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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people strong cultural connections to their Country have multiple benefits that go beyond managing the land, sea and culture.

According to University of Newcastle’s Indigenous scholar and lecturer, Dr Stacey McMullen, the relationship between the Traditional Owners of the land and Country also provides better health, wellbeing and economic outcomes.

Speaking at the recent Greening the Healthcare Sector Forum in NSW, Dr McMullen, a proud Kooma Woman, and Aboriginal Clinical Psychologist, delved into the significance of Caring for Country, and how this connection had wide-reaching benefits for Indigenous people and all Australians.

“Caring for Country is more than a physical space,” she said.

“Country is a living entity. It has a yesterday, it has a today, and it has a tomorrow with a consciousness- an action and a will towards life. It holds our stories. It holds our tradition. It holds a part of who we are. Country is home and peace. Nourishment for body, mind, spirit, and hearts.

“So that means if we Care for Country it will care for us, and it’s not just the physical management of the geographical area, it’s actually looking after all of the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations we have that are associated with that area.”

Dr McMullen said Caring for Country was associated with the spiritual process of renewal.

“It is about connecting with ancestors, food previsions and maintaining kin relations and connections, which gives a sense of wellbeing.”

Dr McMullen identified wide-reaching benefits of Caring for Country, including:

Environmental benefits

“Excitingly, there is so much research coming out about the benefits of Indigenous knowledge in Caring for Country [in relation to] biodiversity and conservation, improved environmental condition of the land and the sea,” she said.

The benefits include the restoration of wetlands, water resource management, lower rates of weed infestation, healthier fire regimes, adaptive management of wildlife resources and enhanced production of some species.

 Cultural benefits

“As Country holds a part of who we are and our traditions, practices and obligations. If we are caring for Country, we are investing in our knowledge. We are preserving cultural learning and translation of the knowledge through the generations.”

Dr McMullen said this incorporates traditional languages, information about knowledge of special places and sites and cultural and spiritual meanings.

“It also gives us opportunity to have a sense of cohesion and connection with kin, our ancestors and community beyond us as an individual, which is really important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“So it helps this sense of forming a part of our identity, who we are among this bigger collective and belonging that is something bigger than us. It is a platform for strengthening that sense of belonging but also linking us to past, present and future,” she said.

Aboriginal Health and wellbeing

Dr McMullen said Caring for Country encapsulated everything Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to stay well. She believes that Caring for Country provided basic needs beyond clinical health services.

“Research has indicated that caring for country has numerous health benefits including increasing sense of control over life, community, economic and social development.”

Importantly, Caring for Country also gives self-reliance and self-determination, she said.

“And then a whole range of physical health benefits have also been associated with Caring for Country activities.”

Additionally, Dr McMullen suggested that there are socio-political benefits, including the opportunity for education, training, and skill development.

“There is reduced substance abuse, greater social cohesion, increased community pride, and improved early childhood development as we involve our children in caring for country activities.

“There is reduced antisocial behaviour, community autonomy and indigenous sovereignty is improved. There is fostering equal relationships and partnerships between indigenous people and formal structures and systems that may not have been previously positive.”

Economic Benefits

Dr McMullen suggested that Caring for Country was a viable means to address social and economic disadvantages faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“There are cost savings to health. If we are well, we are not going to cost the health system as much. There is likely further savings in the future with reduced hospital costs, etcetera.”

Caring for Country as a sustainable focus in health services

Dr McMullen architecture and design of hospitals and clinics that considered the needs of First Nations people would improve their health outcomes.

“These may affect Indigenous people’s decisions about accessing health services, meeting appointment times and effects their experiences during treatment,” she affirmed.

Emerging research in Indigenous design and architecture within health spaces points to preferences for outdoor spaces and views of nature.

“We need to see country,” said Dr McMullen.

“[The research also showed that] large family rooms are required because we are a part of a bigger community and bigger kinship network. We need our mob to come and visit us and have some privacy when we are in health facilities and also privacy in waiting rooms.”

However, Dr McMullen said it extended beyond the design of the existing facility.

“It’s how we can ensure within this facility we can bring caring for county actives into those health settings.

“We can have elders come in and engage in different activities. It might be maintaining a garden and teaching the younger generation, passing on knowledge down through the generations.

“So it is really helping that cultural transgression of knowledge through generations which feels our cup up and helps us stay well,” she said.