DKCRC_Desert Knowledge through Desert Communities by alendar


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Jan Ferguson, Managing Director DKCRC

I would like to start by acknowledging Arrernte people as Traditional Owners of the
land we’re meeting on this week.

Their collaboration – and the collaboration of all desert peoples, Aboriginal and non-
Aboriginal - is critical to the success of the Desert Knowledge CRC.

And our approach to this collaboration is something we highlighted earlier this year in
a workshop we ran for Professor Mary O’Kane, who was reviewing the CRC program
for the Australian Government.

She later reported back to us that she found this to be a significantly different and
highly impressive feature of DKCRC.

We also promoted collaboration as a necessary element in effective ‘public good’
CRCs in our submission to the Review of the National Innovation System earlier this

Following on from this, today I am proposing that true Desert Knowledge depends on
collaboration with desert communities.

And these are the three themes I want to cover:
  • building relationships in a community of collaboration;
  • building in community development as an essential element in the research
      partnership; and
  • exchange across knowledge systems to produce true desert knowledge.

I am not saying anything particularly new, but I think it’s important that periodically
we re-examine these concepts, explain them again to the desert community and
reinforce them as fundamental to the way we operate.

Getting this CRC under way was a matter of intense and continuing negotiation to
set the framework of the collaboration between the Centre Partners, who form a
broad community of desert interest.

We enshrined the concept of partnerships with desert Aboriginal people in our
Centre Agreement: we now have five Aboriginal organisations as Centre Partners,
Partners or Affiliates; and Aboriginal people and their interests are represented on
our Board and in all of our Core Projects.

DKCRC operates, as you all know, in a cross-jurisdictional framework that
recognises the boundaries of the desert and works across State and Territory
borders across about 70 per cent of the land mass.

To work effectively we needed to develop strong partnerships with the principal
agencies and individuals in three levels of government across the desert – a
complementary community of interests.

And then, as our research depends on cross-disciplinary collaboration, we also
needed to bring together diverse teams: biophysical and social scientists, Aboriginal
people, industry representatives and with policy and service delivery representatives
from Government.

This is the front line of field partnerships, a front line on which individuals need to:
    a) learn to work effectively across disciplines and in a collaborative manner; and
    b) operate with extreme sensitivity in a complex cross-cultural environment.

As Mark Stafford-Smith has pointed in The Science of Desert Living, the desert
presents challenges: sparse, mobile and patchy population, a low critical mass of
skills and expertise, social uncertainty and an unpredictably over markets, labour
and policy.

DKCRC understands that research agencies can’t work in this environment without
respecting others and we believe that generating trust and respect through
relationship-building are critical to true working partnerships.

This is a theme which will be worked over in many different variations throughout this
gathering and, indeed, throughout our entire research program

We have had to make sure that our research teams don’t just blunder into this
environment as many have done before, so we have set out ways for them to
operate with Aboriginal people as partners.

We have taken the time to spell out what we expect with our Protocol for Aboriginal
Knowledge and Intellectual Property, which includes a good manners guide for
working with Aboriginal people.

Paul Wand, our Chairman, will be discussing what this has achieved in greater detail
elsewhere in this Symposium.

I would like to point out, however, that partnerships are not just about employing
Aboriginal people on research teams, although that is a good start to developing

Our engagement has started with going out and asking people for their help, in
keeping with our developing philosophical base for living and working in the desert.

We need Aboriginal know-how about desert living as much as we do the more formal
Knowledge and we can see all of these neatly bridged many projects on water,
governance, business development, bush foods and so on.

In an investigation of thermal efficiency of housing, single Warlpiri women said
housing design should accommodate their ways of doing things - being able to look

outside while they sat on the floor of the house – and research showed that this
could be done without compromising thermal performance.

Insights like that are the product of trust and respect, of relationships and of an
organisational framework that recognises and respects the contribution Aboriginal
people can make.

We work in other areas where collaboration is particularly important; for example, the
pastoral industry.

We’ve worked with pastoralists and technicians to deliver smarter cattle
management, with telemetry-driven walk-on weighing and remote water supply
sensing and communications systems that are appropriate to the desert.

The field days we’ve run in the past year on this research have generated a lot of
interest and enhanced our reputation at the same time.

It’s extension work that has involved pastoralists and other industries in developing
solutions for themselves.

But, like the work we’ve done with Aboriginal people, it has also established our
identity as a member of the desert community and at the same time reinforced that

Going back to Mark Stafford-Smith’s work again for a moment, we see the desert not
as a basket case which needs external intervention to prop it up, but as a place with
assets which need nurturing and growing.

This leads me to the second and third themes, which I will run together: research as
community development and a learning exchange.

Our research is about giving, not just about extracting, knowledge.

As Paul Wand discusses in his presentation, our research underlines the fact that
the success of failure of desert systems, enterprises and processes depends heavily
on the extent to which Aboriginal people are engaged and involved in running them.

Aboriginal people from remote settlements gain knowledge, skills and a greater
sense of wellbeing as they work with researchers who work at creating real
relationships and research partnerships.

You can see this clearly in the work of Jocelyn Davies in working on country, Robyn
Grey-Gardiner in water management and Naomi Rae in the Anmatjere projects,
which include training and development, to name only three of our researchers.

Desert Aboriginal people also gain from helping develop research findings which can
be used to support their settlements and their livelihoods more effectively.

As an example, Aboriginal people contribute to research which impacts on policy
design, like Desert Services that Work, the water projects and the housing functional

project, and that reinforces among other things the need for localised control of
service design and delivery.

It also reinforces the need for us to play a role in developing local skills as a way of
supporting settlements and livelihoods to become more sustainable.

This is the kind of community development thinking which leads us to refining our
education program to involve more closely the VET sector rather than simply the
postgraduate end of higher education, precisely to build up the desert skill base and
support individuals and settlements

We have already been working with Waltja on the Research Nintiringtjaku
workshops, which have both developed Aboriginal researchers’ skills and added to
the knowledge of our non-Aboriginal researchers by showing them ways of being
and doing that are important to desert Aboriginal people.

That knowledge has been an important factor in the Protocol and the good manners

Finally, we recognise that desert knowledge is not just scientific, although clearly the
western tradition informs much of our approaches to desert challenges.

We understand that desert knowledge is where that tradition meets and is vastly
enhanced by Aboriginal Knowledge, the know-how that other desert dwellers bring
and the imperatives and experiences of people in industry – the pastoralists and the
miners among them – and the people who design policy and deliver services in

Desert knowledge that is effective for desert people is the product of that
collaborative community.

Thank you


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