaphar and ‘painting hierarchy’ within historical images. 

Rowan Foley talked about generating income through the carbon economy

Rowan Foley, CEO of the Aboriginal Carbon Foundation, talked about Poverty in Paradise and how carbon economics had been used in Cape York to generate community prosperity.  With the Australian Government currently offering ~$12/tonne of carbon and $17-$25 available through the voluntary market, carbon farming offered opportunities for aboriginal people to practice their environmental, social and cultural responsibilities.  Rowan talked of Paolo Friere, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is an approach to education that aims to transform oppressive structures by engaging people who have been marginalised and dehumanised by drawing on what they already know.  Carbon farming requires audits to be undertaken and ACF has been working with partners to develop an Indigenous evidence-based verification tree, empowering communities to create a process that is rigorous, independent, and acceptable to the mainstream.

Prof. Jamie Shulmeister provided an update on the work the University of Queensland had been undertaken on dune geomorphology with the age structures of the dunes (across two transects from Dundubara to Awinya and Dilli Road) and also the history contained within the dunes of the island’s lakes. K’gari’s dunes are associated with high sea levels, with the coast at low sea levels extending 90Km further out to sea. He stated that the lakes reflected both rainfall and sea-level changes on K’gari, but that there had always been lots of freshwater on K’gari.  He talked about a giant lake that would once have included Lake Boomanjin and Sheep Station Lagoon, but this gradually reduced in size as sea levels dropped and the lake edge dunes started to infill (about 28,000 years ago).  Jamie also suggested that historically there would have been lakes near Moon Point (under the current patterned fens) from 40 to 12,000 years ago. 

Moving into the afternoon ‘Collaboration’ session, chaired by Sue Sargent, a series of short presentations included:

Dr Ian Muirhead is a retired plant pathologist who now volunteers on the bitou bush eradication program with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and Biosecurity Queensland. Ian stressed the significance of this weed, which invades and dominates native habitat.  He talked about the methodology the team used with GPS surveys, helicopter surveys (and follow up) and more intensive ‘emu parades’ to focus on previously recorded sites and noted that drones/remote-sensing would make it easier to access more inaccessible areas.  Finally, Ian suggested that while eradication on bitou bush was possible, we need to keep up the pressure of surveillance. 

Dr Lindy Orwin talked about the Cooloola Bioblitz, ‘Where science comes to you.’  Lindy highlighted the bioblitz approach and the focus it brought to an area enabling experts and citizen scientists to work alongside.  The 2018 bioblitz had resulted in 1400 records to be uploaded to iNaturalist and a further 1000 records already this year.  Robert Whyte had discovered 78 species of spiders to date.  Two moths have also been rediscovered with a Boronia moth and Kauri moth larva (99.4% confidence in identification) which were thought to be extinct.   A new species of Allocasuarina was also recorded.  Lindy highlighted the importance of ‘moments’ such as the discovery of giant 15m trees and ground parrots observed at dusk and cross-discipline collaboration with artists.

Dr Bradley Smith decoded the Human-Dingo Conflict on K’gari and examined interventions to date in addressing problem dingo-human interactions with 160 dangerous interactions between 2001 and 2015.  Bradley suggested that education has been crucial, with 73% of incidents occurring during the day and peaking in April, with a ‘hot spot’ around Eurong.  He reflected than many problems were associated with sub-adult males – with 78% acting alone and 11% operating as a pair.  45% of incidents occurred while walking, 12% while running. 76% resulted in minor injuries.  For incidents involving children, while adults were present 89% of the time for 47% of the time, these were more than five metres away from their children.  Dr Smith suggested a range of strategies that could be used to further reduce conflict, including:

  • Reducing speed limits
  • Having an annual ‘Dingo Week.’
  • Establishing public no-go dingo zones
  • An increased presence of rangers and volunteers to improve education
  • Early warning systems/live cam
  • Non-lethal strategies
  • Shift the mind-set
  • Increased penalties for interfering with wildlife
  • Promoting appropriate behaviour better
  • More research and a better understanding of dynamics. 

Finally, Dr Gabriel Conroy talked about the baseline genetic research that had been undertaken of the K’gari dingo population. The species has ancient canid lineage and has been on K’gari for more than 4500 years (and up to 16,000 years) with a low number of ‘founder’ events, i.e. a small number of common ancestors.  Gabriel talked about the species’ contrary protection status, i.e. protected on the island while considered a pest elsewhere, and the dingo’s profound cultural importance and role as an ecosystem regulator. The objective of the research was to compare K’gari’s dingo population to the mainland population. In the study, 175 viable dingo scat samples were provided by QPWS, with 264 samples also sourced from the southern part of the island and mainland.  The K’gari dingo’s genetic profile was very different from the mainland dingo, and although the population size was adequate, genetic diversity was low (statistically lower than the mainland) indicating a lower adaptation potential.  The results were as expected, as the K’gari population is small with no exchange with the mainland.  

Report compiled by Sue Sargent, Chair, FINIA

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