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Protecting Coastal Cultural Heritage and Empowering Youth: A Case Study

Protecting cultural places, restoring dune systems. Photo by Andy McGregor

Cultural values and places within our coastal zones face enormous pressure from erosion, land development, and recreation. The fragile dune systems, dynamic wind patterns and high-velocity wave action - coupled with the great love Australians maintain to this narrow, fragile strip of the vast island continent - means impact to heritage sites is an ongoing issue.

This is no more evident than the southwest corner of Australia, the land of the Wadandi - People of the Sea. The Wadandi are the Custodians of the land known today as the Cape to Cape region, famous for wineries, surfing, forests and caves. There is archaeological evidence demonstrating occupation of this area extending for over 45,000 years before present. The Wadandi maintain incredibly complex relationships with their lands and waters and practice their culture related to layered protocols, language, seasonal ecology and cultural zoning. The Wadandi coastal zone is known as places of special significance related to seasonal base camps and subsistence resources linked to the many freshwater springs, coastal dune systems, waterways, and limestone cave systems. There are sacred places, ceremonial places, burial grounds. Places that should only be visited with Elders.

With increasing coastal development pressures, and increasing recreation use, such as those provided with the popular Cape to Cape Walk Trail, the Wadandi are continually managing and protecting their cultural sites from a range of direct and indirect impacts. This requires daily monitoring and planning, and many meetings to raise issues with land managers. However, with limited resources, the Wadandi face a race against time to restore, protect and manage many special places.

For dealing with these issues, an approach has been to coordinate a series of land care projects focused on impacted cultural places. In implementing these projects, an integrated team of cultural coordinators, cultural facilitators, heritage professionals, and land care specialists has formed. This team engage with and empower youth to carry out the on-ground actions. This is a strategy to provide direct outcomes for cultural sites and the local ecology, while educating youth on the importance of understanding cultural heritage and values - an approach to raise awareness of the need to be respectful when using these areas. Raising awareness this way, provides a solid foundation to educate the next generation of beach lovers and coastal users, and perhaps planners, on why we need to work together, under cultural leadership, for the active conservation of our beloved coastlines.

Recently the team organized a project via the, Undalup Association, to restore and manage a large sand dune that has blown out within the cultural place known as Mokidup. This area is within a segment of the Cape to Cape Trail, as well as part of a popular historical place known as Ellensbrook Homestead, and near a well-known surf break. A combination of natural and human-caused impacts have stripped coastal vegetation and created a large, steep mobile dune blow-out. This blow-outs of concern to Wadandi Custodians, as they expose cultural artifacts and features, increase the risk of looting and direct damage, and provide much risk for the exposure of burials. A Wadandi cultural practice is to bury their deceased in the coastal sand dunes, as part of the journey to the distant horizon and sea spirit.

The team carried out heritage assessments and developed a project plan for this area. For this particular project, the work was carried out with the assistance of a team of youth from Hampton Senior High School in Perth, Western Australia. The work also engaged with a team from the Rover Scouts, who eagerly carried out the work, but also listened carefully about the local cultural protocols and levels of connection to this area.

Following important cultural safety actions and cultural awareness workshops, the youth learn about the cultural history and archaeological heritage of the region. A tour of the area to provide hands-on lesson in traditional tool-making and cultural plants, precedes the land care actions, to ensure that the youth have an understanding of the importance of the work. The on-ground actions involved the use of excelsior coil matting to stabilize the drifting sands and provide a chance for local plants to re-establish. The team also carry out brushing of local plants that can naturally seed themselves within and around the matting. Additional, targeted re-vegetation takes place to further support the restoration actions.

This program, under cultural leadership, is an important process for connecting youth to heritage and culture, outdoor education, safety and wilderness skills, and youth leadership development*. The youth are involved as part of culture and heritage camps. Here, they also participate in local adventures (with project partners - Josh Palmateer's Surf Academy) while learning about outdoor safety and survival.

The impact of the youth from these experiences is summarized by the Principal of Hampton High School: "I, and the other teachers who attended the camp with the students, have seen each of them grow in self-confidence, self- determination and cultural appreciation since their return. As a group, they now have a shared connection across cultures and year groups, have each demonstrated increased leadership skills and increased engagement with their studies since returning to school."

Photo by Steve Caston

Taking a holistic approach, the program is focused on the cultural practice of caring for country, and so adopts a traditional approach to teaching aspects of respect, protocols, heritage, and environment. Moreover, by carrying out this outdoor, cultural education program while doing land-care work around cultural sites, the program delivers a legacy related to restoration and protection of important heritage places within the Wadandi cultural landscape, and the associated environmental condition of these places. This model is practical solution-based approach to the short- and long-term management of our shared coastal landscape. The program forms one component of a broader, strategic approach to cultural landscape management underway by the Wadandi Custodians; involving the development of a cultural plan.

*The team run ongoing school camps and university-level field schools based on this model of engagement, and is a collaboration between:

  • Wadandi Custodians

  • Undalup Association

  • Applied Archaeology International

  • Above Imagery

  • Geographe Community Landcare Nursery

  • Josh Palmateer's Surf Academy

  • Dark Emu Expeditions

  • Rover Scouts

  • Hampton Senior High School

A short video showing some of this youth-based program is provided here:

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