Traditional Owners

Traditional owner recognised nationally

Last month Stefanie Wabnik, Coasts and Biodiversity Co-ordinator with Reef Catchments, nominated Koinmerburra Cultural Advisor Samarla Deshong for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Climate Adaptation Champions 2015-16 – Individual Category Awards.


Samarla Deshong

With 2961 entries, Samarla has been invited to Adelaide on July 5-7 to attend the NCCARF Conference and perform an oral presentation of her written abstract ‘Capturing traditional ecological knowledge and developing strategies to maintain traditional resources in a changing climate.’

Samarla’s connection to country was cultivated from a young age.

“I grew up in Cairns, spent a lot of time up the Cape. My mum was working, well she was the arts development officer of Indigenous Arts Queensland for a while, but into the indigenous arts culture and arts, so used to love going up there where a lot of the aboriginal mobs were family friends or relations. I was the one who sought to find out about culture and learn as much as I could, and I guess I’m still like that.”

Most of Samarla’s life has been dedicated to maintaining traditional culture, which centres on taking care of flora and fauna to ensure supplies of ‘bush tucker’ much of which is used in ‘bush medicine’ that in her words Mother Earth provides. It’s that dedication combined with research and study about climate change, which has led her to this point.

“Going over to Darwin and Broome and places like that through projects I’ve done and looking at the connection of all the groups and learning from them the differences between the inland aboriginal tribes and us coastal ones and just creating that connection and helping each other keep each other alive.”

It’s the next generation and those to follow who’ll need to continue the work, this is what spurs Samarla on as she recognises their role.

“I think it’s very important, my family, my nieces and nephews and my children – we’ve always raised them knowing as much of their culture as they could. Taking them out on country and I guess with them going to school, and seeing that it’s not a priority in learning about the aboriginal culture so it’s important for them and they’re very aware of what’s happening, you know, developments and everything in our area, so I guess I involve them a lot so that when we can’t do the work they’re the up and coming ones who can actually try and help keep looking after country and keep the culture alive.”


Traditional Owner Reference Group

An integral part of the Traditional Owner Reference Group (TORG) with Reef Catchments, Samarla appreciates the synergy of goals and aims as well as the opportunity to work with like-minded individuals.

“I guess from the natural resource management side, they (Reef Catchments) look after country and I guess it’s the same as the aboriginal people, our role is to look after country and I guess we thought we could help each other in doing that, complement each other, our knowledge and they’re knowledge to have really good outcomes.”

Why is that so important to indigenous people like Samarla?

“Having the traditional owners included in implementing plans, the management processes and working out on country and just actually having organisations learn about how we value land, and hopefully they understand and implement that kind of value into their planning.”

NRM Plan launch

NRM Plan launch

States like NSW, VIC and NT have been integrating that knowledge since 2009 into National Park management and recently in Victoria, traditional owners were granted traditional hunting and gathering rights determined by elders on an individual basis. Samarla says there is activity to achieve similar outcomes in Queensland.

“We have been working towards it for a few years, now with our TORG we have a good base of representatives both male and female. I don’t know if anyone has noticed that a lot of the national parks hold many of our culturally significant sites. We want to go in and negotiate with the government and work together because they’re looking after our sites, but one of our responsibilities as aboriginal people is to look after those sites too. And it’s a good place to take our young ones to train them.”

The future may be unknown, however that won’t change the work Samarla is engaged in, as far as climate change goes she’s determined to implement strategies to adapt, not only for indigenous but for all people.

“We did a project with CSIRO and Indigenous Ethno-Botany Centre and I wanted to continue that work because I’m really very interested in climate change and how the indigenous saltwater people can adapt. I think it’s really important (for everyone) in this day and age because you know we’re looking at I suppose having the healthiest country we can for future generations.”

Reef Catchments congratulates Samarla on this achievement and is pleased to be working with the TORG, we look forward to further news of her nomination in July.

ABSTRACT by Samarla Deshong

Capturing traditional ecological knowledge and developing strategies to maintain traditional resources in a changing climate.

The traditional and cultural practices of the Central Queensland east coasts aboriginal peoples depend upon continued access to traditional resources currently being impacted by climate change. Access on country is crucial in continuing our cultural practices and knowledge, and maintains our connection to country. On country our people can develop strategies to respond to the impacts of climate change. 

Existing threats need to be acknowledged, as they too will increase with climate change impacts. Rapid development and associated recreational pursuits by non-indigenous people continue to impact cultural sites through damage to the natural environment and the introduction of pest species. 

A collaborative research opportunity developed with Reef Catchments, CSIRO and members of the Traditional Owner Reference Group of the Mackay/Isaac region, designed a methodology to respond to the impacts of climate change and development, whilst strengthening connection to country. On Cape Palmerston National Park, the Koinmerburra, Yuwibara and peoples observed damage to cultural sites – a result of a combination of impacts including: destruction by visitors, extreme weather events, inappropriate fire management and changes in the availability of bush food and medicines. Activities ranged from recording and mapping traditional knowledge to developing plans to protect country to communication and awareness raising opportunities. Information was captured and represented spatially. Spatial representation is important for sharing and explaining potential future impacts on cultural heritage to other traditional owners. Informing and discussing impacts within our groups allow us to develop no-regret strategies, ensuring ongoing access to, and protection of traditional resources and cultural sites.


On the ABC, the Queensland archaeo-anthropologist, Dr Bryce Barker, speaks about finds in the Whitsundays where the Nagaro people made their home.

Indigenous Australians have managed their country

Indigenous Australians have managed their country for tens of thousands of years. An Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) is an area of Indigenous-owned land or sea where traditional owners have entered into an agreement with the Australian Government to promote biodiversity and cultural resource conservation.

The IPA initiative provides funding support for Indigenous organisations to develop cooperative management arrangements with State or Territory conservation agencies over National Parks or other protected areas. This assists Indigenous parties in identifying management issues and negotiating a decision-making framework to enable co-management arrangements.

These arrangements allow for:

  • Decision making and governance structures
  • Management issues requiring special attention
  • A process for appropriately interpreting features of a protected area

People Talk about Country, speak and sing to Country, visit and worry about Country, feel sorry for Country, long for Country. People say that Country knows best, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy. It has consciousness and a will towards life. Because of this richness, Country is love and peace, nourishment for Body, mind and spirit. (Interpretation Australia 2003).

Traditional Owner Reference Group

The Traditional Owner Reference Group is made up of representatives from each tribe (Juru, Yuwibara, Koinmerburra, Barada/Wiri, Ngaro, and Gia) within the boundaries of the Reef Catchments Mackay Whitsunday region. This group provides guidance on what projects they feel are important for funding. Their involvement is producing real outcomes for the benefit of their lands and the wider community. Healthy Rivers to Reef is a partner.


Indigenous Protected Areas


Working Together on Country

Key Contact

Stefanie Wabnik
Position Coordinator Coasts and Biodiversity
Phone(07)4968 4225
Mobile0409 677 117
E-Mail: Stefanie Wabnik