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Indigenous Ecological Knowledge

Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) is the term given to the intricate Aboriginal knowledge of the continent’s plants, animals, and environmental systems which has been passed from generation to generation for thousands of years, usually in the form of storytelling. This includes times of harvests, tracking and hunting, fire management, and a variety of other crucial skills important not only to survival, but to culture, identity, and spirituality.

The bushfood industry employs between 500 to 1,000 people and is valued between $15 million to $25 million (AUD). The major question and concern is that with approximately 23% of stakeholders being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, who is benefiting from the growth of the industry, and do Indigenous Australian have control of their Traditional Knowledge?

Australia is a signatory of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007, which gives Indigenous Australians the right to protect their Traditional Knowledge from exploitation.


Why is Indigenous Ecological Knowledge Important?

The harsh environment of Australia killed many colonists and European explorers. Yet where Burke and Wills perished, Aboriginal Australians understood where to find food, water, and important resources that kept them and their mob not only alive but also thriving.

The practises of managing the land, burning to improve the availability of bush food, and medicine, are bound with Aboriginal culture and spirituality. Not only that, but these practises have given us significant and invaluable insight into how we manage the environment today. Under these practises, we’re able to analyse when to burn, where to burn, and what to burn, to bring the best possible outcome for our environment. We’re able to gain learn how to sustainably benefit the environment and ensure protection well into the future. Yet, this priceless knowledge is under threat from a multitude of fronts, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.



What is threatening IEK?

There are many different threats to IEK, here are three that matter most.



definition: ‘take (something) for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission.’

With the growth of the native Australian ingredients in major restaurants, bars, and even at home, the use and understanding of each product is significantly intertwined with knowledge told by Aboriginal Australians to Australians of European ancestry.

Without this knowledge, many native edibles would be unknown to us, and with many communities no longer practising their traditional knowledge, there is even more that we don’t know.

The best example of the appropriation of native ingredients would be the Macadamia – a delicacy of the NSW tropics, it was eaten for thousands of years. Aboriginal Australians taught Europeans that the nuts were edible, and they became a food source for early colonists and settlers. The nuts’ popularity grew and was exported to Hawai’i in the mid 1900’s where they were cultivated and exported across the world. Indigenous Ecological Knowledge was profited without any benefit or credits given to communities that made their success possible – today the Australian Macadamia Council


Lack of young people

Most of Australia’s job, education, and other economic opportunities are in cities. A lot of the time far away from remote communities practising their Indigenous Ecological Knowledge. Young people are most likely to move away from their traditional lands in search of these opportunities, many times returning only occasionally – historically this was not done by choice, but by government policy.

This has caused, and continues to cause, the death of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge as older generations are unable to pass their historical knowledge onto their children, keeping the knowledge alive.


Laws protecting culture, ideas, and copyright.

In Australia, if you create a new variety of wheat you can patent the variety in writing to protect your financial gains for a certain amount of time. Intellectual Property Law creates incentive for innovation, if they’re written down. As Indigenous Ecological Knowledge is living heritage, its survival is dependant on people living on country, maintaining languages, traditions, and culture.

There are protections made under the Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property laws which protect customs, dances, songs etc. If you publish something online, you automatically are covered under copyright laws in Australia, but if knowledge and ideas are shared orally, but never documented, they are able to copyrighted by the first people who do (ie, large plant breeding corporations).

To prevent the exploitation of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge it is important that these ideas are written down and stored securely to protect against exploitation. It is important to note that the person who makes the recording, or writes down the information is the person who holds copyright.

To understand how to protect your Indigenous Ecological Knowledge from exploitation check out this guide.



How to Protect Indigenous Ecological Knowledge?


Benefit Sharing Schemes

Some active ingredients found inside a native succulent plant native to southern Africa called Hoodia, was patented by South Africa’s Council for Scientific Research and Industrial Research. These active ingredients were found to stave off hunger and thirst, and lead to lucrative deals for anti-obesity products. The Indigenous San people were not given notified, and their consent was not requested. This lead to the Council being forced to sign a benefit sharing agreement in 2003.

Whilst the Traditional Knowledge of the Hoodia plant is still being guarded by the San peoples, there are still constant threats of exploitation from outsiders.

Exploitation of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge in Australia is prominent, which can be reversed by ensuring that benefit-sharing-agreements are signed by concerned parties. This ensures that economic opportunity is spread equally.


The Northern Australian Aboriginal Kakadu Plum Alliance (NAAKPA) made a recommendation to IP Australia with 3 recommendations to protect the Indigenous Knowledge in the bushfood industry:

  1. Increase Aboriginal stakeholders.
  2. Nagoya Protocol and harmonise state and territory jurisdictions to recognise and protect Indigenous Knowledge utilising the Nagoya Protocol framework
  3. IP Australia needs to ensure that patents for native plants or animal species have evidence of benefit-sharing-agreements where Indigenous Knowledge has been utilised.


How can you make a difference?

Native Australian ingredients are on the rise, with many native ingredients being put into restaurant dishes, beverages, and snacks nationwide. Some brands also sell native ingredients directly to consumers. Check and see on their website where they are sourcing their products from. Are they engaging with Indigenous Communities? Do they have Benefit Sharing Agreements in place to ensure that economic opportunities are shared where Indigenous Ecological Knowledge is utilized?

Petitioning brands is another great way to engage them in reviewing their policies, and ensuring that Indigenous Ecological Knowledge is not only respected, but also so that communities which have given their Knowledge are provided with opportunities.


What we're doing:

We’re actively working to build our benefit-sharing-scheme. We acknowledge the immense contribution by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the history of refining this Traditional Knowledge which allows us to be able to provide the world with these incredible ingredients. Without Indigenous Australian’s past, present, and future contributions in bushfood, there would be no work, no medicine, and other benefits that are greatly benefitting the world today, and tomorrow.


Want to learn more? Check out these pages:

Using Traditional Knowledge -

Utilising Knowledge:

Maintain & Strengthen your Culture (Handbook to working with IEK):


Learn about Traditional Knowledge -

Justice is still not being done in the exploitation of Indigenous products:

The Appropriation of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge:

Indigenous Ecological Knowledge:

Protecting Indigenous Knowledge: