Increasing population, habitat loss, mass extinctions and unprecedented fires and floods due to climate change are challenging engineers like never before to find sustainable ways of living.
Damein Bell, CEO of the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, believes Budj Bim, created by the Gunditjmara people in south-west Victoria and one of the world’s largest and oldest aquaculture systems, has lessons for today as it illustrates how engineering can work with communities and harmonise with the landscape.
“We have absolute pride in the ingenuity of our ancestors and want to share Budj Bim with people and educate them about sustainability, culture and also the spiritual side,” Bell said.
“People need to be a bit more connected with Country. We say ‘namkeen gunditj’ — seeing Country — which means to have a proper look and a good listen. We also need to think about our common goals of future survival.”
Budj Bim is a sophisticated and complex aquaculture system comprising weirs, dams and stone canals designed to manipulate water levels in various parts of Lake Condah and trap and farm fish and migrating kooyang — eels.
It was constructed using basalt rocks from a lava flow and has been carbon dated to 6600 years old.
In June 2019, Budj Bim became the first Australian site to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage List solely for its Aboriginal cultural values. The recognition was the result of a long campaign by the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and the Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation, supported by Engineers Australia and the Victorian Government.
Bill Jordan, past Chair of Engineering Heritage Australia (EHA), prepared the original nomination that led to Budj Bim being recognised by EHA as being of national significance in 2011.
He has long championed it as an example of ancient engineering and believes the World Heritage Recognition reflects a growing appreciation of Budj Bim.
His colleague, Merv Lindsay, National Chair of Engineering Heritage Australia, is delighted to see Budj Bim recognised on the world stage.
“This facility takes sustainability to a new level,” Lindsay said.
“They could have changed the environment to the extent they lost the resource, but they sustained it over thousands of years. Is there anywhere else in the world where people have operated the same infrastructure for 6600 years?”
Ramifications of recognition
Denis Rose, Knowledge and Estate Program Manager, Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, said Budj Bim is a really good example of how Aboriginal Australia cares for Country.
“There’s knowledge built up over thousands of years, a whole Aboriginal lifestyle around the country where people survived and thrived in sometimes very dry climates because they had a great understanding of country,” Rose said.
“We hope the World Heritage Recognition will act as an economic driver and help us share our story with the rest of the world.”
Since Budj Bim received World Heritage Recognition, Rose said the phone has not stopped ringing with people wanting to do tours.
The increase in tourist numbers and the expected economic benefits for Aboriginal businesses and the wider region are welcomed by the Gunditjmara people.
Preparations for the influx are well underway. An $8 million grant in 2016 and a further $5 million grant in 2019 to the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation from the Victorian Government are being used to create environmentally friendly walking tracks and signage and to investigate the development of an eel smoking facility and visitor centre.
While the boost in tourism is welcome, Rose said what really excites him is the opportunity to increase understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and open people’s eyes to a more sustainable way of interacting with the natural world.
“I think it’s really important people get a better understanding of an Aboriginal Traditional Owner point of view, whether it’s Gunditjmara or others,” he said.
“We usually start tours off at Tyrendarra, where the Engineers Australia heritage notice is, because we want people to understand this is an engineered system. We talk about engineering and manipulating the water flows, but it’s really about how you can farm without turning the country upside down.
“That lesson of sustainability needs to be incorporated into current practices. The fact that our ancestors spent a lot of time and effort in observing and understanding the country and doing those modifications over time — there’s a lesson there for all engineers to think about alternatives that don’t have long-term impacts.
“Some of Budj Bim has been drained over the last 150 years and we want to restore water flows into these systems to show it’s not just about protecting and managing country, but improving the health of country as well, as this is a really important obligation of ours.”
The Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation is also looking into how it can share its story through partnerships with local schools and universities.
Educating future engineers
One educational initiative underway is an undergraduate subject based on Budj Bim at the University of Melbourne titled Indigenous Engineering and Design.
The course was co-created by Bell and Dr Juliana Prpic from the Melbourne School of Engineering.
A hallmark of the subject is two-way learning, where the students learn about Indigenous cultures and perspectives and the Gunditjmara people learn about the science behind traditional approaches.
Another distinctive feature is its hands-on approach to learning, where students gain an understanding of traditional engineering, local history and culture by visiting Budj Bim and interacting with the Gunditjmara community.
“Students have an opportunity to explore traditional engineering through the eel traps, stone houses and hydrology; listen to the Elders; and learn about the impact of colonisation firsthand,” Prpic said.
“It has moved students very deeply to hear from people who were forbidden to speak their language or share anything about their culture with children. Then there’s also the contemporary aspect — being able to see how the current rangers and community are managing the land.”
The subject includes a practical component where students from different disciplines take one aspect of Indigenous culture, research it in relation to Budj Bim, and then work together to create a design proposal for the community.
Examples of projects nominated by the community include a viewing platform, an accessible river approach and the reconstruction of a stone house.
One architecture student, who completed Indigenous Engineering and Design in 2018, said, “being on country is a whole different story to sitting in lectures and looking at images. Normally the scenarios we design for are imaginary, whereas, for this subject, you got to design a real-life scenario.”
Prpic said the multi-disciplinary approach and consideration of how Indigenous knowledge will inform their designs produces socially, environmentally and sustainable design outcomes.
“There are a number of serious global challenges looming that young engineers will have to deal with. Social and emotional skills and the ability to look at things from a holistic perspective will be critical. They will also need to have a greater awareness of sustainability, local resources and the life cycle of what they are creating,” Prpic said.
“It’s all about being really aware of the context and engaging local people, and I think that applies not just to Indigenous people, but to the capacity to engage all stakeholders.”
The Indigenous Engineers Group
The 2016 Australian Census found Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represented 2.8 per cent of the population, but according to the latest figures from Engineers Australia, Indigenous engineers comprise just 0.3 per cent of the engineering labour force.
The Indigenous Engineers Group (IEG), a special interest group affiliated with the College of Leadership and Management in Engineers Australia, aims to encourage more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to enter the profession by promoting engineering as a positive and rewarding career for Indigenous students.
It also connects and supports Indigenous engineers.
Grant Maher is a Gumbaynggirr man from the north coast of New South Wales, the Façade Lead at AECOM, and the inaugural chair of the IEG.
“Indigenous culture is all about having a balance with the land, your local environment and the resources on hand and not overusing them,” he said.
“That philosophy has great influence on engineers as we solve problems and one of the biggest problems we are facing is lack of resources. We need to go back to this ancient way of thinking to address that.
“I think the recognition of Budj Bim [on the UNESCO World Heritage List] is fantastic. It really shows Indigenous culture was more than a nomadic way of life and that Indigenous people understood and utilised the landscape to their advantage in a sustainable way. It’s one of many examples all round Australia.
“We really want to get Indigenous kids excited about STEM and help them understand engineering is a pathway to bettering yourself and your community.
“Budj Bim is one of many examples that should be utilised to get young Indigenous kids interested in engineering. You can say this is not a new thing; our people have been doing this for thousands of years.”
This article originally appeared as “Ancient wisdom” in the March 2020 edition of create magazine.