Plants and animals

Plants and animals are totems for Aboriginal Peoples.

The impact of the loss of our totem animals is enormous. When our totem dies, our connection with the spirit is compromised. The spirit and totem are as one and once our totem dies, a bit of our spirit dies as well. We feel the whole of Country in ourselves and its loss is felt in our whole spirit, not just the body that carries the spirit.

Plants and animals are totems for Aboriginal Peoples. Aboriginal Peoples share the land with them and their relationship is fundamental to the continued practice, and cultural responsibility – for food, health, shelter, cultural expression and spiritual wellbeing. Caring for plants, animals and their habitats is therefore seen as a keyway of expressing culture. In 2019 at the University of Melbourne the Living Pavilion was an Aboriginal led project that connected Indigenous Knowledge, ecological science, sustainable design and participatory arts. Over 40,000 Kulin Nation plants were installed to represent local Aboriginal perspectives, histories and culture.39

Indigenous ecological knowledge of Country, including knowledge of plants and animals, has sustained life and been passed on by Aboriginal Peoples for tens of thousands of years, and remains distinctive to each Aboriginal clan and language group in Victoria. With the expanding recognition of the unique qualities of Australia’s native plants and animals in Australia and Internationally, there has been rapid growth in research, development and commercialisation of bushfoods, medicines and products, with the Australian native foods industry alone estimated to be worth approximately $20 million in 2019.40

Unfortunately, the majority of the development and growth of the native foods industry and use of Indigenous medicinal knowledge in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries have been led by non-Indigenous industry and businesses, utilising Indigenous ecological knowledge to its own advantage without co-design or benefit sharing with Traditional Owners and communities.

At the inaugural Indigenous Native Foods Symposium held in Sydney in October 2019, it was determined that Indigenous businesses represent only 2% of the providers across the supply chain in the native foods industry despite being the providers of the knowledge on which the industry is based.41

There has only been fragmented approaches at the national and state level to implement best practice International obligations concerning conservation of biodiversity resources (plants and animals) and fair and equitable sharing of benefits with Indigenous People - See Appendix 2 for more information about the UNESCO Convention on Biological Diversity and the Nagoya Protocol. Victoria recently updated its Flora

and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 (Vic) - the key biodiversity legislation in Victoria – to incorporate consideration of the rights and interests of Traditional Owners, however these amendments stop significantly short of the access and benefit sharing obligations of International instruments.

There are great opportunities for Traditional Owner groups and the wider Aboriginal community to develop and commercialise their knowledge through bush products and tourism ventures on Country already. It is imperative that Aboriginal Peoples also actively engage with and guide the future growth of industries incorporating Indigenous ecological knowledge to ensure appropriate collaboration, consultation, free prior informed consent, access, benefit sharing and commercialisation arrangements.

Discussion question: How are plants and animals looked after as Cultural Heritage of Aboriginal Peoples?

  • How do Aboriginal Peoples want to connect with plants and animals?
  • How should non-Indigenous business and industry work with Aboriginal Peoples in the development of industries that use their plants and animals and knowledge?
  • In what ways can Aboriginal Peoples be empowered to control and manage the use of plants and animals e.g. caring for forests etc?
  • How can Aboriginal Peoples control dissemination of their knowledge about plants and animals?
  • How should Aboriginal Peoples be involved in the industries that use their plants, animals and knowledge e.g. native foods industry?