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Indigenous engagement in the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge program: A review of policies, strategies and research activities

Jackson, Sue, Golson, Kate, Douglas, Michael M. and Morrison, Joe (2013). Indigenous engagement in the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge program: A review of policies, strategies and research activities<br />. Darwin, NT: TRaCK - Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge.

Document type: Research Report
Citation counts: Google Scholar Search Google Scholar

Author Jackson, Sue
Golson, Kate
Douglas, Michael M.
Morrison, Joe
Title of Report Indigenous engagement in the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge program: A review of policies, strategies and research activities
Publication Date 2013
ISBN 9781921576706   (check CDU catalogue open catalogue search in new window)
Publisher TRaCK - Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge
Place of Publication Darwin, NT
Total Pages 95
Field of Research 300800 Environmental Sciences
Abstract 1.1 Background

In recent years the Australian Government has been exploring the potential for long-term sustainable development in northern Australia. There is an historic opportunity to ensure that future development of the region takes place within a strategic and sustainable framework and that the widespread degradation of aquatic environments that has followed land use intensification elsewhere in Australia is not repeated in the north. Good policy and management of water resources must be underpinned by the best available evidence, however, it is widely acknowledged that the information available for northern Australia is limited and fragmented (see Pusey et al. 2011).

To improve the information base, over the past 5 years governments have invested in a number of initiatives focussed on northern Australia including: the Tropical Rivers Inventory and Assessment Project; the North Australian Irrigation Futures Program; the North Australian Land and Water Taskforce; the North Australian Land and Water Futures Assessment (which includes the North Australian Sustainable Yields Project) and several projects funded through the National Water Commission’s Raising National Water Standards Program. The largest co-ordinated investment has been through the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge Research Hub (TRaCK).

TRaCK was conceived to provide the science and knowledge needed by governments, industries and communities to sustainably manage northern Australia’s rivers and estuaries. TRaCK established a collaborative consortium of over 80 of Australia’s most experienced tropical river and coastal scientists and secured over $20m to support 5 years of research (2006-2011). TRaCK also
adopted strategies to build Australia’s capability to manage tropical rivers and coasts by recruiting new staff and post graduate researchers. This has been a very effective way of building  capacity, and to conduct an integrated program of research on a scale and level of coordination  never seen before in river and coastal research in northern Australia (or indeed in many other  regions).

TRaCK focussed on acquiring fundamental knowledge about the assets and values of tropical rivers and the ecosystem processes that underpin them. This involved broad-scale assessments of river types across the region and more detailed investigation in a small number of focus river systems, particularly in the Northern Territory (Daly, Darwin Harbour catchment), Queensland (Mitchell,  Flinders) and Western Australia (Fitzroy). TRaCK devoted considerable effort to developing and sustaining essential partnerships with stakeholders, particularly Indigenous groups, and  strengthening their capacity to engage in research and planning processes.

TRaCK has been very successful at improving the knowledge base for northern rivers and has developed new tools and approaches for cross-regional comparisons and integrated water planning and management. TRaCK’s research has provided new perspectives on ecosystem processes and the societal value associated with rivers and has greatly improved regional  capacity and stakeholder engagement in research and water planning. The outcomes from TRaCK are already influencing water planning and management across the region (see for example Chan et al. (2010) , Pusey (2011) and Jackson et al. (2012) and the impact of the program will continue to increase as the outputs from projects are disseminated.

1.2 Aim of this report
The original TRaCK funding proposal acknowledged that Indigenous knowledge is vital to the management of northern Australia and that Indigenous people had rarely been effectively engaged in water resource management research (see also Jackson and O’Leary 2006).Furthermore that research investment had not been at a sufficient scale to fully address the multi-faceted challenges facing the remote north, including rapid Indigenous population growth and limited regional research capacity. The proposal envisaged that the suite of research projects would contribute to a broader national policy framework seeking to develop effective enterprise, governance and employment benefits for remotely based Indigenous communities. The involvement of NAILSMA (North Australia Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance) as a TRaCK partner was seen by funding bodies and participating research organisations as an asset for the program.

In response to the need to improve on past practice and address the historical legacy of neglect of Indigenous interests in research (Jackson and O’Leary 2006), TRaCK researchers set out to gain a much better understanding of Indigenous values and discussed ways to collaborate with Indigenous communities to ensure their research needs were addressed and that their knowledge contributed to TRaCK research projects. To that end, the TRaCK leadership developed and endorsed an Indigenous Engagement Strategy (IES; see Appendix A). The Strategy was developed at a workshop involving Indigenous participants in 2006. All projects were to report against the Strategy’s objectives in their initial proposals and in subsequent milestone reports to funders.  implementation of the Strategy was given a high priority at all levels of TRaCK governance and constant attention was given to the strategy objectives by the TRaCK leadership throughout its first phase of operation.

In 2010, recognising that TRaCK had achieved a relatively high standard of Indigenous engagement (see Coutts 2011), the authors included a review of that activity in the National Water  Commission-funded TRaCK Synthesis Year Project, a one year project designed to draw together results from multiple projects and promote their widespread adoption. TRaCK’s Project Management Committee saw value in a systematic understanding of Indigenous engagement in a large, multi-site, multi-disciplinary integrated program; one that promoted insights and lessons to other researchers and government R&D agencies undertaking or contemplating similar research initiatives. By this time many of the research partners had been successful in attracting funding under the Federal Government’s NERP program and the need to adapt the lessons from TRaCK to the new program with some
new members provided further impetus for this review.

This review examines the model of Indigenous engagement applied during TRaCK’s first
phase (2006-11) and:

- identifies key success factors, constraints and areas for improvement;
- analyses TRaCK’s funding arrangements, protocols (e.g. employment and training),
  relationships with Indigenous organisations and communities, and research
  experience; and
- seeks the views of Indigenous participants in TRaCK research projects.

1.3 Report structure

The report is structured as follows. The first chapter provides introductory and background descriptions of the project context, aims and methods. The TRaCK program objectives, governance and research structures are described in chapter two. In the third chapter we discuss TRaCK policies, specifically the IES and its development. Chapter four contains the results of the evaluation of the Strategy and implications are drawn out in the final chapter.

1.4 Methods
TRaCK documents (project proposals, policies, communication products, research outputs) were reviewed and compared against the objectives of the IES. Two small independent reports inform this review. One, carried out by Dr Dermot Smyth (2012), interviewed TRaCK researchers and Indigenous participants to ascertain their views on the extent to which TRaCK had successfully engaged with Indigenous people and organisations throughout its first phase. The other, carried out by Kate Golson (2012), undertook a desk-top review of documents and interviewed a small number of researchers to ascertain their views on the benefits of Indigenous engagement to the research enterprise and to obtain suggested improvements.

For Smyth’s review, the IES Steering Committee nominated 14 Indigenous participants or representatives of TRaCK partner Indigenous organisations to be interviewed. The fourteen were chosen on the basis of a high level of involvement in TRaCK research. Efforts were made to contact each of these individuals by phone and/or email, and similar efforts were made to contact the key research leaders of the TRaCK projects listed in Appendix B.

Smyth’s interviews followed a semi-structured format based on the five objectives of the IES listed above. Interviewees welcomed the opportunity to provide feedback on their experience with TRaCK; interviews lasted between 20 and 60 minutes. However, interviewing many ofthe nominated individuals proved challenging due to:

-  Difficulties in contacting individuals living in remote communities, including changed
   contact details, and not responding to phone messages and emails;
-  Some individuals successfully contacted did not agree to participate in interviews or
    provide email responses.

For those individuals who were successfully contacted but who chose not to engage in the review, a decision was taken to respect their right not to participate rather than persist in contacting them. Efforts were made to contact a total of 24 people, resulting in 12 successful interviews. A list of people sought and contacted for interviews is available from the authors.

Golson’s review is based largely on an assessment of the TRaCK milestone reports (in particular, the final one from April 2011), Project Management Committee minutes, the two Coutts TRaCK-wide evaluations, knowledge and adoption documents and workshop notes that formed the basis for the TRaCK IES.1 Five interviews were undertaken by Kate Golson, two with biophysical researchers and two with social researchers from projects covering all the research themes except Theme 6. The fifth was a member of the Knowledge and Adoption (K&A) team. The questions focused on the IES objectives and the perspectives of the researchers.

The terms of reference for these reports can be found at Appendix B and copies of the reports are available from the authors.

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