Three of the authors of this article are Nykina Aboriginal women from the Fitzroy River region of the Kimberley in north Western Australia, and the other two authors are environmental and social scientists. We teamed up to carry out the research that underpins this article and promote the role that Nyikina people play in sustaining the life and health of their Country. We show that Nyikina people know much about interactions between features and beings in the landscape, and that they also value the balance that is maintained by knowing how people should behave in relation to these lands, waters and non-human beings.
A central principle of Nyikina ecology and ethics is an emphasis on the quality of relationships. Each person and each animal, landform, water body etc. exists in relations to others, and to maintain its health it must maintain good relationships with others. This means that, for example, for a river to be healthy, it must be visited and cared for by its custodians in a relationship of mutual support. In contrast, water and environmental management in Western society emphasises maximising wealth from natural resources, and monitoring the health of ecosystems (e.g. of water, particular species, etc.) via quantitative indicators. For Nyikina people, monitoring these quantities is important, but it should be done within a framework that prioritises maintaining good mutual relationships with non-human beings and places.
A comparison to human health may help understand the difference between these ways of practicing and evaluating sustainability: a person requires certain quantities of water, food etc. to be healthy, but they also require mutual connection with others and caring relationships. Western science has recently shown that loneliness is a key cause of chronic illness for people, and that human connection is required for both physical and mental health. For Nyikina people, the need for connection and reciprocal relationship applies not only to humans, but also to places and beings in the landscape; and these relationships are a foundation of sustainability.
The paper discusses some of the foundations of Nyikina ecology and ethics, including the importance of rhythms and the key notions of belonging, reciprocity and care.
An implication of our research for sustainability scientists and managers working in Indigenous lands is the need to work collaboratively with, and listen to, Indigenous custodians and prioritise their continued communication with their Country. Another, broader invitation is to reframe sustainability through a relational lens of mutual care, including with non-humans.