Making and doing conceptual multiplicity

Making and doing ‘evaluation’ in the Arafura Swamp

On this page, Yolŋu and non-Yolŋu participants in a collaborative action-research project present some of the multiple objects, practices and perspectives that are currently generating ‘evaluation of healthy Country’ in the Arafura Swamp, North-East Arnhem Land.

Mali Djarrbal begins by presenting the following video, Djanigirr. Then Mali and non-Yolŋu participants Simon West, Katie Degnian and Emma Ignjic provide some written reflections.



Mali Djarrbal

Ngirri waaŋu for the place named Djilpiṉ, at Gurruwiling (Arafura Swamp, North-East Arnhem Land, Australia); and Ranger with the Arafura Swamp Rangers Aboriginal Corporation (ASRAC)

It was the last day of Balpara camp and the other people were busy cutting sugarbag. I was talking to my mind, “I should do a movie for the future generation to share the story in [Djinba] language for my children and grandchildren.”

Our elders have all passed away. My father gave us this story and now we are coming up to take the Country [1]. We have big Country and songlines. We must share this story for our kids. They need to know how to call out to the Country to talk to the ancestors. They need to listen to this story so if someone asks them about Djilpiṉ, they can tell them the right way.

This movie is for Balanda [2] too, they can learn. We are the Ngirri waṯaŋu, Ngaman baṯaŋu and Wayirri waṯaŋu [3]. Come behind, follow us, we’ll give you a story.

We are always looking to see if Country is healthy. What’s in the woodland, what’s in the water, the fish and the water yam. Everything.

You call it ‘monitoring and evaluation’ like Balanda way but maybe in Ganalbiŋu, my mother language, we would say, Ngalimi’lim nyamak ga lim marŋgi’yirrarrk ga lim gatjanmak ngirri, ngälimalkuŋ gundjarrkuŋ ga mar’muŋurkung ngirri limala [4].

[1] As used by Aboriginal Australians, ‘Country’ is a multidimensional concept that is difficult to describe in English. Deborah Bird Rose, in her book Nourishing Terrains (1996), writes that Country encapsulates “people, animals, plants, Dreamings; underground, earth, soils, minerals and waters, surface water, and air” in a particular place, and that Country is “a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life.”
[2] Non-Indigenous people.
[3] Terms signifying different kinship relationships to Djilpiṉ, each containing distinct responsibilities and obligations.
[4] Roughly translatable into English as: “looking and knowing/understanding and holding our country, our fathers’ and grandfathers’ land.”



Simon West, Katie Degnian and Emma Ignjic

Simon is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University), Katie is the Northern Territory Aboriginal Partnerships Ecologist at Bush Heritage Australia, and Emma is the Intercultural Monitoring and Evaluation Manager at Bush Heritage Australia

We write this reflection as three Balanda who have been part of a collaborative project with the Arafura Swamp Rangers Aboriginal Corporation (ASRAC) over the past two years. While Mali’s story is rooted in deep and enduring ancestral relationships, we tell our story as visiting partners who have been invited by the rangers to help out with a small part of their work.

The Intercultural Monitoring and Evaluation Project is intended to support the development of organizational processes within ASRAC to nurture learning and adaptation in pursuit of the goals for ‘healthy Country’ articulated by Yuyung-Nyanung [1] of the Arafura Swamp region (see Box below for more details). These goals range from “Country is full up with the right people and elders are happy for family who enjoy good lives,” to “our freshwater places have clear water that smells clean and we can find plenty of water lilies, water chestnut, fish and turtle.”

Yolŋu and Bi [2] have a rich conceptual language to describe and inform their ongoing practices of learning, adjustment and improvement. In the Balanda world, similar practices are often referred to as ‘monitoring and evaluation’ and tend to proceed through the performance of social and natural science techniques. The ASRAC rangers are developing a ‘two-way’ or intercultural monitoring and evaluation system that can demonstrate or ‘evidence’ the capacity to learn and adapt in pursuit of shared goals, primarily to Yuyung-Nyanung but also to Balanda partners and funders such as the Australian Government.

For us Balanda involved in this project, a key task has been to listen and learn from our Indigenous collaborators something of how Yolŋu and Bi make assessments about the health of Country, and help to relate these processes to non-Indigenous concepts of ‘monitoring and evaluation.’ We are eager students but still in the very early stages of our education. We often get things wrong and look to our teachers and collaborators to correct us.

One of the ways we have been learning has been by participating in Balpara camps. Balpara is a Rembarrnga (Bi) word that loosely translates as ‘partner’ (a similar word in some Yolŋu languages is Bamara) and refers, in this context, to the partnership between rangers and Yuyung-Nyanung in pursuit of the goals for healthy Country. Balpara camps are about creating space for rangers and Yuyung-Nyanung to spend time together to ‘walk and talk’ Country, generate knowledge according to Yolŋu and Bi principles and processes, and potentially use some of this knowledge for the purposes of monitoring and evaluation. Rangers and Yuyung-Nyanung are using audiovisual tools such as iPads and the software iMovie to document, enact and share some of the knowledge that is created on Balpara camps.

It was on one of these Balpara camps – at Djilpiṉ, on the Goyder River – that Mali made this video in the Djinba (Yolŋu) language. Mali and Katie then worked together at the ASRAC ranger base in Ramingiṉiŋ to add music (a song in the Djambarrpuyŋu language about the crystal water at Djilpiṉ), English subtitles, and a written story so that Balanda might better understand. We Balanda involved in the project are learning from Mali and many others about how assessments of the condition of Country are situated within the continual renewal of ancestral and kin relationships, (re)enacted in current times and places. In Mali’s video and story, it seems to us that, through talking to the ancestors as part of Country, Mali is evidencing the practice, the method of renewal itself, within which legitimate assessments of the condition of the water, the woodland, the fish, the water yam, can be made.

As Mali describes, the video itself – as both evidencing practice and object – can be shared with multiple audiences and serve multiple purposes. Mali is already using the video to teach her children and grandchildren about Djilpiṉ. Video is an important tool for this task because it is getting more and more difficult for Yolŋu families to spend time together on Country. The video will also be shared within ASRAC – in particular, with the Yolŋu and Bi elders who will form the Monitoring and Evaluation Mala (Advisory Group) – as a source of information about the health of Djilpiṉ. And Mali may also use the video, as in this conference presentation, as a way to teach Balanda about the processes through which Yolŋu are continually working to ‘monitor’ and ‘evaluate’ Country (although with different concepts) and their roles within it. This is especially valuable for those Balanda, like ourselves, who are tasked with contributing to the development of appropriate and generative processes for intercultural reflection, learning and improvement in Indigenous Land and Sea Management.

[1] People with kinship relationships to parts of the Arafura Swamp region. Similar terms are Yothu-Yindi for Yolŋu, and Ngala-Dakku for Bi.
[2] Yolŋu are people from North-Central and North-East Arnhem Land, Australia. There are many different Yolŋu languages, one of which is Djinba. Bi are people from North-Central and Western Arnhem Land who speak the Rembarrnga language.



ASRAC’s Healthy Country Plan, the Intercultural Monitoring and Evaluation Project, and the Balpara method

From 2015 to 2017, ASRAC rangers worked closely with Yuyung-Nyanung to produce a Healthy Country Plan for the ASRAC region, supported by the NGO Bush Heritage Australia, Charles Darwin University and the Northern Land Council. A video detailing the planning process is available here and the final plan here. The plan is intended to ensure that ASRAC rangers are working under the direction of Yuyung-Nyanung.

The Intercultural Monitoring and Evaluation Project (IMEP) emerged out of ASRAC’s Healthy Country work. The IMEP project has provided an opportunity to develop the processes that will enable ASRAC to assess whether it is helping to achieve the goals articulated by Yuyung-Nyanung. More information on the IMEP project is available here and here.

The idea of Balpara was developed by Otto Bulmaniya Campion (a Senior Ranger and now Balpara Manager at ASRAC) and Beau Austin, a non-Indigenous collaborator. The idea for Balpara emerged from the Wulken approach, a collaborative approach to planning, monitoring and evaluation that Otto and the Balngarra Clan from Central Arnhem Land had developed with Beau and Hmalan Hunter-Xenie (researchers based, at the time, at Charles Darwin University). The Wulken approach is intended to ensure that planning, monitoring and evaluation are rooted in local Indigenous knowledge, and are guided by the principles of “being on country, visiting places, going slowly, interweaving monitoring with living on country, framing work with Bi concepts, and using local people as facilitators” (IMEP 2018). The Balpara method attempts to adapt these features for use within ASRAC as an intercultural organization.

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