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Latest News: Restoration Stories – A Cultural and Ecological Restoration Project at the Blacktown Native Institute Site

The Dharug Strategic Management Group (DSMG) is leading a Connection to Country restoration initiative at the Blacktown Native Institute Site in Western Sydney, NSW, Australia. The BNI site holds profound state and national cultural heritage significance as the first Dharug Nura (Country) to be returned to Dharug ownership in 2018.

Restoration Stories explore the work of individuals and organisations engaging in ecological restoration across the world. These stories provide insight into the lessons learned, hopes, and unexpected challenges for the practitioners behind the projects. 

This Restoration Story is part of SER’s Standards-based Ecological Restoration in Action program in collaboration with Microsoft. Article review and photos provided by the Dharug Strategic Management Group.

Led by the Dharug Strategic Management Group (DSMG), this newly funded project marks a crucial step toward cultural and ecological restoration of the heritage-listed Blacktown Native Institute (BNI) site in Western Sydney, New South Wales (NSW). This site holds profound historical significance as the first land to be returned to Dharug care since the colonial era. The DSMG was established specifically to oversee the return of the BNI site into Dharug ownership and custodianship on behalf of the Dharug people in 2018. 

Once a residential school for young Aboriginal and Maori children, BNI is one of the first known sites where children were removed from their families and forcibly institutionalised – a practice that continued until the 1970s and later to become known as the ‘Stolen Generations’. The site played a key role in the history of colonial assimilation policies and race relations in Australia. The site is valued as a landmark in the history of cross-cultural engagement in Australia.

Challenges and Approach

Before colonisation the site would have been part of a larger area now called the Cumberland Plains Woodland and greater floodplain of Eastern Creek. Despite its historical and cultural value, the BNI site is still part of the endangered Cumberland Plains ecological communities and was returned to Dharug in a damaged and degraded state. Past decades of neglect have adversely impacted the site’s overall health and resilience, and the DSMG have developed a comprehensive Conservation Management Plan that includes ecological restoration, to protect and restore this area and to rebuild cultural and ecological relationships. 

Funding from SER’s Standards-based Restoration in Action program, in collaboration with Microsoft’s Community Environmental Sustainability program, will support implementation of the ecological restoration components of the plan.

A Holistic Ecological and Cultural Restoration Approach

Restoration of Cumberland Plain riparian, woodland, and grassland ecological communities is currently facing practical and technical challenges. These challenges are further complicated by past and present ignorance, racism, and a disregard for Dharug cultural knowledge, values, wisdom, protocols, and leadership in restoration. Rapid residential, commercial, and industrial development also poses serious environmental implications for Dharug Nura (Country).

To address these challenges, this ground-breaking restoration project is bringing together Dharug cultural knowledge and leadership through DSMG with the technical expertise of the project partners: Muru Mittigar, Greening Australia, and Technical and Further Education (TAFE) NSW Conservation and Ecosystem Management students to foster a collaborative, holistic approach to restoration design to care for Dharug Nura (Country).

Tein McDonald from SER will also work with DSMG and partners to provide support and guidance for the project. Tein is the lead author of the original SER International Standards, a lifelong restoration practitioner (credentialed through SER’s Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner Program) and is helping ensure the project meets international Ecological Restoration standards.

DSMG and its partners will conduct trials assessing soil viability, native seed survival, and cultural burning practices. Muru Mittigar, a Dharug not-for-profit organisation employing traditional land management practices alongside modern technologies, will manage and maintain the trial areas. Greening Australia (Nindethana) will contribute seeds, plants, and expertise, integrating trials into sustainable on-site programs. Students from TAFE NSW Ryde will monitor the project throughout its phases, assessing species richness and native plant versus weed cover. Finally, Dharug community members and Muru Mittigar will assist with and guide cultural burning requirements during the trial phase and subsequent site management post-restoration.

Project Objectives and Implementation

The project aims to restore the native and endangered Cumberland Plain woodland at the BNI site and develop and demonstrate practical and culturally sensitive methods to achieve the best restoration outcomes across Dharug Nura. The project’s broader aim is to cultivate healthy relationships between ecological restoration and cultural heritage through Connection to Country. Demonstrating the effectiveness of Dharug-led cultural and ecological restoration is essential to achieving this goal.

A key objective is implementing the Conservation Management Plan, which recognizes, commemorates, and celebrates the site’s Dharug history and heritage, its regional and cultural significance, and as well as its tragic colonial and administrative histories. The Conservation Management Plan recognises that rebuilding that connection between culture and nature requires investment not just in ecological restoration, but in separately funded, off-grid site facilities, such as toilets, storage, and meeting rooms. These facilities will help encourage and support community engagement and education activities, like site management and monitoring, and ceremonial, educational, and cultural programs.

Community Engagement and Empowerment

Engagement and empowerment of the Dharug Community, local schools, TAFE students, and Blacktown City Council are integral parts of this project. By working with these communities, DSMG will be better able to support project monitoring and management and promote cultural activities on the BNI site. Training Dharug individuals in practical field skills, for example, advances culturally led restoration and fosters ownership and connection to Nura. Community engagement, and building relationships with country, extends beyond the Dharug communities to encompass wider school networks and Microsoft Datacenter employees, fostering a collaborative space for learning and meaningful participation.

What makes this project standards-based ecological restoration?

Employing SER’s standards for this project enhances DSMG’s chance of meeting its project goals. Standards-based ecological restoration helps account for complex ecosystem dynamics, navigate trade-offs in land use, address challenges, and increase design and implementation effectiveness. The Cultural and Ecological Restoration Project at the BNI site project aligns with principles outlined in the SER standards by:

  1. Incorporating Diverse Knowledge and Capacity: This is a Dharug-led cultural-and-ecological restoration project, including partner organisations that are either Dharug managed (Muru Mittigar) or invested in local Indigenous methodology (Greening Australia and Blacktown City Council).
  2. Promoting Inclusivity and Participation: The project creates an inclusive space for culturally sensitive restoration action and participation within the wider Dharug community and with local schools, TAFE students and Microsoft Datacenter employees. This approach aims to restore the land while fostering a shared sense of stewardship among participants.
  3. Identifying and Mitigating Causes of Degradation: DSMG’s aim is to restore native Cumberland Plain herb, shrub and tree layers through ecologically and culturally informed care while managing invasive plant species, aiming to reverse ecological degradation and protect native flora and fauna.
  4. Enhancing Biodiversity: The project anticipates substantial improvements in biodiversity, within the symbiotic approach to healing Nura and Culture. Substantial efforts will be made to trigger regeneration of any dormant native seed and reintroduce many missing species to supplement three existing local plant species: Rough-barked Apple trees (Angophora floribunda), Swamp Oak trees (Casuarina glauca) and Spotted Gum trees (Corymbia maculata), as well as the eastern Grey Kangaroo (Macropus gigantea).
  5. Achieving Net Gain for Environmental Benefits and Social Equity: By reconciling historical injustices and addressing systemic inequality through cultural and ecological restoration, the project strives for sustainable social, environmental, and economic well-being. Working with TAFE students and teachers will also build systemic capacity to recognise, respect and support culturally led ecological restoration more widely across Dharug Nura.

By implementing SER standards, the Cultural and Ecological Restoration Project at the BNI Site is poised to deliver a comprehensive, culturally led, and culturally significant ecological restoration project. Through collaboration, knowledge sharing, and standards-based practices this project is fostering a landscape of healing, resilience, and shared stewardship that connects and blends culture and ecology.

Article produced by: (Society of Ecological Restoration). To view the original article, please click here.


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