As an environmentalist, my assumptions, perspectives and values have been challenged over the last two years since working on Indigenous-forest management with Djaara.
Through difficult conversations, walking on Country with Traditional Owners, scientists, environmentalists, foresters, students, everyday people, MPs and representatives from all levels of government, I more deeply understand the breadth of perspectives, sometimes contradictory priorities, and unwavering endurance of positions when it comes to caring for and managing our forests.
I’m a settler from a multi-cultural family living on traditional land in so called Australia. I was born in Brasil (another settler society) on the lands of the Tupi people, but I grew up on Wurundjeri Country in outer suburban Melbourne.
I have been an active part of the environment and climate movements for over 12 years as a student, volunteer, and staff member. I have been working on climate and environmental justice issues in Australia and the Pacific since 2015.
Through a Master of Environment at Melbourne Uni I focused my studies on community-based climate adaptation, coastal restoration in Fiji, and climate impacts on forests. During this time, I started to more deeply understand the huge rifts that have developed between people and communities because of forestry and forest conservation. My supervisor was working with prominent forest campaigner Sarah Rees, and in 2017 I ran a tour of the proposed Great Forest National Park with Sarah and Chris Taylor.
At the same time, I was taking a subject on Forests, Carbon and Climate Change, when I fell into the polarized nature of forest politics. A fellow student (who was a former VicForests employee) and I had an argument in class one day. After the interaction, which was about the impacts of logging on Leadbeater’s possum, the teacher proclaimed to the class, this is what its like in forest politics. Two people yelling at each other, not listening, and not leaving space for other voices to be heard.
Working at DJAARA
I was initially hired to develop a climate change strategy for Dja Dja Wurrung Country, which we launched in May 2023 – titled Turning Wrong Way Climate Right Way.
However, through working closely with the Djaara authors of Galk-galk Dhelkunya I was immediately drawn to Forest Gardening because I saw the opportunity that my unique life experience and professional interests had in building effective and transformative dialogue between Traditional Owners, environmentalists, and forest managers. When a role to lead the implementation of Galk-galk Dhelkunya became available at the end of 2022, I knew this was the journey I was meant to follow.
Galk-galk Dhelkunya is Dja Dja Wurrung’s philosophy and practice for cultural landscape management. In Djaara language it translates to ‘to care for/to heal many trees’.
Galk-galk is NOT about logging, exploiting forest ecosystems, chasing profit or contributing to climate change. It’s exactly the opposite.
All Djaara’s work is holistic, intergenerational, and focused on healing Country. Yet following the 2021 catastrophic storms that caused widespread impacts across Victoria, particularly on Dja Dja Wurrung Country in the Wombat State Forest and the associated storm recovery works conducted by VicForests, Djaara has been seen to being either misled by others or exploiting Country for profit itself.
Neither of these are true. But many in the environment movement and forest loving communities have leaned closer to believing these assumptions, even when we have proactively communicated the long-term vision for healing Djandak (Dja Dja Wurrung Country) through Galk-galk Dhelkunya. The fears being felt by some for forests and the Wombat being exploited are serious and part of the reason for this article.
Cultivating community resilience
We need to find better ways of walking with others, talking with them openly and connecting to Country. The alternative is unacceptable and will only prevent First Nations self-determination and leave Country in a sick and unhealthy state.
It’s through this understanding that when the Friends of Earth team reached out in early 2023, I welcomed the opportunity to co-design ways of bringing Djaara and the movement together to develop understanding and a shared pathway forward.
We have been working closely with FoE, leading on-Country yarns with Wombat Forest Care, Wombat Action Group and others in the movement to do just that. In addition, our team continues to engage widely with MPs, scientists from a cross section of academic institutions, government agencies, other environment groups and the broader community to build understanding of Galk-galk Dhelkunya and to find ways for others to walk with Djaara in healing Country.
Through these on-Country walks we are starting to address the confusion and fear that has grown following the storm and salvage operation. We have dialogue between groups and communicate more regularly. We won’t always agree with each other, but it’s clear to me that there’s far more that we agree on than we disagree on.
We are more alike than the caricatures of environmentalists, traditional owners and foresters are portrayed, and by walking on Country together, sitting around a fire, yarning, and listening to Country we are better able to move forward. Even if it’s sometimes over rocky and overgrown terrain.
Cultural benefits of healing Country
Since working with Djaara and intimately connecting myself to Galk-galk Dhelkunya I have become incredibly hopeful for the future. I have seen what can be achieved when young Djaara people are leading cultural burning across Country, returning culturally important plants through Indigenous led revegetation efforts or planning the reintroduction of keystone species like Emu and Quoll.
I’ve seen what it means for Djaara and the broader Aboriginal community to be able to access Country, manage Country, harvest resources from Country, create scar trees on Country and heal Country. I’ve seen the incredible pride that comes when Djaara people can create cultural artifacts crafted from timber provided from Country, which their Ancestors looked after for over 65,000 years and the cultural and economic value that can be produced when timber resources are honored, valued and crafted into their highest potential – like the Djaara Guitar which was recently produced through DJAARA Timbers (Djaara’s not-for-profit specialty timbers project).
Music is a tool that can speak across worlds. The guitar is a European instrument but that many Aboriginal people connect with and play. The Djaara Guitar is an Indigenous designed, sourced and produced instrument gifted from Country to talk across worlds.
Like music, my role at Djaara is to find ways for two-way knowledge exchange, creating trust-based relationships grounded in respect and to work to heal the divide between Traditional Owners and environmentalists.
Environmentalists have always been great allies of First Peoples. The Wombat Forest storm and subsequent cleanup has resulted in a complex fracture between both communities.
The climate and biodiversity crises require us to walk together to build resilience if we are to have any chance of securing a safe climate future for people and our planet. Traditional Owner landscape management through Galk-galk Dhelkunya and similar cultural landscape practices provides tremendous opportunities to heal Country, heal rivers and waterways, reduce catastrophic fires, provide habitat, and enhance biodiversity.
The environment movement has a unique opportunity to prioritise and practice radical support for self-determination. Even if our priorities may differ from time to time, I can assure you having walked, worked and lived on both sides of this divide, Djaara’s vision for Country through Galk-galk Dhelkunya aligns with environmental protection, biodiversity, care for people and fostering resilience.
Galk-galk Dhelkunya is about returning healthy, functional, and diverse ecosystems where people, animals and plants can interact and work together to maintain resilience across landscapes and within communities as they did prior to European invasion.
It’s where catastrophic bushfires, even in a climate changed world are no longer possible because Djaara is regularly practicing cultural fire across Djandak, helping to enhance biodiversity.
It’s where culturally important and large habitat trees are more prominent in the landscape because Djaara’s cultural thinning teams have returned mosaic structures to the landscape that mimic precolonial habitat and forest structure.
It’s where our Djaara crews are planting culturally important trees and plants across degraded land, healing upside Country and storing more carbon in the landscape to mitigate climate change.
And it’s where Djaara’s Gatjin (water) team is healing rivers and waterways, constructing chains of ponds that reduce flood risk, lower urban heat, store carbon in wetlands and enhance aquatic ecosystems. All of this by Djaara for Djaara and Djandak, but with benefits for everyone.
The opportunity for solidarity
I am committed to this work because as settlers living and benefiting off Aboriginal land, it is our obligation to do what we can to enable self-determination for our First Peoples. But I’m also committed because I can see that when Traditional Owners lead, collectively we are far more able to respond to grand challenges like pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change.
If you’re still unsure or confused then I encourage you to ask, listen, read and take in the rich breadth of First Nations authored literature, resources and cultural competence training that is available. It’s each of our responsibility to build our own awareness and stand in true solidarity and allyship.
We are more alike than we sometimes like to admit – and our forests need us to walk together in practicing Galk-galk Dhelkunya for a healthy, sustainable and resilient future.
You can read the Galk-galk Dhelkunya strategy here.
Oli lives and works between Boon Wurrung, Woi Wurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung Countries and has been working with the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation (DJAARA) for two years on climate change, renewable energy, forest restoration and landscape management. Outside of work he leads the Naarm based not-for-profit Climates, providing remote support, access to finance and capacity building for networks, communities and NGOs in the Pacific Islands.
Oli is also a founding volunteer, early staff member and now volunteer Board Member of Climate for Change. Before DJAARA, Oli worked at RMIT University on environmental justice, sustainable development and private land conservation; The Brotherhood of St Laurence on energy justice; and various other climate, environmental and conservation organisations and has published articles in academic journals and in The Conversation.