Australia’s deserts cover 70 per cent of our land mass and are home to three percent of our population. They are sparsely settled, with small and scattered groups of people living a long way from the markets and political centres of urban Australia. But desert people have a vast amount of local and traditional knowledge about the way deserts work, and they contribute $90 billion a year to the nation through mining, tourism, land management, pastoralism, service industries and arts.
The national challenge is to work with desert people to develop sustainable livelihoods and settlements, thriving desert regional economies and to increase their human and social capital. The Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre – an organisation with 28 partners from business, academia, industry, Aboriginal organisations and community groups – accepted the challenges and, through the four objectives described below, made them the basis of the Core Projects.
- Sustainable livelihoods recognised that jobs and income interact in a complex way to support the health and wellbeing of people and their settlements. The research covered Aboriginal people managing culturally important water holes; remote area people working through networks to monitor wind erosion and dust storms; Aboriginal custodians of country managing wild fire; ways to retain staff in desert settlements; and remote settlement Aboriginal people managing water supplies, infrastructure and quality.
- Thriving desert regional economies understood the need to help create sound economies to support desert living and investigated work, health and wellbeing in managing natural and cultural resources; enterprise opportunities in bush food gathering and marketing; 4WD tourism; smarter and more sustainable pastoral industries; and success factors for small to medium enterprises in desert settlements.
- Sustainable remote desert settlements recognised the need for a different approach to sustainability from the way people work in urban Australia. Researchers worked on strong and effective systems for making decisions and acting on them (appropriate governance); understanding the size and nature of the highly mobile desert population to underpin more effective and equitable service delivery; and improved infrastructure specifically designed for the desert, which meant investigating improving the thermal performance of houses, building livelihoods into housing delivery and additional work on remote settlement water management.
- Increased human and social capital encompassed the DKCRC’s education and training and social science programs. The education and training program covered the spectrum from Vocational Education and Training, which recognised the need to build up local level skills, to undergraduate and postgraduate level. DKCRC partnered with organisations such as the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation to help Aboriginal students reach their potential and research what is important in education for desert people. Building human and social capital involved the DKCRC in developing material on collaborative research methods; developing and revising an Aboriginal Knowledge and Intellectual Property Protocol; training workshops for Aboriginal researchers; and promoting a research culture of sharing emerging knowledge and insights.
All DKCRC research helped develop a Science of Desert Living, an emerging theory of the desert syndrome (low productivity, sparse population, distances from markets and political centres and little understanding of significant local and traditional knowledge) and its effects on everything from resource management, to service delivery, enterprise and governance.