Returning to Aboriginal Roots with ‘Home Country’ Author Ron Geatz

May 8, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we are so excited to have with us right now Ron Geatz. He’s in Washington, DC. He’s an editor and a writer and he’s going to be talking about his new article, “Home Country.” Ron, welcome to Green is Good. RON GEATZ: Pleasure to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey Ron, a little bit before we get into this wonderful article you’ve written and the importance of it, can you share a little bit about your journey in journalism and how you got to where you are today? RON GEATZ: Yeah well, I’ve been working at The Nature Conservancy for 25 years. Never thought I’d be in one place for that long but I’ve had a variety of roles there, mostly as a writer/editor and for a while, I was the Editor of Nature Conservancy Magazine and now I basically travel around the world to projects that we’re doing and try to communicate what’s important about those. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great and for people that want to see more of the great work that Ron’s doing and his organization is doing about The Nature Conservancy, please go to Magazine.Nature.org. I’m on it right now and I’m going to keep it on while we’re doing this interview and it is just stunningly gorgeous and the writing is so well done, obviously, but the photos that go with it also are just beautiful. Just beautiful. Ron, talk a little bit about your new article called “Home Country” and the importance of it, why you wrote it, and The Fish River Station Project in particular. RON GEATZ: Well, Fish River Station is an innovative project and for people who don’t know, in Australia they refer to ranches as stations so this is a 700 square mile former ranch so that’s about twice the size of Yellowstone National Park and it’s in Australia’s Northern Territory and just a few hours drive south from Darwin, which is the only real city in the far north of Australia, and the Nature Conservancy worked with Pew Environmental Group and several government agencies, including the Indigenous Lands Corporation, to buy this ranch when it was on the market for $13 million but what makes it innovative is this is the first time land has been purchased with the express purpose of returning it to the aboriginal communities who historically lived there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so interesting and so talk a little bit about that. It sounds like it’s a partnership and there’s a lot of folks who have their hands in the pie, NGOs, government agencies, the aboriginal community. Explain how that is, the complication of it and how it’s working. RON GEATZ: Well, that’s generally how we work. We always feel like things work best when people who have a vested interest are all engaged and involved and so this is clearly a partnership and it’s a fairly new kind of partnership but it reflects this move in Australia to begin making restitution to aboriginal communities who were unceremoniously chased off their land years ago but there’s another reason for it and that’s that there’s a real appreciation for the fact that aboriginal management can help restore the land to health itself. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you’re saying the return of the land to the aboriginal people itself is innovative? It’s not been done. This is not a paradigm that they’re replicating that they have a game plan to follow. RON GEATZ: I think this will happen again. This is the first time that lands have been purchased for this purpose and there is an ongoing effort to help aboriginal communities better manage their land and get resources to help them manage their land. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, and prior to this return, what was it before? RON GEATZ: It was a cattle ranch. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, what did that do to the land for all those years? RON GEATZ: Well, it did a number of things. One is back in the 1800s, when European settlers first started coming to the far north of Australia, these were ranchers from a very temperate climate in Great Britain so they tried to replicate that in this very different environment in tropical Northern Australia so they brought in the cattle. They brought in grasses. They cleared the land but what really changed things is when they chased the aboriginal folks off the land, what they also got rid of was that traditional method of burning the land in patchwork, which is crucial to the health of the land and what’s happened since that stopped, and we’re seeing this across Australia, is this spay of massive wildfires, which is destructive to people. It’s destructive to livestock. It’s destructive to native plants and animals. It’s just bad for everyone so that’s probably the biggest effect that ranching has had in that part of Australia. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so interesting. So, the effects were bad. Now they’ve returned the land. So you removed the livestock, I take it? You returned the people. How is this working? Is it now a shock back in nature to return the people when you’ve sort of almost destroyed or maybe ruined or partially ruined the land the you took from them? How do you make this integration work, the reintegration? RON GEATZ: Well, it’s a long process and one thing about this property is it wasn’t terribly destroyed. There were places that had been devastated by wildfire but it was still reasonably healthy but you don’t just kind of buy it, get the cattle off, and then open up and say, ‘Move back to the land,’ and everything’s fine. It’s a long process and what we’ve been doing is working with aboriginal land managers to help train the next generation of aboriginal youth who are helping to restore the property now and giving them that sense of what it was like for their ancestors to live and restore this kind of landscape and it really has a spiritual value for them as well, giving back to the land. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that just tuned in, we’ve got Ron Geatz on. He’s written this wonderful article called “Home Country” and to read it and to look at all the other great work he’s doing and his organization is doing, please go to Magazine.Nature.org. It’s The Nature Conservancy Magazine online. It is beautiful. It’s not only unbelievably well written but the photos that go with it are just stunning. Ron, explain to our listeners, including me, who has a huge void of knowledge of this, talk a little bit about the aboriginal people’s removal from their land and other areas in Australia and what that meant to them and to the landscape of Australia. RON GEATZ: Well you know, it sort of parallels the how we treated our own native populations in the Americas. When European settlers first came to the U.S., native populations were pretty rapidly just pushed off their land and that’s what’s happened in Australia as well, only there it’s a little more recent and what’s a little different too is that recent human genome studies show that these people lived there on this land for probably about 50,000 years so they’ve really evolved with that landscape and all of their physical and spiritual sustenance is tied up in that landscape and when you talk to aboriginal people there, you really get that from them. It invariably comes up in the conversation that they have to get back to their land, that that’s what really drives them and that process is now starting to happen, which is, I think, good for not only the aboriginal people but, I think, good for people across Australia because it’s going to help prevent these devastating wildfires. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, you talk about the people and the connection to the land and the aboriginal people’s relationship to the land in your article, which is so well written and so wonderful to read. You had a quote in there and I’ll read it, “They connect with the land and the spirit of their ancestors and think they belong there as well,” so talk a little bit more about the spirituality of the aboriginal people’s relationship to the land. RON GEATZ: I met this wonderful aboriginal woman named Miriam Rose Ungunmerr when I was there and she’s this big woman with this big beautiful round face and she spends a lot of her time trying to get people, especially non aboriginal Australians, to have a better understanding of their lives so she brings down white kids from Darwin to spend time with her community and one of the things she does is she takes them out into the river as an introduction and she says, ‘My mom cups water in her hands and pours it on the tops of the heads of these kids and it runs down their body and back into the river,’ and she says, ‘It’s our way of welcoming them to our land because then their spirit is going out into the river and into the land and our ancestors are welcoming them,’ and the first thing I said to her is, ‘You know, that kind of sounds like baptism,’ you know, here in the U.S. and she said, ‘Exactly, it’s one of the ways I’ve learned to live in two worlds, this western world but also my aboriginal world,’ but they really see their ancestors as living and exciting in this landscape and she really bristled at the idea of them owning the land. She said, ‘We don’t own the land. It owns us. We’re part of the land,’ and I think that’s probably hard for us to fully understand that they really see all of their physical and spiritual sustenance coming from these homelands where they have lived for 50,000 years. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know Ron, as an aside, how long does it take you to go down there and embed yourself and earn the trust of these folks and to write this very important kind of piece of journalism? RON GEATZ: Well, I’ve spent just a couple weeks physically with them but I’ve been working in Australia off and on for the last 15 years or so and I feel really lucky. I’ve gotten to know aboriginal people there in a way I’m not sure a lot of other people are fortunate enough to do because more tourists who visit Australia don’t get to see aboriginal people except kind of on the streets in Sydney and that’s kind of unfortunate because those are displaced people who are usually not in very good shape. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right, right, right, so this project, The Fish River Station Project, can you explain specifically to our listeners then the absolute nexus and connection of returning the folks but then also returning the health to the land and the interconnection to how the land is now going to get better because the people are back there, the natives are back there, the aboriginals are back there? RON GEATZ: Well, I think first, because they will be returning this traditional land management approach of burning the land in a patchwork, it won’t be having these destructive wildfires and the other thing that happens then is that these wildfires release tremendous amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere so we’ll be dramatically reducing that and the other benefit for the aboriginal people is that Australia now has a carbon tax, which means that corporations are lining up to essentially reinvest in this reestablishment of management because they have a vested interest in reducing carbon emissions so it’s a way for these communities to get additional income for their land just by managing it in an effective way. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting. So you mentioned the one person that you got to know. How many people do you actually follow and get to know while you were doing this story down in this area? RON GEATZ: Well, there are two people who kind of figure prominently in the story. It’s Miriam Rose and this guy named John Daly, who is another very interesting character and he’s another one who sort of has learned to live in these two worlds. At times as a bureaucrat, he has been the Director of the Northern Land Council, which means he works out of an office in Darwin but what’s interesting is after he does that for a while, he takes off and he then spends several months back on the land and we actually hired him to be one of the rangers to help train and mentor these younger aboriginal men and women to be future rangers for this property and it was interesting to see someone like him who could move back and forth between these two worlds and I actually found that to be very important, that he needed to live in both the western world and the aboriginal world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, and so talk about the future. You’ve written the article and you’ve left these great folks behind. The project is so important, as you now point out. Are you hopeful for the future and what it holds? RON GEATZ: Yeah, I am and I think when you look at Australia, 40% of that land is now in aboriginal management so there’s an opportunity here to help these people to manage the land in a way that’s going to be good for not only all Australians, but all people because of how it can contribute in an important way to reduce carbon going into the atmosphere so that’s one way that I think there’s a lot of hope because it’s on a massive scale and I think the fact that the Australian government is now putting a lot of effort into supporting this kind of work and supporting aboriginal communities to do this sort of return to the land and manage it in a traditional way is a really good thing and again, good for all Australians. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Ron, we’re down to the last three minutes or so and we have a lot of listeners around the world that want to know how to become the next Ron Geatz and it’s true, the next generation behind us, guys like you, who do this important and great work, who highlight these issues that need to be platformed and understood and acted upon. Talk a little bit about your pearls of wisdom that you share to the next generation on how to get involved to make this world a better place. RON GEATZ: Well, I really kind of stumbled into this but I’ve been doing it for 25 years and I think there’s opportunities now for people to get involved with organizations like The Nature Conservancy and all the other kinds of NGOs who are doing this kind of work kind of as a catalyst for bringing together the interests of people and nature. I just think there’s a huge opportunity right now and a need to make this issue more of a mainstream issue and not something that is seen as a luxury item. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha, and what are you on to next? What’s your next story that you’re going to write or what are you in the middle of right now? RON GEATZ: Well, I’m working right now with a new program that we’ve started up in Patagonia, in Argentina, and it’s working with ranchers there to prevent desertification and to come up with creative ways to protect those grasslands so it’s exciting new work and I’ve just started it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, how many articles do you do a year? What’s your typical year look like in terms of covering these amazing stories? RON GEATZ: For the magazine, they’re sporadic but I write for a lot of other outlets within the organization, for our website and for other things that we produce so I’m always working on something. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Is there a favorite organization or learning institution that young people can go to get interested in both sustainability and journalism at the same time? ROB GEATZ: Well, one of the things that we’re starting up is an effort called All Hands on Earth and it’s a way to really start connecting people with all the things that are happening, not just at The Nature Conservancy but for efforts around the world to help people learn how they can get involved and that’s another website at AllHandsonEarth.org. JOHN SHEGERIAN: AllHandsonEarth.org, yeah. Any last thoughts before we finish up here? We’re down to the last 30 seconds or so. Any last thoughts about the Aborigines and what you just wrote about? ROB GEATZ: I would just suggest that for people who plan to visit Australia, get out of the city and see if you can have an experience with an aboriginal community. You will undoubtedly be inspired. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. I love it. For those who want to read the article, Magazine.Nature.org. Ron Geatz, you are a sustainability evangelist, a journalistic gem, and truly living proof that green is good.