1 Nov 2021


The World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia says a return to Indigenous farming, including the use of fire, could help protect against extreme bushfires, boost health, and provide Aboriginal communities with profitable businesses.

In an Australian first, an Indigenous Traditional Agriculture Knowledge Hub is being established near Mallacoota in Victoria.

The Hub was one of the winners of WWF’s Innovate to Regenerate Challenge which called for bold new ideas to help regenerate Australia after the 2019-2020 megafires. WWF provided $250,000 funding to support this Indigenous innovation.

“For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal people used fire to manage the landscape in a way that boosted the yield of important foods and minimised damaging bushfires. Let’s embrace that ancient knowledge and reform western farming practices to Regenerate Australia as climate change causes more extreme weather,” said Dermot O’Gorman, CEO of WWF-Australia.

Work on the Hub is underway on the farm owned by Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe, who has Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian heritage.

The farm’s business, Black Duck Foods, is reintroducing native farming practices and developing a blueprint for Aboriginal food operations that return economic benefits directly to Indigenous people.

“Indigenous fire and land management cared for and healed Country. We’re rediscovering those techniques and working out the most viable ways to farm native grains and tubers on a commercial scale,” Mr Pascoe said.

“The Hub will be a place to share this knowledge so that other Indigenous farming ventures won’t have to start from scratch,” he said.

Black Duck Foods Indigenous employees Chris Harris, Nathan Lygon and Terry Hayes, are farming Aboriginal foods including tubers from chocolate and vanilla lilies and murnong (daisy yam), and grain from kangaroo, dancing, and spear grass.

Bread which includes native grass seeds is rich and delicious, but adapting machinery to harvest these ancient grains is a case of trial and error.

“We're doing the hard work here at the moment so that we can pass on our knowledge to the rest of our people. That way when they start an Aboriginal food business they don't have to make the same mistakes we've already made,” said Chris Harris, whose mob is Ngiyampaa from NSW.

Fields of murnong

Early settlers spoke of plains full of murnong being harvested by Aboriginal women. Their digging aerated and loosened the soil, encouraging the tubers to regenerate. To embrace traditional activities once more is deeply satisfying for the Black Duck Foods workers.

“When we’re harvesting tubers you can’t help but think of old people. We’re working with a plant they worked with in a way similar to what they did, so we’re honouring them. It’s really powerful. It’s good for your spirit, mind, and body,” said Nathan Lygon, a Yuin man with Walgal connections.

Fire for Food

In the 1800s, some Europeans noted that Aboriginal people skilfully used fire to manage the landscape. These burns reduced the fuel loads that contribute to extreme bushfires. They also helped fill bellies. Fresh grass shoots attracted prey such as kangaroos. Regular burns fertilised the soil and stopped other vegetation smothering staple foods such as murnong, lilies and other tuberous perennials.

Health benefits

By some estimates, tubers made up at least 50% of the Indigenous diet in parts of Australia. Murnong tubers contain fructans, a carbohydrate that does not spike blood sugar levels, feeds good bacteria in the gut, and improves immune function.

Some researchers state that when this traditional diet high in fructans was replaced by European flour it contributed to high levels of diabetes among Indigenous populations.

“So much illness among Aboriginal people comes from a poor diet so I really look forward to the day when all Australians are eating these foods on a regular basis,” said Nathan Lygon.

Terry Hayes, a Bidhawal Maap Djiringanj man, goes further.

“I’d like to see these foods available all over the world. This is just the beginning. Hopefully more mob can do this sort of work all around the country and create employment for our people,” he said.

Black Duck Foods General Manager Chris Andrew said a return to Indigenous farming techniques is an idea resonating with people.

“Why not grow food that is natural to Australia and requires no fertiliser? Traditional fire and land management practices can rebuild resilient landscapes and enable us to better manage a changing climate. It sustained Indigenous Australians for tens of thousands of years. It’s time to bring it back,” Mr Andrew said.

“Innovation does not have to mean new technology. This project, adapting Indigenous solutions that have protected the environment for countless millennia, is innovation at its best,” said WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman.

About Regenerate Australia

Regenerate Australia is the largest and most innovative wildlife recovery and landscape regeneration program in Australia’s history. Launched by WWF-Australia in October 2020, the multi-year program will rehabilitate, repopulate and restore wildlife and habitats affected by the 2019-2020 bushfires, and help to future-proof Australia against the impacts of changing climate. Find out more at Regenerate Australia