Planting for culture, community and Country in Central Arnhem Land - National Tree Day Blog

Planting for culture, community and Country in Central Arnhem Land

A red sun rises over rusty orange dirt, illuminating sandstone cliffs, vast floodplains, roaring waterfalls and groves of the iconic paperbark tree. This is Arnhem Land in all its ancient and mesmerising beauty.

In June 2021, the Tree Day team had the privilege of heading to Katherine and Central Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory to plant trees, share stories and learn from the Jawoyn people and the team at Nyirrunggulung-Rise, an organisation dedicated to community development in the region.  

Jawoyn country is located in northwest Northern Territory, with Katherine at its heart, and is dominated by watercourses, including the spectacular Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge. The Katherine River and its network of gorges, creeks and waterholes fill with water during Jiyowk, the monsoon season of January and February. When the downpour subsides, the remaining water provides much needed respite and nourishment for the plants and animals of Jawoyn country during the much drier seasons of Malapparr and Jungalk from June to November.  

Undulating hills and ridges make up much of the Jawoyn landscape and are filled with a range of native wildlife, including rare birds, mammals and the mighty saltwater crocodile. About 1,000 Jawoyn people live across this country, spanning from Pine Creek in the west to Bulman in the East and including Nitmiluk National Park and part of Kakadu National Park. 

The dramatic landscapes of Jawoyn country bring special force to Dreamtime stories. The sheer cliffs, winding rivers, rolling hills and pockets of lush rainforest offer abundant natural resources to sustain local biodiversity and bring life to the creation stories that fill Jawoyn country with spiritual connections. 

The Jawoyn Association was formed in 1985 with the objective of representing the views and ambitions of Jawoyn people concerning the management, protection, control and development of the land. Today, the organisation continues to work in the interests of Jawoyn people and land, with a focus on improving the cultural, social and economic wellbeing of their people, while caring for Country. 

Nyirrunggulung-Rise is an organisation that was formed when the Jawoyn Association and RISE Ventures collaborated to deliver the Community Development Program — the Australian Government’s remote employment and community development service. Nyirrunggulung-Rise is based in Katherine and works to create employment and training opportunities and support social infrastructure, primarily in small Aboriginal communities in Central Arnhem Land within the Roper Gulf Region, east of Katherine.  

In recent years, tree planting has been included as one of the training and community engagement opportunities Nyirrunggulung-Rise will undertake with Indigenous people. With grant funding from The Seedling Bank, over 750 native seedlings were planted across three small communities in the region — Manyallaluk, Barunga and Beswick.  

Peter and Tracy Beesley are the duo at Nyirrunggulung-Rise behind these initiatives, creating opportunities for unemployed members of these communities to develop their skills. Over the past 3 years, they have worked with job seekers to select and prepare planting sites, provide training to use equipment, such as augers to dig holes and watering systems, while also sharing horticulture skills around planting and caring for seedlings. Participants take part in these activities in return for payment.  

“It’s very important in the sense that it gives people something constructive to do, helps them gain skills and shows others in community what can be achieved,” Peter says of the program’s benefits.  

The Tree Day team was lucky enough to take part in one of these activities — a large community tree planting event in Manyallaluk, an Aboriginal community of approximately 100 people. At the town’s waterhole along the creek, five species of trees and shrubs suited to the harsh environmental conditions of Central Arnhem Land were sourced and planted. This event and others like it are an opportunity to engage communities in positive activities and provide them with both practical skills and knowledge about the local environment. The planting also provided an opportunity for community connection, with school students, the local council and other community members getting involved.  

In addition to the engagement and training opportunities for job seekers, educational opportunity for school students and community connection, these plantings also provide ongoing environmental benefits via new seedlings. The shade of these trees will allow for communities to gather and connect out of the heat of the harsh sun, while also providing habitat and shelter for the range of wildlife that inhabits Central Arnhem Land.  

The black kite, whistling kite, brown falcon — three species known interchangeably as the ‘firehawk’ to Aboriginal people — and Gouldian finch are four bird species that will benefit from these trees in their habitat. Indigenous Australians have observed the fascinating behaviour of firehawks for thousands of years across the Australian continent. They are widespread in distribution and rely on tall trees for perching to search for prey and to spot fires.  

Firehawks are known to fly into active fires to pick up smoldering sticks and transport them to unburned areas to ignite a fire. Igniting shrubs or grassland forces the small mammals, reptiles and insects they prey on to flee from their ground cover shelters and become easy targets for the raptors flying overhead. Knowledge of this fire-starting behaviour has been part of considerations of Aboriginal cultural burning practices for thousands of years and is intimately connected to Dreamtime stories, ceremonies and sites. In one Aboriginal language, the black kite is known as Kerrk, a reference to the “kerrk-kerrk-kerrk” sound of its call. A local Dreamtime story outlines Kerrk’s attraction to fires and how he was often spotted carrying fire sticks from existing fires to start new ones. 

The endangered Gouldian finch is distributed in small flocks across the Top End of Australia, primarily in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley region of Western Australia, with rare sightings also reported in North Queensland. While there is only one species of these brightly coloured finches, their head plumage can be one of three colours —approximately 75 per cent have black faces, 25 per cent have red faces and less than 1 per cent have yellow/orange faces. Once covering much of Australia’s Top End, there are now only an estimated 2,500 adults remaining. Their decline is primarily due to altered fire regimes, destructive agricultural practices and being targeted by the pet trade before this was banned in the 1980s.  

Gouldian finches are found in tropical savanna woodland and feed mostly on grass seeds, however favour protein-rich insects during the breeding season. As the trees planted in Central Arnhem Land communities mature, they will provide crucial nesting hollows for these vulnerable birds. The creeks and grasslands of the region and nearby Nitmiluk National Park provide suitable habitat for Gouldian finches and residents of Manyallaluk have been delighted when spotting them along the creek about five kilometres from the community.   

Our time in Central Arnhem Land with the Manyallaluk community and Peter and Tracy from Nyirrunggulung-Rise highlighted the power of planting trees for both people and the environment. We shared stories and learned about community, culture and Country. We experienced the spectacular natural beauty of this region and felt the strong connections between Jawoyn people and their country. We saw first-hand how planting trees will provide training and employment opportunities, educate and inspire school students, connect communities and provide environmental benefits for firehawks, Gouldian finches and a wide array of other native wildlife. 

The 750 trees being planted thanks to support from The Seedling Bank will survive monsoonal rains in the wet season and searing heat in the dry, providing shade and shelter to animals and humans alike as they grow in the open woodlands in this remarkable pocket of Jawoyn country.  

Sarah Chaplin

Sarah joined the Planet Ark team in early 2019 to work in the Information Centre and on the National Tree Day Seedling Bank special project. She is passionate about environmental science and has an academic background in biology and conservation science. Since graduating, she has worked with small not-for-profit environmental organisations and is delighted to be able to put her range of skills and experience to use at Planet Ark.