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ARPNet researchers with Steve Sutton in Gunbalanya
ARPNet researchers with Steve Sutton in Gunbalanya

Action research to build local capacity in the Top End

The road to Gunbalanya in the Top End of the Northern Territory has to be one of the most beautiful drives in Australia. You leave Kakadu via the infamous Cahill’s Crossing (unlucky if you don’t see a large croc), and then snake your way along the orange dirt road for twenty or so kilometres. For many people the visit to the Art Centre at Gunbalanya is a once-in-a-lifetime trip into Arnhem Land and the views don’t disappoint. The road crosses the wide flood plain of the East Alligator River. There are long views to the ancient Arnhem Land escarpment and close-ups of lily-covered lagoons with Brolga and Jabiru. Now the road bends in close to a crystal clear stream where you might see locals catching barramundi, and then ducks around a magnificent sandstone outcrop. If you slow down you might see the rock art in a shelter not twenty metres from the road.

And then you get to Gunbalanya, where the setting is so delightful it’s hard to imagine anything bad ever happens here. Set on a low rise on a tributary of the floodplain, a lagoon sweeps in an arc around the town and provides reflections of the Injalak Hill, a sacred place packed with art sites smiling down on the town. Many of the inhabitants have million-dollar views for most of the year and it’s always a treat to be able to share the town’s beauty on my brief work trips for the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.

This was late in the dry season and the team was in Gunbalanya to discuss the roll out of some research programs under the Scoping remote north Australian community resilience project with the team from ARPNet. The program has a range of elements, but key to it all is understanding what resilience means from the perspective of the local inhabitants. ARPNet is the Aboriginal Research Practitioners Network, a team of Aboriginal people from communities across the north, including Gunbalanya, who have been trained in qualitative and quantitative research methods. They have been contracted to conduct the face-to-face research using a set of interrogative techniques designed over a decade to work specifically with Aboriginal people in north Australia.

We meet to discuss how the research would be organised, who would conduct what research and where. We also set up a program of identifying specific and detailed local knowledge of fire management practices for the different clan estates and landforms that occur locally. This information will be fed back into the development of new training for local people in fire and emergency management.

The photograph below capture a little of the scenery at the front door of our quarters, just at dawn. It’s not easy to think about natural hazards with these views early in the morning. But the mist settling around Injalak is all that is left of the billabong in the late dry season. You can clearly see the entire flood plain has been burnt. Earlier in 2015, the wet season rains overfilled the billabong and Gunbalanya became an island in a vast shallow sea. Most years it is cut off by road for many months and every now and then flooding affects the houses. And then of course there are cyclones. The Northern Territory has an average of over three a year and Gunbalanya is often on alert. The dry season has its own hazards, as the burnt flood plain indicates and an active program of prescribed burning is required to keep assets, including the local cattle industry safe.

This steady pulse of wet/dry hazard and threat seems remote to visitors, but how do the locals feel about it? Well, that’s what ARPNet is trying to find out. The preliminary indications are that ongoing social issues associated with poverty and disadvantage are higher on the list of local people’s concerns than natural disasters. The salience of a disaster that may not happen later in the year is nowhere near as great as the need to maintain social cohesion in the face of a regular stream of disruptions caused by easy access to the temptations of Darwin, only four hours away.

The ARPNet team (up the top, pictured with me) are enthusiastic about the research because they are also part of the community. Information that can help improve the development of resilience and information that can localise fire and emergency management training has the potential to improve the lives of their families and friends. They know that in order for locals to be able to truly enjoy the natural setting of their town, they need able to manage all of the natural and cultural disasters that come their way, and to do this they need to build their own capacity. By undertaking action research through the Bushfire and Natural Hazard CRC and Charles Darwin University they are already taking steps to achieve this.

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