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The Tasmanian woman using Aboriginal knowledge to protect the world’s national parks and oceans

There’s plenty of industry outside Emma Lee’s office in Burnie, northwest Tasmania.

A McDonald’s sits across the grey car park, there are department stores nearby, and with the city’s train station just around the corner, you can hear the rattling of carriages as they pass by.

“It’s all country,” the trawlwulwuy woman told SBS News.

“Colonisation has taught us that country is out here, over there, and protected areas are out here and over there. [Some people say] ‘you’ve been colonised, you’re in the city, you’re not an authentic Aboriginal person.’ But we are.

“Country is here. Country breathes, heaves and pulses with life and death. Ancestors don’t stop their law because a city is built here.” 

Dr Lee has spent the last two and a half decades researching Indigenous affairs, land and sea management, natural and cultural resources, and their intersections.

She co-established the RegionxLink program office in Burnie for the Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for Social Impact, where she is currently an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research fellow.

Country breathes, heaves and pulses with life and death. Ancestors don’t stop their law because a city is built here.

Dr Emma Lee, trawlwulwuy researcher

Dr Lee began her PhD in 2013 examining the models and processes of joint management of protected areas, which she said is essentially “about blackfellas and whitefellas working together”.

It focused on the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area – one of the largest conservation areas in Australia, covering around a quarter of the state.  

She later helped develop Tasmania’s first joint management plan in 2016.

“Multiple views are necessary to look after country – it shouldn’t just be the right of one sector of society that says what’s good for country,” she said.

Dr Emma Lee

Dr Emma Lee

SBS News/Sarah Maunder

This year, Dr Lee became the first Indigenous Australian to co-author advice for an advisory body to the United Nations. 

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s best practice protected areas guidelines offer advice on a range of topics relating to caring for protected land and sea. 

Dr Lee’s contribution centered around the cultural and spiritual significance of nature.

The guidelines she helped author encourage individuals, organisations, businesses, and governments to look beyond the strictly scientific or financial value of a piece of land or sea, and acknowledge the cultural or spiritual value it may have to the Indigenous people of that land. 

Bas Verschuuren, co-chair of the IUCN’s specialist group on cultural and spiritual values of protected areas, said Dr Lee’s contribution was essential.

“She really gave her best to these guidelines in terms of contributing examples that we have of Tasmania as a case study, but also how we write about inclusivity, and how we do our best to create a safe space for Indigenous people within the process of implementing these guidelines. 

“Emma is critical about how conservation is being practiced and the constituency of the people that develop these guidelines.”

Dr Emma Lee

Dr Emma Lee

SBS News: Sarah Maunder

Josephine Barraket, director of the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne, said Dr Lee is a unique researcher with much important knowledge to share.

“I was … delighted when she told me that she was doing this work with colleagues into the UN’s work on natural resource management,” she said.

“Frankly, Australia has been very dismissive of the outstanding and really critically important Indigenous knowledge that the country has access to.

“I think Emma’s work and her colleagues’ work are really important in both sharing that expertise and also highlighting the importance and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia.”

Like many Tasmanian Aboriginal people were, Dr Lee’s school education taught her that her culture didn’t exist anymore and the last Indigenous Tasmanian was Truganini, who died in 1876. 

“I was born being a mythical being. I went to school and I learned that our people were supposedly extinct. I had non-identity,” she said.

“Our whole lives, our people had to fight to be human, let alone to be Aboriginal Tasmanian.”

Decades on, Dr Lee said being able to embed Indigenous practices and ways of caring for country at the highest level of conservation management was “a testament to the warriors who have fought to get us in there for so long”.

“Our way of doing things is no longer set aside as wrong, strange and weird. Our ways are being elevated to the highest levels of the UN,” she said.

“To sit here in my tiny regional space in Burnie, Tasmania and know that what my elders have taught me about caring for country is now embedded in these guidelines, I feel humbled.” 

NAIDOC Week (4-11 July) celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year’s theme – Heal Country! – calls for all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction. 

See more Naidoc Week stories here

SBS Learn also provides resources for teachers to share with their students.

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