An exciting new Indigenous-led research centre dedicated to healing Country will open at Curtin University in 2022.

The university has recently been awarded $5 million from the Federal Government to get their Healing Country Training Centre up and running. The centre will mesh traditional approaches with western science to help Indigenous businesses heal their land.

Respected Noongar environmental science Professor Stephen van Leeuwen said the five-year-long program is one of few projects that offers research for Aboriginal people, by Aboriginal people.

The research at the centre will range from ways to rehabilitate land after damage from mine sites, to the best way to plant more native seeds and eventually get bush tucker to the market.

“We want to demonstrate to the mob that by doing this type of restoration, there are economic benefits that will be long and enduring, even after the actual activity of planting and growing things,” Professor van Leeuwen said.

“Like by getting honey and bush tucker into the boutique, restaurant markets and food supply chains.”

He said it’s a great opportunity to create more education pathways and empower Indigenous businesses to manage their own Country.

“We will be providing training opportunities for high school students and interns,” Professor van Leeuwen said.

“You can get qualifications as a land restoration practitioner or land restoration scientist, if you want to.”

Although the program is still in its early stages, Professor van Leeuwen and his team have already started consulting with the community to get an idea of what they want — whether that be planting more native seeds to grow new bushland or keeping the land ready for livestock.

“This is very much about the Indigenous partners and Indigenous participants setting the research agenda and what they want as the outcomes of the program,” Professor van Leeuwen said.

“We are asking them: what do you want to see back in restored Country?”

Professor van Leeuwen is a well-respected South West Boojarah Wardandi leader, with a cultural connection to Country in the Busselton and Margaret River region. He has also done extensive work in the Pilbara, working in the region for over 39 years.

He said cultural authority will be a non-negotiable priority throughout the program.

“We’re gonna get our cultural authority from a circle of Elders,” the Professor said.

“And then throughout the program, all the research projects that are undertaken, they all need to be approved by the board … to make sure it serves the lives of the Indigenous community.”

Several Indigenous organisations are already working with them. Professor van Leeuwen said they have teamed up with a group in the Kimberley to help rehabilitate the Argyle Diamonds mine site.

“They want help not only in how to collect seeds, but also how to store the seed and germinate it,” he said.

After applying to the Australian Research Council (ARC) for a grant for the project in October 2020, they are now one of eight new ARC Training Centres. The Government wanted the centres to be led by Australian universities and involve significant collaborations with industry.

“It’s a competitive process … I think we’re the only ones that were successful in Western Australia,” Professor van Leeuwen said.

The centre will ramp up the research and start on-the-ground activities in the middle of 2022.

Professor van Leeuwen said for now, it’s a great opportunity to work with the mob across Western Australia, but that the research team also hopes to expand their horizons when COVID-19 isn’t a barrier.

By Britney Coulson