Land Management as a Way of Giving in Australian Aboriginal Cultures

sduncan post on January 30th, 2013
Posted in Australia Tags: ,

By Nadia Heyd

“I am part of the sea and the sea is part of me when I am on it.”
(Meriam Elder, cited in Sharp, accessed on 05 February, 2010)

This opening statement from an Australian Aboriginal elder describes a connectedness to nature that is not seen to anywhere near the same degree in Western traditions. “deep within Aboriginal culture, people have an obligation to protect the land [and also the sea] upon which they have lived.” (Colbung, 1988 Wentworth Lecture “Not Land Rights but Land Rites, cited at, accessed on 05 February, 2010). In Australian Aboriginal cultures, since land management is carried out in a way that is meant to support the greater common good, it can be considered an instance of giving.

Traditional people spend considerable time and resources at the task of “managing” territory. On dry land, this would have, in large part, involved the use of fire. The Northern Land Council, which represents Aboriginal people across the “Top End” of Australia’s Northern Territory describes the use of fire in caring for the land. Fire is used to “bring the land alive again,” in both a practical way and a symbolic or spiritual way. “Aboriginal people burn to hunt, to promote new growth of grass which attracts game, to make the country easier to travel through, to create firebreaks which are important in the dry season.” Burning is also conducted to “clear country of spiritual pollution after a death,” which is an important spiritual need in Aboriginal culture.
(, accessed 29 January, 2010).

Colbung, in the same article cited above explains that Australian Aboriginals understand that the obligation to care for and occupy the land “was recognized by all who lived near and far,” and states “If the land was not cared for or managed to the satisfaction of all then it was taken over by people who could do so.”

Someone not familiar with Australian Aboriginal tradition might ask: Who is responsible for discerning whether or not the land was managed satisfactorily? Colbung explains that in Aboriginal Society there is a “division of ritual responsibility between separate but related groups.” One group is seen as the “owners” of the land, but a separate group is seen as the land’s “guardians”. The guardians of the land have the “responsibility to see that traditional duties are properly performed.” These guardians are seen in society as “leaders”, and as such, are also seen as people who are “looking after” others within the society by passing down traditional knowledge about how to go about caring for the land, thereby “ensuring the security and benefit of all.” The owners, however, are responsible for completing the tasks as advised by the guardians.

In summary, Aboriginal Society, at least with regards to land ownership, is arranged so that there is an “expectation of reciprocity and fulfillment of mutual obligations,” (Colbung), and the roles and responsibilities of who does what to achieve the goal of caring for the land are quite clearly defined by the culture. However, the way it is arranged is to further the common good of the people, thus can be considered a “giving tradition” that is built right into the culture.

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