Cissy Gore-Birch and Leanne Liddle: Bush Heritage Australia
Bush Heritage Australia’s Aboriginal leaders, Cissy Gore-Birch and Leanne Liddle, are visiting London to talk about their work with Bush Heritage Australia. I caught up with them to talk about their work, their commitment to making a difference for future generations, and their plans for London. (Pictured above Bush Heritage and the Birriliburu Indigenous rangers)
I began our interview by asking Cissy to tell us how Bush Heritage Australia was first established.
“Our story began in 1990 in a wild slice of Tasmanian rainforest," Cissy said.
"Two blocks of forest adjacent to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area were put up for sale and marketed as 'ideal for woodchipping'.
Unwilling to see this patch of forest destroyed, politician, activist and local resident Bob Brown used $49,000 awarded to him as recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize as a down-payment on the land, borrowing the rest from friends and the bank.
The fundraising campaign to recover this debt was the birth of Bush Heritage in 1991.
As the organisation grew, it became obvious that just buying land wasn't enough to safeguard our precious but threatened natural heritage. Much land that's vital to regional conservation is in private hands.
So in 2006, we started building partnerships with landowners – pastoralists, farmers (such as those in the Tasmanian Midlands) and Aboriginal landowners – to help them manage their land for conservation."
Bush Heritage Australia partners with Indigenous communities. I asked Leanne why these partnerships were so important.
"The partnerships that we have with Indigenous people are unique - unlike others in the conservation arena," Leanne said.
"We respect Indigenous knowledge without imposing ourselves onto communities.
We ask to be invited into communities.
We know that we have lots to learn from Indigenous people who care for some of the most biologically diverse areas in the world.
Combining the tool kit of both sciences is the key in maintaining these landscapes.”
I wondered how these partnerships had developed over time. Cissy was keen to explain.
"Bush Heritage Australia is in a unique and privileged position - working with Traditional Owners to secure world class conservation assets in a manner that impacts positively on the social and cultural values of the partnerships we work with," Cissy said.
"Aboriginal Partnerships in Bush Heritage have evolved significantly in the past ten years," she said.
"Partnership projects are now central to Bush Heritage’s organisational values and recent conservation success, and we now have 23 Aboriginal Partnerships across Australia – 13 on Bush Heritage reserves and 10 on Aboriginal-held lands.
Aboriginal Partnerships provide lasting and significant conservation value across the Australian landscape, as well as contributing towards additional economic, cultural and social benefits for future generations of Aboriginal people and all Australians.”
In a world where every cent and penny counts, I asked Cissy if these programs were cost-effective as well as environmentally and culturally sound.
“A recent analysis of the Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area by Social Ventures Australia found that for every $1 invested in our partners’ protected areas, approximately $2.3 of social, economic, cultural and environmental value is created," she said.
The partnerships are leaders in the development and delivery of conservation management in Australia through long-term management arrangements that realise the value and relationship in combining western science and traditional ecological knowledge systems and customs.”
I asked Leanne what Bush Heritage Australia needed in order to realise their future goals.
“In five years time, some of our partnerships will still be in the emerging stages and some will be further along in the consolidated stage," Leanne said.
"We would like to see more investment dollars come into the partnerships program so that we are better resourced to keep up with the demands of having more partnerships on board, and we would like to see more people out on country, living on country, managing country."
The Australian environment is under so much pressure, I asked Leanne how she keeps so positive and focussed.
“We need to remain positive and look at what we want for our children and country and culture," Leanne said.
"We have to work with this in mind.
We have managed the country with so many issues that we haven’t been able to control but we still have the highest levels of biodiversity on Aboriginal-controlled land, and that wasn’t achieved by giving up, but by working with country and staying focused on the goals.”
Looking after the land for future generations resonated with Cissy as well and she was keen to expand on this.
“I think this is where partnerships play an important role," Cissy said.
Everyone working together to achieving the same goals and outcome of 'looking after country'.
We all have this responsibility of 'looking after country' - to maintain the health - and make improvements - where possible for our next generations to enjoy.”
I asked Leanne about what motivated her to work with Bush Heritage Australia.
“There was a great man, Phillip Toyne, who approached me and asked me to join the board," Leanne said. "He had worked with Aboriginal people for decades."
He was an inspiration, and I knew if he had a role in Bush Heritage, then against all the other offers that I had, that I had to stick to Bush Heritage.
And he was right. Here’s an organisation that doesn’t waste people's money on testing hypotheses, the decisions are fully informed and that's why I stuck with them for so long.
They also allowed me to attend board meetings with my 12-week old baby and three-year-old - something people talk about making allowances for, but often don’t do in practice."
For Cissy, her commitment to Bush Heritage Australia grew from a desire to make a solid impact on the world that was free from red tape and politics.
“In my previous positions as the Chairperson of our Prescribed Body Corporate for five years and working for the Kimberley Land Council as the Indigenous Protected Area’s Co-ordinator, I found myself in hard positions of making a difference," Cissy said.
"Things seemed harder than they should be, there was always road blocks along the way, political/policy changes that were frustrating and always seemed a long way away.
So I looked at other options to make changes for our people in conservation land management.
This job was advertised as the National Aboriginal Engagement Manager – I applied and got the job.
I really think that Bush Heritage is in a great position to make big changes to our partnerships on the ground and also influence change within policy development.
I love the position, the team and the organisation. I can see that Bush Heritage is a change maker and I feel privileged to be here at this time making positive change.”
Many Australians in London would like to be more connected to their homeland. I asked Cissy how London-based Australians could support their work at a distance.
“London based Australians can share this journey a number of ways," Cissy said.
"They can attend our events here in London, share our journey/story with others or volunteer time or services. Of course, contributions such as donation or sponsorship of programs/activities are always welcome.”
Both women are visiting London to speak at the Royal Geographical Society and the Menzies Centre. I asked Leanne for some highlights ahead of the events.
“My expertise is in the traditional use of fire, passed down from my grandmother," Leanne said.
I want to highlight the benefits of tapping into this knowledge, and why we can’t ignore it and how we need to partner to get the best outcomes.”
Leanne has previously visited London. I asked her what she was looking forward to most of all.
“I'm looking forward to coming back after 15 years - I love big cities," she said.
I’m bringing my young child so we are doing the London Zoo and going to the theatre - not much of this in Darwin I’m afraid.
We did want to go to see the soccer, but that will need to be another trip!”
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Cissy Gore-Birch and Leanne Liddle are speaking at the following events.
Menzies Centre, London
King's College London
1st May 2018
This article is written with acknowledgement of Aboriginal people past and present and their deep connection to the land. It acknowledges the Traditional custodians, Elders and Ancestral Spirits of the lands that all Australians live and work on.
With thanks to Bush Heritage Australia for use of the Instagram images.